In an interview, Matthias Oesterle unveils the remarkable path that led him to the realm of photography, sharing insights into his techniques and personal journey.
Matthias’ groundbreaking approach to capturing cultural events, especially in Spain, transports the audience to a realm suspended between reality and fairytales—an ethereal space where ancient stories come alive. His distinctive storytelling style breathes life into these events, allowing the audiences to experience their magic in a way that feels both familiar and extraordinary.
Matthias Oesterle started his photography path at the age of 42, following a successful career as a graphic designer. Initially, he didn’t like photography, but once he delved into its captivating depths, his passion grew more and more. It was during a demonstration in 2011 when Matthias captured a series of photographs, realizing their potential to convey newsworthy stories. And he was right; the pictures went worldwide as soon as he sent them to a publication, “It was an amazing experience that I never imagined would be possible,” he reflects.
Since that defining moment, Matthias has relentlessly pursued his photography career, capturing a diverse range of subjects that span cultural events, Formula 1 races, football matches, festivals and more. He endeavors to challenge himself to new heights by exploring various platforms for inspiration, ideas, and innovative techniques. “I feel refreshed and eager to go out and shoot again when I come across images that make me jealous of not having taken them myself, even if the photos are taken in the most remote regions and have nothing to do with my own world,” Matthias remarks. This ambition has led to a diverse collection of photographs, many of which are groundbreaking in their own sense. However, amidst this diverse range of subjects, a common thread weaves through all of Matthias’ photographs—a unique signature marked by the vivid portrayal of emotions, dynamic action, and the artful play of light.
During our interview, Matthias Oesterle shares his personal journey, recounting the efforts he made to refine his craft and gives an insight into his techniques. This is the first part of the interview.
“I want to create a series of photos that are both aesthetically attractive and emotionally resonant.”
Can you tell us about your journey as a photographer and how you got started in the field?
For almost 20 years, I’ve been a graphic designer. I have been working in the graphic department of a large German TV chain, as an Art Director in one of Spain’s leading advertising agencies, and then venturing into the internet industry. I’ve always had a camera, but my passion for photography was primarily limited to holidays. In fact, I didn’t bother taking the photography course during my graphic design studies because I was more interested in video at that time.
However, at the age of 42, my internet became too technical. I got a Nikon D80 to compensate. I began by photographing items, landscapes, and other subjects to educate myself and then uploading them to stock agencies to learn and grow.
In May 2011, I stumbled upon the Spanish 15-M movement’s anti-austerity in Barcelona’s Catalonia Square, and I took several images. They deemed “newsworthy.”
I quickly found Demotix, an agency for citizen journalists at that time, and my work was published in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and other outlets. It was an amazing experience that I never imagined would be possible. That was the start of my professional journey as a press/documentary photographer.
How do you approach your photography projects? Can you take us through your creative process?
Generally, I deal with two types of projects: breaking news and scheduled events. The most critical aspect of breaking news photography is to be prepared and ready to go at any given moment. Capturing the moment as it unfolds is crucial to the creative process for breaking news photography. I try to get as close to the action as possible while still keeping my own and others’ safety in mind. I look for unusual angles and points of view, interesting compositions, and powerful moments that will help tell the story and convey the emotion and drama of the event. You must also anticipate events to deal with turbulent conditions and unpredictability while remaining calm and focused. The best photographs often come from these unexpected moments or settings, and being receptive to these opportunities is crucial. I also believe it is critical to consider how the photographs will be used and the influence they will have on the viewer.
For the plannable events, everything begins with research. I familiarize myself with the event and its history, taking note of any key moments or people I want to capture. I additionally do some research on the location and lighting conditions to make sure I’m prepared to get the best images. At that point, the best tools for me are videos from previous years’ editions on YouTube to get the feeling for the event and its flow. I also use Google Street View to hunt for potential backgrounds and an app to determine the possible position of the light, among other things.
I then plan a few images in advance, taking into account the event’s purpose and meaning, as well as elements like composition, light, and framing. Despite this, I always approach the scene with a sense of curiosity and openness, so I am continuously looking for exciting moments and exchanges, as well as the overall mood and atmosphere.
Regarding breaking news, I also aim to go as close as possible, and favor a wide lens over a telephoto lens.
In either scenario, editing is an integral part in the photographic process. When I examine my images, I search for those with the best composition, lighting, and emotion. After I’ve chosen my favored images, I may change exposure and color balance to get the images to appear exactly right and improve their overall appearance. Ultimately, I want to create a series of photos that are both aesthetically attractive and emotionally resonant.
What are some of the key elements you look for when capturing a great photograph?
Emotions, action, or, better yet, both. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing thousands of people take to the streets on May 1st, for a very recent example, only to have those in the front march silently while staring at their phones behind the main banner. In such a setting, it’s difficult to find something to shoot or communicate. However, close to the end of demonstrations, when the communists join in, you can capture some more captivating shouting faces and rising fists. I am constantly looking for people that are enthusiastic and emotional about what they do and are truly living it, regardless of the event or whether I agree with their cause. And clean backgrounds.
Can you share some of your favorite projects or photographs and the stories behind them?
I find it difficult to pick a favorite image or project, but I am very happy with my current profile photo, which I use on Instagram and social media. Back in 2018, a Belgian publication contacted me about using some of my photos from the Catalan independence movement. For their article, they also needed a photo of me and a short bio. I developed a plan to keep my visible anonymity. I went to the rooftop, armed with my camera, a tripod, and a 10-stop ND filter, to take a long exposure moving self-portrait against the blue sky. It wasn’t as simple as I had thought, but finally I was able to get what I wanted with some trial and error and the help of a stick acting as a dummy.
I had to take dozen pictures to fine-tune the photo, zooming in and out, and get the right position and focus, so at some point I missed closing the viewfinder shutter. Sunlight came from the back during the exposure of roughly 90 to 120 seconds, and adding a soft shade of pink to the final image. In that way the photo got an unexpected artistic touch and charm that I wouldn’t have achieved even in post-processing. Always keeping an open mind allows you to identify potential errors and use them in your creative process.
“This emotion grabs both people and the photographer, which is exactly what I want to show, making these events such amazing subjects to cover.”
Many of your pictures have a surreal and fairytale look that is uniquely yours. How did you approach this style?
When I capture images, I am not just a photographer, but also still a graphic designer and art director. So, my goal is always to take a well even “poster-worthy” picture. I’m really concerned with emotions, light, and the background in order to make my subjects as clear as possible. Almost as if I’m building their world or bubble, removing almost all the busy, irrelevant surroundings. The subject matter is also essential to this. Also, I am often closer than the average person and attempt to shoot from an interesting angle, in any case as an “inside of…”
Along with writing “tradition” and “travel” in your biography, you also cover a lot of cultural and sport events, particularly in Spain. What are you trying to convey to audiences through your photography?
When I say tradition, I’m referring to these popular cultural events that are passed down from generation to generation. Typically, entire families, from newborns to great-grandparents, attend these events. During the Fallas festival, for example, you can see mothers holding their little babies, alongside their mothers and grandmothers, all crying due to overwhelming emotions if they finally reach the statue of the Virgin of the Forsaken after hours of marching through Valencia. There is no doubt that you will see them again in 20-25 years, albeit in different roles. This emotion grabs both people and the photographer, which is exactly what I want to show, making these events such amazing subjects to cover.