An Interview with Photographer Pablo Wünsch Blanco by Ziggy Nixon
When I recently sent out a “call for talent”, I was very pleased that good pal Martin Oeggerli turned me onto the work of Pablo Wünsch Blanco, a talented, young photographer situated in Basel, Switzerland. Not only was I blown away by Pablo’s unique vision – from his work with pin up model Zoë Scarlett and other, perhaps not so well-known faces (yet) – but I was also very surprised when I realized how much of Pablo’s work I’d already seen. If you have been in the area any time in the past few years, you’ve no doubt enjoyed his recent Saturday morning photo column in the Basler Zeitung; his work for Basler Kantonalbank or Pirelli, among many other well-known local or larger businesses; his various many campaign posters for local political figures; and for sure you’d have seen one of his celebrity portraits on the cover of a certain regionally published magazine that even he might not let you know he’s done (sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy).
Before starting, I will say this interview was indeed very educational and a whole lot of fun – albeit an exhausting couple of hours – because Senõr Wünsch definitely runs on high octane fuel. It was also incredibly interesting to hear how this energetic fellow manages to not only create and tell a story when photographing gorgeous models or other specific scenes, but also makes the dourest bank worker come off looking terrific and even a tad playful.
Pablo, what would you say is the difference between your work as a photographer and the service we get in the village photo shop where we buy our cameras, have our film developed, etc.?
I think basically the difference is that I come from a different background than most professional photographers. I’m not a trained photographer; well, I did take an elective course on photography while I was working on my design major during Art School. And, truth is, my father had a black and white photo lab at home and I did spend lots of his money on film for years. So, okay, I guess I had a bit of an advantage. (Laughs) But after that, I didn’t even pick up or own a camera for like 10 years.
production of Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”… so I didn’t even have to act (laughter). It is something I enjoy doing. Actors are a great bunch and I learn a lot that even helps me with my work as a photographer. But me, an actor? No…
I find it very funny that you ask this question. The kind of neighborhood store like you mention is for me something like a “ye olde photo-shoppe”; it’s a place where you go to make very cheesy photos of yourself. Don’t get me wrong: it’s perfectly fine because we all need cheesy photos sooner or later, you know? Maybe it’s family portraits for Grandma or wedding photos or whatever. I mean, there will always be a necessity for these types of photos.
But clearly there’s another market for photographs that are created following the design process. Simply put, if a client needs an image to illustrate a text or help sell a product or a concept then you have to create a photo that responds to this problem, you have to answer to a necessity. My customers call me and say, “We’ve got a new product coming out. Can you help us create an image that helps to sell the product, maybe even specifically to promote it in Market X or to Customers of Type Y?” Or they’ll ask: “Can you photograph my employees in such a way so that when our clients look at the photos, they associate my team with the spirit of the company?”
So we then sit down together and work through a real design scenario. We identify what’s the target, what they want to say or achieve with the photo in order to form and propose an appropriate image. Therefore, for me, my work is very much creating photos for a purpose. Simply put: I’m just finding an answer to a problem. These are the images that I strive to make.
Don’t get me wrong: if you want a photograph for your Grandmother, I can do this, sure. And she will be more than happy with it! The goal in this case is not that you look good per se; it’s that your Grandmother will be happy with the photograph.
Is photography just a means of putting your art out there in a way people can see it?
I do have a big problem with the word art, to me it sounds really big. I think of art has having more to do with an uncontrollable desire to create and find new ways to say things, kind of like what scientists do. For me art doesn’t have as much to do with creating well-composed, correctly illuminated photos which at the same time allow me to make a living.
I am mainly just a commercial photographer; my job is to make photos that work. Often I feel more like a technical artisan. I don’t know, I think of myself as being more like a dentist than an artist sometimes. You know, making functional and attractive work with expensive tools. (Laughter)
That I am trained formally at art, that I’ve taught art, and that I sometimes do practice forms of artistic crafts, okay, yes. And a lot of people do make art with cameras. But do I create art with cameras? I don’t know. Time will tell. What is art anyway?
