Creative Spotlight: Interview with Photojournalist Juliane Sonntag

Updated: Feb 19

"You should never do it for the money because you will never earn enough with it – you really have to be motivated and have passion for it and just take one step as a time."

Words: Rachel Cameron-Potter and Juliane Sonntag

Pictures: Juliane Sonntag @julianesonntag_

Riot police at an anti-lockdown protest. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag
Riot police at an anti-lockdown protest. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag

Juliane Sonntag is a photojournalist currently living in Greenwich, London. Her work predominantly centres around capturing live events, from the Tate worker strikes to the Black Lives Matter movement.

First of all, hi! How are you doing? How have you been finding lockdown?

Hi! I’m good, thank you. The first lockdown was alright – survivor mode kicked in and I got into a really good routine, and as I was still at university, I had a lot to do and to focus on. This time, it’s the complete opposite and I’ve found it’s been really difficult. I have, however, been able to pick up my camera to shoot some photos when out walking, so it’s been nice to have something to take my mind off of things.

Can you tell us a little bit about photojournalism and what exactly it is?

Black Lives Matter. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag
Black Lives Matter. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag

I started out writing. I was on the Multimedia Journalism course at Westminster which has two pathways – one in TV and broadcast, and the other print and online, which I chose to do. I wrote a lot at uni for student media and realised that I was better at taking photos for the articles than doing the articles themselves. Then I thought, how am I going to do this? After doing some research, I realised that there was a thing called photojournalism, where people took photos instead of writing. From there on, I started to spend more time with my camera.

In the first lockdown, I went out nearly every day to document the city, from empty streets to the Black Lives Matter and anti-lockdown protests. Photojournalism focuses on taking photos of events, of things that are happening – or, rather right now, not happening – and portraying it in a natural light. I try to take photos that convey the image as it is. You can never take a photo that really shows what’s going on – you have to be there to see it.

You can also very easily manipulate a photo and change the whole story by, for example, leaving someone out of the frame. As a photojournalist, I always try to evaluate the different aspects that the scene is shaping, always trying to capture those aspects. In comparison to classic street photography, there’s less aesthetics and more documenting.

The phrase that comes to mind is ‘a picture says a thousand words’ – does that resonate with your work?

Definitely. You tell a story with a picture. However, I thought that photojournalism was all about the picture, so I didn’t have to write anything below; that there should be no captions and that the picture was supposed to stand on its own. Then I learned pretty quickly from pretty great photojournalists – there were a lot of online classes in lockdown that helped – it’s important to have the caption so people know what it’s really about and don’t have to guess. A caption just bears witness; you can’t undo a picture. It has an immense power.

With regards to street photography, you can take a picture and interpret it as anything, while as a photojournalist, you’re looking to say: this is the picture and there is no room for interpretation.

I do also take pictures that are more geared towards street photography. But for my main work, it’s definitely true. I try to have as little room for interpretation as possible.

Black Lives Matter. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag

Going back to some of the scenes you’ve shot earlier this year, how do you find these things to photograph? Surely there must be some things that are entirely dependent on being in the right place at the right time, or do you have ways of finding out where these story-worthy photos are going to be?

It can be quite tricky sometimes. For the Black Lives Matter protests, it was quite easy to find and the easier it is, the more media you can find on the spot already. If you find something that is less covered, less promotional, it’s definitely better for you as you can start selling your photos to other publishers.

Earlier this year, Tate museum workers went on strike because they had to let go over 300 people in the first lockdown. As there were only 3 other photographers at the protest, I was able to sell pictures to magazines. That was really lucky – I just happened to be there! I saw a group of people gathering and since I’m really curious I wanted to see what was going on there. I also always carry my camera with me, so that came in handy.

With the anti-lockdown protests, it was really difficult because you couldn’t just Google anti-lockdown protest. But if you try to imagine what the people attending these marches, for instance those who are against the lockdown, would type into Google, you’ll usually find what you’re looking for.

Initially, the anti-lockdown protests were announced in Battersea Park, and a day before the march was to take place the organisers changed the location to Kings Cross – but when I arrived, there were more journalists and police than protestors! I looked it up again on Twitter and found that 10 minutes before the event, they’d moved it to Marble Arch, so I drove over to Marble Arch and from there it was more like a treasure hunt. The police were so quick and really didn’t want anyone to gather, so they tried really hard to break up the groups that had formed. There were so many arrests happening all over the place, so you really had to be at the right spot – I was just running with my camera to find the groups and to be there when something happened!

We’ve talked about what you’re doing in the present – what are your plans going forward?

In general, I have a lot of interest in things. I studied sport before I studied journalism and I climb a lot, so sport will always be a part of my work. In the longer term, I want to do something that’s really fulfilling, like going into conflict zones. For now, I’m taking it one step at a time. I want to show that I’m there and capable of doing things.

In a few weeks I’ll be covering a charity event in London, which is something completely new and exciting! I was also really close to going to Armenia to document the war, but I didn’t want to take the risk with coronavirus. I’m just being patient, and if another opportunity like that comes up, I’ll be there.

Do you have any advice for any aspiring photojournalists?

Patience! You have to keep going and going and going, even if you don’t see where it goes – I know it can feel so hopeless at the moment, as journalism is a hard field. You should never do it for the money because you will never earn enough with it – you really have to be motivated and have passion for it and just take one step as a time.

Also, networking is really helpful. I started out posting on Instagram and found that there are other photojournalists looking to connect – some of the gigs I’ve gotten have been through Instagram. It’s not much, but it’s where you begin. If a door opens, go through and see where it takes you.

London's empty streets in lockdown. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag
London's empty streets in lockdown. Pictured by Juliane Sonntag

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