Ken Hermann on portraiture and the importance of human connection

Ken Hermann on portraiture and the importance of human connection

The tension between tradition and modernity has fueled Ken Hermann's approach since he began making images. In his environmental portraits, the Danish photographer documents the lives of ordinary people and how their rituals are disappearing in the face of new technology and ways of life. At its core, Hermann's work is about the relationship between people and their environment and how it constantly remains in flux. He tells Capture about building relationships, his love of cinematic lighting and why he's experimenting with NFTs.

Ken Hermann spent a decade travelling around South Asia in the early aughts. The Danish photographer ventured from Thailand to Indonesia and Nepal to Laos, fascinated by the relationship between people and their environment. At the time, photography was just a hobby. He trawled markets for old cameras and lenses, documenting the places he went and the people he met, but he never imagined it would manifest into a career. "I think I was trying to avoid looking into the future," says Hermann. "It was easier to travel." He found himself captivated by India, returning, again and again, feeling an "instant kinship" with the country and its culture. "The country holds great significance for me; as it was there, I finally decided to become a photographer."

The notion of tradition and ritual in the face of pressing modernity has shaped Hermann's work and his passion for environmental portraits. In many places he shoots, including India, Mongolia and China, the countries and cultures constantly shift, leaving communities in a state of limbo between a disappearing past and an unclear future. Hermann's projects attempt to understand and record these rituals and ways of life, treasuring long-standing traditions and how they continue to manifest in a changing context.

The Last Bang Bang Men/ Ken Hermann

In his latest work, The Last Bang Bang Men, Hermann images the sunset porters of Chongqing, China. Chongqing is one of the world’s largest municipalities, built on several mountains with very steep roads and many staircases, with a population of 30 million people. The city is a booming metropolis with buildings rising as high as 72 stories and pedestrian bridges connecting apartment buildings 40 metres above the ground. It has a horizontal and vertical public transport system to enable people to move around the multilayered city. For thousands of years, the bang bang men have carried water and goods on their backs to navigate the narrow streets and complex infrastructure, but now their trade is vanishing.

Explosion 2.0/ Ken Hermann

Explosion 2.0/ Ken Hermann

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Like many of Hermann’s images, the tender portraits of The Bang Bang Men exist as a hybrid of documentary and commercial photography where cinematic lighting acts as a bridge between worlds. Informed by directors including Michael Mann, Denis Villeneuve and Barry Jenkins, he blends artificial light with daylight to create drama and texture, elevating everyday scenes into something precious and otherworldly. "I love crafting light," says Hermann. "I think many people find it intimidating, but I love that it enables you to set a scene. You can take something from your imagination and bring that atmosphere or energy into the frame."

Well of Death/ Ken Hermann
Photography, for me, is not just about picture-making - it’s about the relationships you make.

Hermanns's approach has been fuelled partly by his desire to connect and build relationships with locals, just as he did years ago while travelling. In the Well of Death, a high-octane, low-tech fairground entertainment where cars and motorbikes roar around the vertical sides of a 60ft wooden cylinder, Hermann documented the ordinary men and women who risk their lives for the thrill of the spectacle. Shot in Solapur, off the tourist track and about eight hours from Mumbai, he worked with eight riders to document their lives and this travelling Indian tradition that, due to the immense risk, is starting to be banned across the country.

"There is something about portraiture that captivates me," explains Hermann. “Photography, for me, is not just about picture-making - it's about the relationships you make. There is a whole aspect of creating images - the bond between people - that you don't see in the final photograph. Sometimes I spend weeks with people, sometimes just a few minutes, but these human connections are important to me. I’m not interested in sensational stories or perpetuating stereotypes - real people and their energy and passion for life are what fascinates me.”

The Flower Men/ Ken Hermann

Another tribute to tradition is The Flower Men. In 2017, Hermann ventured to Malik Ghat, the largest flower market in India that attracts more than 2,000 sellers daily. His quiet portraits of sellers adorned in florals reveal India's cultural relationship with flowers as vital and sacred. "I feel that the more digitally connected we become, the more we seek out tradition and authenticity,” says Hermann. “I think the success of The Flower Men is the universal subject matter. They transcend the barriers of language, culture and geography while making us more conscious of our ever-changing present."

If you want to stay relevant - you need to be creative and open to new ways of working.

As a photographer, Hermann has learnt over the years that "you always have to be adapting." And it's this intention that led him to start making NFTs two years ago. "If I'm honest, I was initially afraid of being left behind, Hermann shares. “I still remember the controversial shift from film to digital fifteen years ago. People said digital would never stick, but look where we are now.” Hermann was introduced to Web3 through a friend who is a successful digital artist. “He helped me get set up, and I’ve been selling my work for a few years. Now I understand the NFT landscape. I'm excited to use it as a space to explore new ideas and approaches. If you want to stay relevant - you need to be creative and open to new ways of working."

Well of Death/ Ken Hermann
Explosion 2.0/ Ken Hermann

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