Having been an art teacher, ski coach, designer, musician, and more, how did you wind up in photography?
Well, I used to work for a few years as a designer for a merchandising company here in Switzerland. I ended up doing basically everything that involved visual communication, including lots of photo re-touching, graphic design, some product design, photography of both products and people, web-pages, you name it. And of course all of this had to be done very fast and always with at a very high level of quality. However, after a while, I felt that I was somehow doing too many different things and instead needed to specialize in one area in order to really grow.
Then, at one point, we ended up having to arrange a beauty shoot for a display for a very well-known cosmetic product. The pressure was really high because we had to get it right in order to keep a big account. And as fate would have it, the boss proposed that I take it on. I really had no clue about what I should do or how to do it. But the challenge was for me, I don’t know, I guess too sexy to let pass. So, with a 3 megapixel camera, one of the company’s secretaries, lots of ingenuity and even more photo-shopping, I somehow managed to get a quite acceptable result. And along the way, I found that I enjoyed the challenge very much and I quickly realized that I could get paid for doing more of that.
You’re an actor as well, correct?
I don’t think I’m really an actor. I’ve just been in a couple of amateur plays in the last years. In fact, I just finished playing a Mexican drunk named Pablo in an English speaking
When you take a picture of a person, are you necessarily trying to tell a story about them or involving them, or does it just sort of happen after the fact?
When I am shooting portraits for magazines or doing private sessions, I really try to find and show something more about my subjects. I want to find what they have inside and for me that is the way to create a story. For example, I recently had a young lady walk into the studio and she was gorgeous, I mean, really beautiful in every way. When she walked in I said “sorry, you’re so good looking it’s really going to be boring to photograph you.” I mean, I hate the way women are often just photographed from a very macho point of view, you know, as disposable sexual objects, so distant from the spectator. I try to avoid that, unless it’s the specific point of an assignment.
So in this case we agreed to try and create a photo that showed another part of her. We worked for a couple of hours until she looked different, I mean, in a way she was never photographed before. We tried to create something that was really going to be an exciting and challenging photo to the viewer. And even today, a lot of people stop and tell me that this photo of her is a little messed up. But that’s the idea: to sometimes create something that’s shocking and different. Maybe a photo like this does fall more into the artistic category.
I am really curious then about your thought process in making the photos of this young lady:
Yes, this is a great example of how I like to approach photography. In this case, she came in here and said “I’m a handball player, I’m very fit and I’d like to show it, but without looking too masculine.” I had the same thought and I knew if I wasn’t careful the spectator would get the wrong idea. I mean, she was not only in great shape (ZN: just look at those, uh, muscles) but she had short hair and really strong facial features as well. But she IS extremely attractive and quite feminine, too.
So we looked for a way to combine these elements and decided to try a different approach. This was really interesting for me because you don’t see many photos that try to combine such a strong masculine side with a very soft, very feminine side unless it’s just for very high-end fashion photography. Maybe it’s very stereotypical but I love to play with this sense of androgyny, which for me has to do more with the perception of gender as with sexuality per se.
I enjoy how you’ve lined up your pictures on your web-site, combining both a balance of innocence and beauty, with a bit of subtle eroticism thrown in. Can you give some insight into how you approach your on-line illustrations?
I think it’s funny that you see that and it makes me happy, because that’s a very big goal of mine to create situations that are very intimate. How do I achieve such different effects? (Long thoughtful pause)... Brainwashing (laughs)…
Take for example the stereotypical “okay now: make love to the camera!” It’s a great line, but in my experience it only works in the movies. For me it’s all psychology, maybe even a kind of mental manipulation. I do have to manipulate the people in a positive way and make them very comfortable.
And you see pretty fast when you begin working with someone whether or not they’ll open up quickly, because everyone has a different level of willingness. Some people can get to an intimate point rather easily but others are totally blocked and you have to try a different strategy – even with humor or who knows what. But you can’t create this kind of moment with everyone in exactly the same way.
