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"Buy comfortable shoes, because you can’t take pictures from cars and bikes. And don’t go out in the street without a camera because you never know what might happen.” - Thomas Hoepker

Thomas Hoepker

Dec 21, 2018 5:50 AM

It was during the 1960s – a golden age for photojournalism – that Thomas Hoepker made a name for himself as a globetrotting photographer with an eye for narratives about the human condition. There was a sense of adventure associated with intrepid types who travelled to faraway lands with camera in hand, documenting war and revolution, misery and famine, or simply life in general. Weekly news magazines like Life and Stern had both the will and the resources to send staffers on assignments for extended periods – up to months at a time – in the quest for human interest stories. Finding truth in tragedy and the extraordinary in the mundane was part of the job for Mr Hoepker and his ilk.

The son of a Munich journalist, Mr Hoepker studied art history and archaeology at school, but photography was his true calling. He was just 14 when his grandfather presented him with a primitive glass plate camera. Two years later, he used a small camera he won in a photo contest to earn money by taking pictures of his schoolmates. A local magazine liked his photos and hired him in 1960, marking the start of a six-decade-long career that brought him all over the world, earning recognition and respect along the way. He went on to work for German magazine Stern, among others, and is a full-fledged member of photographic cooperative Magnum Photos. He is also an ambassador for camera manufacturer Leica and has won numerous awards in the course of a storied career.

Several of Mr Hoepker’s best known photos are currently on display at the newly-opened Leica Store in the Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade, including two that came to define his career: a close-up of boxer Muhammad Ali’s right fist, taken in 1966, and a startling shot of a group of seemingly unperturbed New Yorkers sitting by the Brooklyn waterfront as smoke rises from the wreckage of the World Trade Center behind them. The photo was taken on September 11, 2001 but Mr Hoepker only realised its significance several years later, when it was plucked from obscurity by a curator organising a retrospective of his work.

Now 82, Mr Hoepker has slowed down considerably and no longer travels the globe on assignments, but his wanderlust lives on in books, exhibitions and documentaries. He uses a digital Leica SL that the company gave him as an 80th birthday present and has a habit of slinging it over his leg when he’s sitting down, so that it almost touches the floor. He’s still quick on the draw, demonstrating how he can easily snap a few frames if something unique or interesting suddenly comes into view. Mr Hoepker points the camera in my direction and with a glint in his eye, says: “Click, click, click.”

You started taking pictures when you were very young. When did you decide to make photography your profession?

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When I got that glass plate camera from my grandfather, suddenly I understood. Photography was a hobby to start with but even though I became more serious about it my father wanted me to have a ‘real’ profession. He saw photography as a wonderful hobby. From the beginning, I always had an interest in people, not so much in buildings or still life. I was a streetwalker and took pictures of whatever I found interesting. The next hurdle was, how could I get paid for what I did? I worked for some publications in Munich that sent people on assignment. The editor at Kristall magazine asked me, “Would you like to go to America?” That was the first very long trip, I was able to shoot very interesting pictures. This would have been unbelievable today – today you go to a place for a day or two, shoot and wait for the next assignment.

In your retrospective book Wanderlust, there is a picture taken in Iran in 1962 of a man kneeling down to kiss the well-polished shoes of the Shah of Iran. Another photo depicts a nun in a habit and distinctive cornette headdress among villagers in Ethiopia in 1963. What were their stories?

I don’t remember why they sent me. The magazine I worked for wanted to show readers how people lived in other countries. I had good fortune to photograph the Shah first on his throne, then in the countryside, when he gave out parcels of land to the peasants – it was very progressive. He came, gave the peasants their ownership documents, they fell down on their knees and kissed the shoes of the Shah. Ethiopia in 1963 was a place of interest, I was asked to go for a few weeks, shoot what I wanted. The nun came from England, she was also a doctor. So I went along with her, it was fantastic to see how she helped people who were sick and hungry.

You shot with film cameras for most of your career but now you use digital cameras exclusively.

9/11 was one of the last times I shot on film. You have this machine, you take it out, push the button. I can see a scene, click, click, click. With digital, I delete the ones that don’t work out. There’s no limit and theoretically I could shoot 1000 pictures a day, of anything that I find interesting.

You’ve described the 1966 picture of Muhammad Ali and his fist as probably the most important of your career. Why?

I had no idea about boxing. Ali was in London, I went to the gym where he trained, he looked at me and said “hello”. I did one click, then he moved closer to me and did a one-two punch motion, the right fist was first, the second photo was underexposed. Later when I looked at the contact sheet, these two were the only ones that we could use. I scanned the negatives, the second shot was scratched but I decided not to retouch it because it represented Ali as a multi-faceted human being. These were two views of this person, this winner who had also experienced difficult days as a black man living in the United States – he was very inspirational for all black people. The scratched photo became the cover of my book on Ali, Big Champ.

Do you have a favourite photo and was there an event or person that you regret not photographing?

My favourite is always the picture I’ll be taking tomorrow.  I like a photo (taken in 1997) of an indigenous Maya woman in tribal dress schlepping a heavy load of firewood up a hill in Guatemala. The wood is on her back and she is carrying a baby in front: the effort she made, the picture tells so much. My biggest regret was missing the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was on a dull assignment in L.A. at the time and the irony was that I lived in Berlin and could walk easily between East and West – it was highly interesting to observe the lives of people who lived under this regime.

You’re never without your camera. Do you have any advice for budding photojournalists?

Buy comfortable shoes, because you can’t take pictures from cars and bikes. And don’t go out in the street without a camera because you never know what might happen.