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Back to the future: This photographer recreates his past to understand the present

Experiential Spaces #8, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Felix Schoeller Award-winning photographer Thomas Friedrich Schaefer shoots scenes inspired by his childhood, in elaborate sets that he builds from scratch in his Berlin studio.

One of the first things Thomas Friedrich Schaefer remembers is hiding behind a sofa in his parent’s Sao Paolo apartment, terrified by the cuckoo clock. Or at least he thinks so. It’s hard to say.

Schaefer, 33, moved to Brazil from Mainz as a two-week-old baby, returning to Germany five years later. And as a consequence, his memories are a mix of two countries, and two languages.

“I’ve always been interested in how memories are formed and built up, and how they change over the years,” he says, highlighting a theme that infuses Experiential Spaces, the series that won him the conceptual category in the 2015 Felix Schoeller Award.

The initial inspiration for an image comes from his childhood, but the final scene, meticulously crafted over weeks, takes on a life of its own. “I remember my dad coming home from work and encouraging me to sit at my desk and do my homework, because I was always playing football outside with my friends,” he says of the spark of inspiration for the first shot in the series.

Experiential Spaces #1, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #1, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

“After that I sketched the basic composition on a piece of paper – how it would lead from the first room, the childhood room, to the living room, where the dad is sitting in front of the television. I remember as a child feeling sad or angry that I had to study while my dad watched TV, but I just became a dad myself and now I think of it differently – I would also want the best for my child.”

What Schaefer is trying to show is that all our memories, no matter how vivid, are constructions – and these constructions change as we, ourselves, change. He goes on: “The child’s room isn’t my room – I never had a car bed, for example, but I like building up a character. The kid in the room is into cars and his dad is maybe a footballer, that’s why he has trophies. I mix my memories with social memories that will trigger more feelings in the viewer.”

Each scene takes between 200 and 500 hours to create. Schaefer, who studied architecture at Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule before switching to fine arts, builds the sets from scratch in his Berlin studio with the help of friends and assistants. He then scours prop shops, flea markets and eBay for objects and materials to decorate them.

Experiential Spaces #5, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

In progress: Garage set installation

In progress: Garage set installation

It’s a painstaking process. “For three days before production, I spend several hours a night making a huge list. Each pencil needs to be at the perfect angle. Every sticker is placed in exactly the right place. It’s artistic. I need to control everything; I want to eliminate the photographic moment.”

Schaefer has done commissions for the German Red Cross, for luxury hotels and Mainz 05 football team but his focus now is predominantly on personal work. Since winning the Felix Schoeller Photo Award in 2015, he’s exhibited in Latin America, Australia and Europe – and yet it was touch and go whether he would even apply. “I had a lot of doubt before entering because Experiential Spaces was my first series. I got the call and I was literally screaming in my car.”

Experiential Spaces #7, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #7, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Making of Experiential Spaces #7: Direction, lighting

Making of Experiential Spaces #7: Direction, lighting

The Felix Schoeller Photo Award recognises the very best international photographers, with a prize of up to €10,000 for the Gold Award winner, as well as equipment, inclusion in a high-profile exhibition at Osnabruck’s Museum of Cultural History and international media exposure.

“This is a high quality award that focuses on professional photography,” explains the Felix Schoeller Group’s senior vice president corporate communication, Dr. Friederike Texter, and therefore a perfect fit for a company has been making “high quality photo base paper for the industry for more than 120 years”.

Experiential Spaces #3, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #3, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

“It’s about taking a chance,” adds Düsseldorf Photo Weekend director Clara Maria Sels, who is on the jury for this year’s Award together with Magnum global print sales director Simone Klein, photographer Michael Dannemann and curator Gérard A. Goodrow. “It makes you visible. As a juror you might discover an artist to introduce to a gallery, a museum or include in a project.”

For Schaefer, winning also meant a confidence boost. “Working commercially the client says, ‘Great, that’s the shot’ and you get paid.But, if you go on to finish such a big, emotional series like this you want something back. [Winning the award] really motivated me to keep on doing this.”

Experiential Spaces #2, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #2, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #6, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #6, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

He’s now collecting found photographs, studying them to try to find out what makes them seem so ‘real’, in order to mimic this allusive quality in the studio. “I’m looking for mistakes, maybe a moment in between two photographs, the kind of thing which now would be deleted in digital photography.”

“Don’t be afraid – I thought I wouldn’t make it to the second round,” he advises other photographers thinking of entering the award. “Just go for it.”

To apply for the Award, visit the Felix Schoeller Photo Awards website and upload your entry by 31 May 2017. Entry is free and open to international emerging and professional photographers in the categories of portraits, landscapes and nature, architecture and industry, photojournalism and editorial, and free/conceptual photography.

Experiential Spaces #5, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer

Experiential Spaces #5, 2015 © Thomas Friedrich Schaefer