If I manage to bring the person to a point of connection that is very intimate without being sexual per se, then I’ve accomplished my goal. It can be disturbing for a lot of people to see the photos later, some even tell me they find my images very erotic; but it’s great that we can achieve this level of connection for these 2 minutes or so. It is very intense for the person being photographed. I mean, they don’t know me but within one hour or so I have to bring them to the point that is needed to achieve such an effect.
I guess I’m pretty good at reading people and can bring them in to a level of self-confidence where they trust me enough to do things they would never do with any other stranger. They put themselves in situations that are different, even risky, on the limit. I put 110% of myself into the shooting, so I suppose I just drive them on with me.
Then, if I’m fast enough, I can capture just the right moment and maybe show a little window into the soul of the person. Perhaps the person is not usually like this or will never act like this again; but for that one moment that hidden part of them that is somewhere inside of them will show itself. Then the image is truly unique.
I think it goes back to the question about why I decided to get into photography: I guess for me it’s this great mix of psychology, art and technology. It somehow suits my personality pretty well. And for the pictures on my web-site, I love to mix these up and show just the range I can accomplish this way.
Is there a secret for you how to keep a photo erotic vs. pornographic?
I guess you have to create something that has a strong hint of sexuality without showing anything pornographic – like showing a lot of skin or genitalia or whatever – but this is still very challenging. But if you’re successful, it’s a great achievement. I think the strongest aphrodisiac is the brain and what it can convince us of in terms of what we may NOT be seeing. Kind of like a really good horror movie where you actually never see the monster, but you know he’s there just lurking in the shadows.
The pictures in this series seem to combine a trace of innocence and mystery, yet also a sense of real animal magnetism and even lust. How do you approach such photos?
(Laughs) I don’t think anyone has analyzed my photos as much of you. Don’t get me wrong I like it a lot, it’s fun.
Yes, this lady is an actress and she had called me to do some photos for her “book". She was going I believe to a Hungarian ball or something like that and just wanted to take advantage of her outfit and getting all fixed up. So we just improvised a little session to see what we come up with.
It was a very peaceful, beautiful evening – plus, we had the luck that it was snowing outside – and she was just so gorgeous in her costume and make-up and all. And I really wanted to tell a unique story: to me it was all just so glamorous, it looked somehow to me like some kind of champagne commercial. So I thought about how would I present the feeling that you get when you have two glasses of champagne and maybe go outside for a romantic walk in a beautiful villa. You know, I wanted the photo to be mysterious, a little blurry, a little like you know how when you do things with a trace of alcohol in your brain but everything still feels so great.
How do corporate portraits fit into your vision?
These photos are in fact much more difficult to make because you don’t have any space to move, both literally and figuratively. For example, I recently completed a dozen portrait photos for a private investment bank, with very concrete artistic direction already being decided on and given to me from an advertisement agency. I mean, I had very exact guidelines that I had to work with in order to show the spirit of the company via their employees: frontal portraits, illumination defined, all portraits had to be very similar, emotion serious, communication in the eyes and with only a little hint of a smile.
Now, imagine in addition to all this having to work with a person who’s just had make-up applied and their hair fixed up – perhaps even, if you will, against his or her free will – and afterwards they have to jump in front of the camera and pose for a tall, fast-talking Spaniard who they’ve never met. But even under these circumstances and in only about 15 minutes, I still want to get into their soul and show that special “something”.
It really is hard work. Most of us do not really know what to do in front of a camera. I mean, if these people would be professional models, they would not have any problem with direction. If you wanted them to get naked, clothes would fly; if you told them to jump, the answer would be “how high?” I mean, this is what models are paid to do, aren’t they? Someone recently described it to me saying “models are more than happy to be paid to be the canvas; they really do not care much how they look on the photos”. But for most of us average Joe’s or Jane’s, it is hard to let go, to allow someone else to decide how we should look or pose.
