has been engaged in photography for 20 years as a lecturer, teacher and photo artist. Grown up in the tranquil Sauerland region in Germany, he discovered the world as a large playground throughout the course of his studies. When Michael Wagener is not traveling he lives in Cologne, a city that inspires him above all with its multicultural flair as well as the openness and the wit of its people.
Thank you for talking to us today! How often do you usually travel as a photographer?
As often as possible. But it doesn’t always have to be the wide world. Even a bicycle tour around the Cologne area can become an exciting voyage of discovery. But 3 to 4 times a year I definitely enjoy traveling to exotic countries.
What are the most fascinating aspects of travel photography to you?
As a travel photographer, I live primarily for encounters with people who not only show me special places and locations, but also the fascinating aspects of the respective culture. It often allows me to immerse in intimate moments of people’s life. While photographing people with disabilities in Northern India, I experienced the close family ties of Muslims in Kashmir and talked to women about their lives in a society dominated by men.
My camera works like a door opener to another world while traveling and it gives me the motivation to discover places that ordinary tourists don’t necessarily visit – be it the slums in Haiti or the canteen kitchen of a mosque in Tehran.
You have traveled to and taken photos in many different places across the globe. Which one was your favorite location so far and why?
Ladakh in northern India and Nepal are truly captivating with their breathtaking landscapes. Haiti was the most challenging country due to its desolate state after the earthquake. The people of Iran impressed me with warmth and curiosity. Everywhere you look you can find the charm of our planet.
You have also taken photographs of many people from all around the world. What is it like to work with so many different people from so many different countries and cultural backgrounds?
Working with so many different people forces me to stay open-minded and to constantly question my own prejudices. This way traveling is always a learning process and an incredible treasure of experience. At the same time you’ll learn that most people are friendly and cordial and ultimately all people are equal in their needs for love, food and a place to sleep.
Do you ever travel without your camera and if so, how is it different from traveling as a photographer?
Owning a smartphone, there’s of course always a camera available. However, I have started to take less pictures in order to be more immersed in the situation itself and to really take it in. Through a photo I can capture a moment and share it with others, but without a camera it is more intense for me personally.
How do you travel with your camera gear? Is it possible to travel light as a photographer?
I am increasingly trying to travel with less luggage. I have therefore opted for a lightweight camera system and usually only work with one or two lenses, mostly fixed focal lengths. Strangely enough, I always take a tripod with me, although I barely use it.
I pack the equipment in an ordinary daypack, so I don’t stand out as a photographer. In addition, my camera can quickly look pretty tattered, depending on the travel region, as it usually dangles from a shoulder strap ready to hand. I am often asked whether I still take analogue photos because my professional digital cameras display the patina of an old analogue camera.
What’s your craziest travel story?
There are many little crazy stories and you probably have to be a little crazy yourself to decide to climb a mountain and then, like me, plunge two hundred meters into the depth across an ice surface, because you overestimated yourself.
On a flight to Lukla in Nepal in 2011 I accidentally left my Leatherman in my hand luggage. An officer at the airport confiscated the expensive tool. I was angry and sad at the same time and asked whether there would be a way to get it back somehow. The officer told me not to worry and left without a word. I already waved the 100 € tool goodbye in my mind. Right before departure in Kathmandu the officer appeared in the small aircraft and returned it to me proclaiming: “Here’s your knife!” The looks on the other passengers’ faces were unforgettable.
So was the look of the Indian soldier near the Pakistani border on my answer to his question: “Where are you from?” “Pakistan!”
Or the squeaking pig of a hitchhiking African family I took along in South Africa in my new rental car. It was hidden in a white plastic bag…
There have definitely been a lot of crazy little stories!
Wow, thank you for sharing your stories and experiences with us today! We wish you pleasant and successful travels in the future!