Daniel Rosenthal interviewed by Rory MacLean
‘My father was a Jew, born in Timisoara before the Second World War. When he was five years old my grandfather – who sensed what was coming – took him away to Paris, bought him false papers and enrolled him in an expensive boarding school. When France fell my grandfather went into hiding in a loft near the school. Every week for five years at the same time a guardian – who was a friend – walked my father along the street so my grandfather could look out and see that his son was alive.’
Rosenthal took a deep breath, the emotion still raw – and his father’s survival still miraculous - despite the passing years.
‘In 1945 my grandfather moved to Hadamar and bought an old textile mill. When he was old enough my father took over the company, and it was there that he met my mother.’
Rosenthal dragged on his cigarette, and then delivered the ironic twist to his family’s story.
‘My mother’s father was an SS officer. In the war he had been a sports instructor at the Bad Tölz Junkerschule, one on the elite officer training schools for the Waffen-SS. He had been a strong believer in Hitler.’
Rosenthal focused his pale blue eyes on me and said, ‘This dichotomy – and politics in general – were the theme for me from the earliest age.’
Today Rosenthal, aged 37, is one of Germany’s most sensitive and determined campaigning photojournalists. His work has appeared in GEO, Stern, the Sunday Times Magazine, the Dutch daily de Volkskrant and others publications. He also undertakes personal projects worldwide: an exposé on child labour in the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast, a haunting black-and-white essay on Auschwitz, a study of anti-globalisation protesters at Heiligendamm, a story about the collapse of Moraine, Ohio after the closure of the town’s GM assembly plant. Rosenthal doesn’t photograph fashion models or war zones but rather places of injustice.
‘I remember when I was seven or eight years old my father told me, “Daniel, always care for those without power, those who cannot take care of themselves.” I’ve never forgotten his words,’ said Rosenthal, sipping an apple juice. ‘I grew up near Weinheim which was then the headquarters of the NPD, Germany’s far right “neo-Nazi” party. When I was fifteen I had dreadlocks and looked like a punk. NPD thugs used to pick on me and my friends, breaking up our meetings. Because my father had given me a sense to fight for the underdog, I realised that we could stand up to them, so I helped to organise the Antifa – Anti-Fascist – movement in Heidelberg.’
‘But at the same time as supporting the movement, I was searching for a way to express myself other than through political debate and school talks. Around then I started taking pictures of Antifa events and, in the back of my head, I began to feel I could be a photographer.’
Rosenthal’s first camera was a 35mm Praktica, given to him by his maternal grandfather. At the end of the war the former SS officer had been imprisoned by the Americans for four years, after which he retrained as a sports and travel journalist.
‘In his house was a room filled with hundreds of souvenirs from around the world: a zebra skin, an Amazonian bow and poison arrow, shelves of photo albums from Afghanistan, India and Nepal. I suppose his collection gave me a taste for travel. But his intention with photography backfired on him because I was only interested in the people who he hated.’
Rosenthal’s first foreign tour was with Medico International, the German aid organisation. In eastern Turkey he witnessed – and photographed - the abuse of Kurds by Turkish soldiers who had been armed by European governments. ‘The abuses I saw left me speechless,’ he recalled. He was arrested for staging a demonstration in a Kurdish village and, on his return to Germany, decided to train as a photojournalist - in spite of his grandfather’s anger over his ‘support of terrorists’.
Rosenthal attended the Lette-School-Berlin and – thanks to a grant from the Stiftung Luftbrückendank - the London College of Communication, from which he graduated with distinction. His first portrait series – on public acquiescence over the election of Jorg Haider’s right-wing Freedom Party in Austria in 2000 – was a collaboration with fellow student Karijn Kakebeeke. ‘When the editor said that he would publish our work Karijn and I leapt up and hugged each other. We were so excited.’
Recently his Greenpeace photo essay Bonecrusher has won international acclaim. For it he travelled in secret around Szechwan province recording the hard daily existence – and industrial injuries – of some of the 200 million migrant workers who man China’s factories. ‘I was completely stricken by the brutal reality of their lives,’ said Rosenthal with feeling. ‘It was a haunting experience.’
Rosenthal’s working method is to try to be invisible. ‘I don’t take any photographs in the first hour of a meeting,’ he told me. ‘I talk only a little. I just listen and watch. Then when the time feels right, I pick up my camera and start to work. I’m not a very conceptual person. It’s more a stomach thing.’
‘I try to take photographs which work on different levels. There’s a natural climax in every encounter, when all the different elements come together, and I try to anticipate and capture that moment. This for me is the magic of photography.’
Rosenthal long ago moved on from his grandfather’s Praktica and now uses a Canon 5D Mark II. He tends to work only with available light and three basic lenses. Over the last year his photographs have been exhibited in London, New York and San Francisco. In June 2010 he is due to give the opening talk at the Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalism in Hanover. Among his many prizes are the Hansel Mieth Prize 2008 and the Lead Award 2008 – Picture of the Year.
‘On the road I am always focused on my work,’ he told me. ‘But later, back here in Berlin when I look at the images and have time to reflect on them, the memories of what I’ve seen come back to me.’
Rosenthal’s remarkable, intimate and arresting work, and his legacy, continues to move and inform people around the world.