I also enjoy this kind of work so much because when I look at it later, I love to see that I’ve managed to show everyone in a way that you can tell they’re all on the same wavelength, that they’re all representing the same ideals of their company. I mean, everyone is so different to start with. It’s like music: maybe you want to record a group of people singing the same note but you have to record them all separately. But how do you bring all these persons to hit exactly the same note? Now add to that the challenge of having to make a song out of these notes and the task becomes even more difficult.
Still, working with these managerial types is really great. Okay, they portray themselves as serious professionals; but many have the same feelings and fears as any of us do when we’re in front of a camera. I mean, we’re all afraid that a double chin or a mole will show up. They all want to know if you’ll photo-shop out their little defects, etc. I just find it very fun to work with them.
Is this similar to your work for magazines that often require some kind of “stock” images to support their articles?
Just as with the portraits we just talked about, this kind of photography is actually a very satisfying part of my work, again in many ways because it is very restrictive. These are photos that are actually very complicated to create because everything has to perfect and people already have a very clear image how these images are supposed to look like.
Okay, afterwards the images may look to be very simple and straightforward because we see so many just like them. But at the same time, if they don’t have this consistency with the expected vision, they do not work – well, most of all, the customer won’t be very happy with them. I mean, the photos that I did as well for Impuls Magazin about a “Sunny and Healthy Summertime” HAVE to look like many others you’ve seen, that’s the goal! They all HAVE to look like they were made at the beach, on a warm and sunny day, you know, very American, very Californian.
Many criticize me terribly for this kind of work and ask, “how can you do something so cheesy and lame and typical?” So even this type of photography is a bit controversial as well. But honestly, what would be accepted otherwise? I know I wouldn’t buy a cereal with an ugly kid with crooked teeth and bad skin shown on the package. Would you? I mean, we consume this kind of imagery all the time. And someone has to make it.
But also, once in a while, I do get some “fan-mail”, as was even the case with these images. I had someone write and tell me that they had never seen the love between mother and daughter so well represented in a photo. I guess I will never be able to keep everyone happy.
Take this photo of this woman at beach: Like Ansel Adams, did you have to wait hours and hours for the perfect setting?
No, I know what you mean, but this just proves that I’m the luckiest photographer in the world. Seriously, in this case, we had a 2 hour window in the biggest rain storm they had ever seen in Mallorca. Then, boom, we caught it just right.
Okay, to be honest, wherever I’m shooting I do spend some time studying the surroundings and the setting in great detail. I do research on the weather, I study how the clouds work and I try to set up a plan to make my vision of the shot work. Still, I was glad this one came out so great.
In terms of getting personally involved in your work, how do you react when a photo is rejected?
Oh, it totally breaks my heart.
No, no, it’s nowhere near that bad. Of course, the photos I present to a client are in my mind always great ideas; in many ways they’re like my babies. But maybe the client just thinks the opposite, even though I know that I put a lot of effort into it, just like I do with any job.
It’s just that a photo also represents my pride in my own work. So sure it hurts a bit. But I realize that if it doesn’t work, if it’s the wrong approach to the problem the client has brought to me, then it’s not a knock against me personally or my skill as a photographer per se.
In terms of the emotions in general for my job, I think the only problem I have comes when maybe for economic reasons I’ll take a job where I’m not 100% convinced or enthusiastic about the project. It has taken me a very long time to learn to reject jobs that do not interest me. Maybe that sounds arrogant, but I think it’s much more honest towards my clients if I just tell them that up front. It’s just that from the smallest to the biggest projects, I will not be happy if I don’t give my full effort.
What’s it like balancing photos that might be considered truly freelance and the more corporate side of your work?
Very rarely you will see me with a camera in the hand unless I have a contract to shoot something. Not even when I’m on vacation. And then, most of the time I do not have the courage to show these photos, my private work, to anyone.
