Interview with Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker

Earlier this year, Magnum agency members gathered for the annual general meeting in IdeasTap HQ in London. I was among 12 writers selected to produce content for a special edition of IdeasMag. Below you will find fragments from my original interview with Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker.

With half a century of photography and filmmaking under his belt, German photographer Thomas Hoepker is one of Magnum’s most experienced members. He discussed the difference between still and moving image, shares the story behind his most iconic picture and explains why he doesn’t like to be labeled an ‘artist’:


Your career spans over more than five decades – what’s been the highlights of your practice and what are you working on at the moment?

I have been in this business for a very long time. Before joining Magnum in 1989, I was a contract photographer for a German magazine Stern, which means I had a regular salary and paid vacations – all the things a young photographer can only dream about these days. The biggest gift they gave us then was time.

Nowadays, I rarely take pictures and spend most of the time working with my archive, which is vast. I make books and exhibitions and sometimes do presentations and talks.

Where does Magnum come into place?

I started working with Magnum long before becoming a member. Early on in my career I got a letter from Elliott Erwitt, who was the agency president at the time, asking: ‘Would you like to join Magnum?’ Very arrogantly, I refused the offer because I just signed my contract with Stern, which in its heyday was a fantastic opportunity. Luckily, I got another invitation when my contract ran out and joined Magnum in the late 80’s.

Did membership in the photojournalism agency have impact on the kind of work you produced?

I never photographed war or conflict and was usually assigned to cover ‘soft stories’. At Stern, they nicknamed me ‘artist’, which wasn’t flattering at all because the bread and butter of the magazine was reportage.

What is the importance of collaboration in your practice?

It’s wonderful to have a partner to discuss ideas and how you can improve the reportage.

My wife is a filmmaker and we worked together on several TV documentaries. A big advantage of this kind of collaboration is that you can talk about your project all day long. Of course, you don’t always agree and fight a lot, but there is a wonderful exchange of ideas. Ask my wife about it and she will tell you that I’m not an ideal cameraman, but she loves to work with me all the same.

Of course, it’s not necessary to marry your working partner, but it’s one interesting way of doing it.

As both a photographer and a cameraman, what are your thoughts on the relations between still and moving image and the recent trend for multimedia reporting?

They are quite different jobs, and you have to put a different ‘chip’ into your brain for each task. As a photographer, you shoot single pictures – click-clack here and there – but in a film you need to think of what was before and what will come after. Of course, there are similarities – a good picture is equally important in a still and moving camera, but I think you will get a bit schizophrenic, if you have to do both at the same time.

You took photographs in different corners of the world: what are the key differences between working in exotic places like India and Ethiopia and making Germany after Unification and other reportages from your home country?

Every story is challenging, so you have to adapt to the situation and make the most of it. Sometimes you find a story on your doorstep, other times you need to fly half way around the globe to get it.

I think you should bring your opinion into every reportage. If you love or hate the situation, or find it ridiculous, it should come through in the resulting pictures for them to speak to the viewer. Don’t try to be objective – it’s boring!

Speaking of subjectivity – one of your best-known images from 9/11 provides a very different view of the tragic event. What is the story behind it and what do you think it adds to the broader image of the disaster?

It’s very strange because, at the time, I didn’t think this moment was important. I automatically reacted to the situation, but only pressed the shutter three times because I was looking for the horror of the day and didn’t think this was the picture.

©Thomas Hoepker / Magnum

©Thomas Hoepker / Magnum

Magnum had a meeting in New York the day before and I saw what other photographers had done and thought my picture was too harmless, too pretty. So I kept it in my drawer for few years, until a museum curator saw the photograph and encouraged me to publish it.

I learned my lesson – you should never be too pre-determined. As a reporter, you want to be really close to the event, but sometimes, if you detour from the core of it, you can be lucky to find something very special.

What is your advice to young photographers starting out?

Think before you press the shutter.

Nowadays, it’s too easy to get a picture – click-clack – the cameras works for you, but you need to use your brain, look closely and react fast. Don’t go out and expect that things will be wonderful – photography is a hard work!


About Tina Remiz

I am a documentary storyteller and visual artist of Latvian origin, currently based in the UK's capital.

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