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Punk of Berlin: Fabien Campoverde’s portraits of a Berlin subculture

In the series 'Punk of Berlin', Fabien Campoverde photographs a piece of Berlin counterculture continuously being pushed to the margins.

Punks have been a core part of Berlin since the movement first emerged in the 1970s. The anarchist and resistant nature of the community melds perfectly with the countercultural fabric of the city. In places like London and New York, punk has gravitated ever closer to the margins, whereas Berlin remains a relative stronghold.

In Berlin you can have some old lady who has green hair and nobody gives a fuck.

But today, the squats and spaces where punk thrives are being evicted and erased. French photographer Fabien Campoverde has taken it upon himself to immortalise the scene and capture Berlin’s contemporary punks in crystallised portraiture.

His photo series Punk of Berlin, shot in flats and studios across Berlin over the last four years, documents the striking style and independent spirit of the subculture. We sat down with him to talk about the process behind the punk portraits.

What was the inspiration for the project?

Actually, it comes from my childhood. When I was a teenager in the early 1990s in Paris, one of my best buddy’s sister was a punk. More like the Cyndi Lauper kind of punk, you know. And I was really fascinated. At the time I didn’t really know what I was gonna do with my life. But I’ve always had, somewhere in my head, the idea of doing something about punk at some point.

I lived in Prenzlauer Berg for seven years. And, my kind of ‘canteen’ was an Italian restaurant called Donath on Schwedter Straße. I went there for lunch regularly. The waitress was a punk, a real one. At that moment, in the middle of my pasta, I knew I had a subject. I told myself, okay, I’m going to make a series. I will start with this woman. I just need to find a background, good lights and amazing characters.

Was it easy to find people who were keen to take part?

I knew it was going to be hard to convince these people. Even though we live in a world of the internet, Instagram, iPhones, punks remain anarchist in their ideas. Their society is different from the rest.

When I started, it was really hard. The first two, Nico and Erika, gave me the material to start going up to people and be like, ‘Hey man, I’m working on this, I have something to show you’. So then they would know what I had in mind. After that, I was going to go where they go.

There’s a punk rock market that happens like every six weeks and pretty much all of Berlin is there. That’s the second point where I started meeting people. It was pretty hard, because they’re together in their environment and you have this guy showing up like, ‘Hey man can I talk to you for a second, I’m a photographer’. I got “Fuck off” many times and that’s how I met a few people. So I was starting to grow the series.

What’s the process of shooting a portrait?

You need to be ready to guide people, to talk to them. And you also know that you don’t have much time because you lose them really quick. I look through my camera and I can see if the head is level. I try to make it so they’re looking straight and I also work on the look, on the deepness, so that you can see what you want to see in their eyes. I’m trying to capture a moment of them, of their spirits, of their soul.

I don’t want them to look mean at all. I want them to look true. I’m trying to make the shadows shine – keep the punk rock feeling, but let the people take the light. When you step back a little bit and look at the picture, you can really see their soul. I guess that’s what I want to get out of these pictures. I’m asking them to tell me through their eyes, ‘Yeah man, what the fuck, I’m a punk!’ I want them to be proud.

I knew it was going to be hard to convince these people.

You’ve chosen a very classic portrait style to photograph a counterculture movement…

The punks, their style is really focusing on one spirit. As a portrait photographer, if I can do something in terms of a series I will try to bring some unity to it. I felt I needed to do something really simple in order to have this unity, so I decided to crop and shoot in black and white. In the end, it’s not about how they look. What is really interesting is to look at them, into the soul.

It’s really something that I’ve learned through photography of athletes, politicians, actors – most of the time I have like five to ten minutes at the most to get the shots. And I want to do it exactly the way I want. These people are quite attractive. They have style. I didn’t want to do any comedy. I wanted to find the right people, the ones that really represent the world of the punks of Berlin. I’m looking for people that have a lot of character.

Many of the photos have striking one-word captions, as opposed to the subjects’ names…

I felt like doing it as a series it could quickly get boring. So in order to give a title to the pictures, I asked them each to give me a word that represents them or seems important, most likely an adjective. Then each picture is unique.

Do you think there’s something special about the punk scene in Berlin?

They live in Berlin, but most of them don’t come from here. They really came here for the scene, because we all know that punk is in Berlin. Until recently, flats were really cheap and making a living was easy. You didn’t need much money and there were still a few squats, although that’s not to say they all lived in squats. What really interested me was to show that these are normal people – they have normal jobs, they take the Metro, they go to restaurants. Totally the same as us.

We see them differently because they’re really stylish. But these people are really true in the way they live their lives. Most of them are artists. Some of them are total anarchists. They work in different kinds of environments – some work at the Finanzamt! – but they really stick to what they are, what they want to show.

Now a lot of normal people have piercings, tattoos, coloured hair, but they don’t have the same spirit. I’m wondering if they’re gonna survive this world that we live in. They can remain punk forever, but are they going to be followed? I have no idea. When you are punk, it comes from the guts I guess. You choose that kind of life. It’s a different spirit.

Do you consider yourself punk?

I don’t look like a punk at all. I think I’m probably on the punky side, but I don’t have the guts.

What’s next for the project?

The project is something I could keep doing forever. It’s been kind of my baby these past four years. I’ve taken time for it as and when I could. I’m taking a lot of pleasure in it, and especially in meeting new people. That’s why I’m a photographer. Every single day, the people I’ve met have been fantastic. I have an exhibition in October in Paris.

Punk is kind of an exotic taste [in France]. In Berlin you can have some old lady who has green hair and nobody gives a fuck. My idea is to end up making a book project. Ultimately, the product I want to have is something that’s gonna live forever.