Actually, it was only a couple weeks ago that I for the first time EVER put one of my photos into a frame. That is probably why I keep saying I am not an artist. But on the other hand, I do not see myself as a business man either. I still have a hard time walking into someone’s office to try and explain how good or how cool my work is.
I guess the problem is to find that magic point where I find myself doing something that is creative and challenging and still actually managing to get paid for it. I suppose it’s more of a philosophical question, more of a life-style choice.
Our mutual colleague, Martin Oeggerli – known by the millions of his adoring fans as the talent behind the Micronaut site – has had recently some commercial success selling his works as high quality prints or even as posters. Are you interested as well in selling any of your pictures like this and perhaps spread your work out a bit into the market?
Up to now, seeing my photos on a magazine cover that has a circulation of 400’000 or on a political campaign poster hung up all around town or throughout the country, well, to me I think that’s even cooler than being in an art gallery. Anyway, how many gallery shows do you go to? Honestly?
But I do get asked that question a lot … and believe it or not, I’ve finally managed to convince myself to put some prints for sale via my home-page. In terms of this, I am very excited at the moment about producing some affordable limited edition prints. I’m making sure also that the prints are specifically created to fit both visually and in terms of size into an IKEA or other really affordable type of picture frame. So after you order my pictures on-line, all you have to do is just get the correct frame and voila: for a little money you get a signed original that looks terrific to hang on your wall. I guess the designer in me isn’t ready to give up just yet on the whole fame and fortune thing (laughs).
And about Martin, as you know, his work is really unique. But I admire his drive the most. He has worked extremely hard and loves what he does. People think that I run on jet fuel or whatever, but I honestly think that this guy is worse than me. I actually doubt he even sleeps and I really do not think that people realize how much work his images require! I mean, here’s a guy that has created not only an amazing concept but invests thousands of hours of detailed work to make it happen!
Why is your web-site called Auslandia?
I definitely feel like an “Ausländer” – foreigner in German – anywhere I go. For example, after 15 years abroad, I feel like a foreigner when I’m in Spain. Even when I was a kid I always had the darkest skin since I’m half-Mexican and half-Spanish, so the other kids called me funny names. And even while I was working in the United State I was considered a Latino. I didn’t even know what that meant. I wondered if Latino meant that I was supposed to come from Latin America? Or did they mean Latino like being from a Latin culture, like either the Italians or the French?
Obviously, I’m not really Caucasian, but check out my last name and how tall I am (ZN: about 6’4” or so). And then I came here to Switzerland in 1998 and I was labeled a “Südländer” (lit. “south lander” or southerner). And you know how difficult is to integrate in this area, so I will always be a foreigner here as well. Or maybe you’d consider me an ex-pat. That may sound cooler but I don’t feel like that either. I mean, I work here, I live here, I pay my taxes here, this is where my life is; but I’ll always still be a foreigner.
Another reason the web-site has this name is that for the longest time I couldn’t pronounce my last name “Wünsch” in German (ZN: smoke ten cigarettes then try to say ‘Vooensch’ and you might get close) so I wanted of course to create a name that people could remember. I think my design-oriented brain put it together to run like this: when people ask me about my work I say “just check out Auslandia.com.” Then they always say, “What?” and I just say (in German), “you know, like Ausländer. I’m an Ausländer, so just think Auslandia. Sounds also like Australia, okay?” And then they can remember, so it seems to work!
Even after researching your work and now having talked to you for a couple of hours, I still finding it difficult to define your work in terms of your style.
That is a critique that I hear sometimes, that I don’t specialize in any one type of photography, like only nature photos, or only nudes, or whatever like other photographers do. I just think it’s reflective of the fact that I’m very multi-faceted in my life. That is the way I am. I do music, I do theatre, I’m a sport freak, I do photography, I do many things. And I do them all at the same time at the highest level I can.
Recently, a very well respected photo editor told me that the problem she had with my work is that I don’t have A style. She told me that if she needed someone who could do ANY job very well, she’d call me. She probably meant it as criticism, and probably in the artsy cosmopolitan scene, it would be interpreted as a very sharp rebuke of my work; but for me, it was actually a great compliment.
I mean, if you compare this to a musician, wouldn’t this be the best compliment you could ever receive? That I could play several instruments and many styles really, really well? I look at it like as if you had the chance to be, I don’t know, B.B. King vs. someone that can play everything. Don’t get me wrong: I do love B.B.’s music but in my case, I wouldn’t be able to play the same songs in the same style all my life. I’d much rather be someone that could play a lot of instruments quite well and could get paid good money to perform in all different kinds of settings. Sure, I’d love to play the blues very well, but I’d also love to go to Austria and play the cello in a concert hall one night or go out the next day and play drums with Mötörhead in an open air festival with 200’000 fans screaming my name.
Is there a particular type of client you like working with the most?
Yes, rich ones. (heavy laughter) No, seriously ...the bottom-line for me is that I want to have fun. I don’t care what or whoever I’m photographing. Even if it were the Queen of England, I’d still be cracking jokes and trying to make her give me a little smile.
I love it when the feedback I get is not only that the people I work with like the photos but most importantly is that they had a great time making them with me.
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If you want the quick & dirty version of Pablo’s biography, well, good luck … or perhaps better said, we’d need to start another blog just for that. Born in 1970 in the northern Spanish city of Santander, he later studied Fine Arts, and has over the years worked as art teacher, ski coach and as a designer before finally reorienting his career towards photography. Despite evidence to the contrary as pictured here, he is not nor has ever been a professional gigolo.
Pablo is also reported to have been an enthusiastic alpine ski racer in his youth, and he is still an avid cyclist. Apparently, he prefers beer over wine and daydreams about owning a yellow motorcycle and a Catalonian Sheppard (we think that’s a type of dog), though it’s not clear if all of this is intended to be enjoyed simultaneously. Other interesting facts include that he volunteered at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, he’s had surgery on both his knees, and that he’s even played guitar in a glam-punk band, albeit perhaps not as well as he would have liked (but they did make it onto the radio a couple of times). And a couple of random facts: (a) he often refers to himself as a "Ninja" though he has in fact NEVER practised any form of combat sports (instead it's because he moves fast and likes to wear black, go figure) and (b) he seems to have enjoyed the interview process quite a lot because if for nothing else, he was finally able to describe to his sister what he does for a living.
If you ask him about his final stop in terms of careers, he will tell you that this may be the one. Why? Because he feels comfortable doing it, he’s good at it, and perhaps as well that it doesn’t involve any serious heavy lifting. All kidding aside, he has an impressive listing of local and more distant clients including Ayuntamiento Barcelona, Basler Kantonalbank, Basler Zeitung, Banque CIC (Suisse), Bank Coop, Boots Healthcare, Burger King, Eurocom Visual, Erdgas, Eezytool, Fossil, FDP, Helvetia Patria, Krebsliga beider Basel, Museo Cristobal Balenciaga, Pirelli, Regio Aktuell, Strassenmagazin Surprise, Syngenta, Swisslite, Triodos Bank NW Spain, Verband Schweizer Kantonalbanken, Young Stage Circus Festival, and many more.
For more on Pablo’s works or other comments, ZN proposes these web-links:
- Home web-site at www.auslandia.com including:
>> Access to lots and lots of examples from portfolio at http://www.auslandia.com/a/portfolio/thumbs.html
>> and also a great collection of more “corporate” and other printed offerings at http://www.auslandia.com/a/archive/index.html
>> Pablo's blog which he uses primarily to keep his family and friends up-to-date on his shenanigans http://auslandia.wordpress.com/
- We also recommend checking out Zoë Scarlett’s interview on TeleBasel (in German, well, Swiss German to be exact), from 28. March, 2008 where she said more or less, “… there is only one photographer, his name is Pablo Wünsch Blanco …”, a quote that we suppose she is still trying to live down…
As a final treat, here are some of Pablo's most recent images: