Marga van den Meydenberg’s Pop-Up Portraiture

The Dutch photographer capturing the souls of Berlin

Elly Harvey Marga van den Meydenberg by Gerrit Koehler

For the past three years, Dutch photographer Marga van den Meydenberg has been regularly hosting pop-up photo studios in different parts of Berlin. They appear for a month at a time, with an open-door policy welcoming anybody to enter and have their portrait taken, on a pay-what-you-want basis.

This being Berlin, the resulting images are absurd, beautiful, comical, inventive, and inspired. They represent a snapshot of the city’s humanity in all its colourful glory. To Marga, every person is unique and has a story to tell. We sat down with Marga during her Friedrichshain pop-up edition to find out more about how and why she came to create this project.

Why photography? It’s a medium that I can easily handle. It works really well for me because I have to deal with what is there. I want to create something but I cannot create from a white canvas because I have no idea what to do with it. But if someone is standing there, I already have something, I can create from there. Then, I know what to do. What that is – I have no idea because it’s in the moment. Give me a human being, a bit of time, and trust from two sides, and I can make something.

Your pop-up photographs play with the connection between objects and subjectivity. How does that come about? It all happens really naturally. I don’t like to plan a photoshoot. Sometimes people bring stuff. Maybe they’ve just come from the supermarket and bought some vegetables or something like that. I can work with that visually. I like to play around if there are two people. Maybe taking different parts of the body from someone else. Of course dancers are always really nice subjects to photograph. They know how they move their body and can make weird poses.

Can you talk more about your formative involvement in social documentary? How does it relate to your photography? When I was in the Netherlands I did a project about women who have breast cancer. I really liked that project because I learnt a lot about how easy it is to talk with people by listening – just asking and listening to the women that I interviewed and made photos of. They opened up. They really wanted to be seen and show what a big taboo there still is.

What is the philosophy behind your working practice? I don’t really have a philosophy but it’s more like I don’t judge. I think every human being is unique and has a story from a past going somewhere, and there are these moments in between.

How did the pop-up project take shape? It started as an experiment and it became an ongoing project. It has been going for three years now. The idea was that I wanted to do it in all the neighbourhoods of Berlin. I still want to do Prenzlauer Berg, maybe Moabit and Charlottenburg. That would be a really nice circle with a diversity of different neighborhoods.

Give me a human being, a bit of time, and trust from two sides, and I can make something.
Pop-Up Studio Kreuzberg, June 2016. Magnus and Louise came to my first pop-up Neukölln and (lucky me!) they visited me again at my second pop-up. They are used to each other and moved freely in front of my camera.

Does the project take on different forms in Berlin’s different neighbourhoods? There is a lot of difference if you’re in Schöneberg, in Nollendorfplatz, or if you’re in Neukölln or Kreuzberg. There are totally different people. I always want to be somewhere directly on the street in a nice part of the neighbourhood. I went to Friedrichshain for almost a year on and off to find the right place. It can be so difficult to find something, as I really want to be in a location where many people are going by. If I am somewhere where nobody walks by then it doesn’t work.

What are you looking for in your subjects? Everybody is interesting for me. Everyone has a story to tell. If I see somebody with tattoos on his face or crazy wild hair that’s visually really interesting, I go and ask, “Can I make a photo of you?” I think you can make an interesting photo from everybody. It’s just you need a little time to make a connection, to find some trust, so it’s really spontaneously in the moment, nothing planned.

So you treat your studio as a sort of laboratory? I like to have these pop-up studios and see it as an experiment. I really like this way of working, this idea of “Come in and see what happens.” I have stuff lying around that can become something, that can help, like props. I always collect ideas. If I see your bald guy walking by and I know it’s summertime and I have ice cream in the fridge it’s like, “Ok that can work together.” Or if I start asking questions and someone says, “I can do a bit more,” “I can dance,” or “I can get my clothes off,” then I know we can go in that direction.

Do you still have relationships with any of the people you’ve photographed? Some people became good friends. For instance this guy from Belgium, he’s an extrovert and he always shows up when I have a pop-up studio. I made a whole series of him naked in nature. We connect so well and it’s nice to see each other once in a while. Stefan is an amateur photographer and he is the only one who managed to be in every pop-up, so that’s kind of special. This one girl in Pankow was really tired of people always saying something about her weight or her body. She was so done with it, and she came by my studio and we started talking. I asked her, “Can I photograph you naked?” and she said, “Please yes! I really want to do that!” We don’t know each other at all and a half-hour later she is naked in front of my camera, and we both feel that it’s totally okay. It was for me and for her something that brings you to another level. I told her “I want to use your photograph on the internet, but it’s your body so you have to be okay with it,” and she said “Yeah, I’m really okay with it.” This makes me feel that I am doing something good with my photography: helping her to open up and show who she is.

What do you think about intimacy in the digital age? Is there something about the fact that you don’t know each other that allows you that closeness? This digital world, it’s not me because I don’t like that social media way of living. That’s why I’m doing this, to connect to people. I think a lot of people like it because they can connect because maybe they’re not so connected anymore? Especially with older people, they say, “You’re listening! You’re not just there with the phone.” I like to connect with the old man walking by with the dog, or the neighbour upstairs. For a whole month those are the people who are around me. I want to stand outside with my cup of coffee and say “Hi” to the neighbours. Say, “Hi! How is your day?” and really connect. That’s why I put the photos in the window, so people who walk by in this neighbourhood see it grow and maybe recognise people.

I don’t want to be sitting inside with my phone. That’s why I also put away my phone. I don’t have a computer here. I’m just here full time with all the people who come in. I think sometimes people are a bit surprised because that’s not so normal anymore. Well, it’s still happening a lot of course, but it’s such a big part of my project. I found it really interesting in Nollendorfkiez, there was this old woman. She was 83, walking by every day on her way to the supermarket. I put a bench outside and she was immediately sitting there a few times a week. When I wasn’t busy, I was sitting next to her and we talked about everything. About her whole life and what she would have done differently, and about my life and the journey, everything. My project is about bringing people together.

Why is it important to you to talk to people like that? I learned that by doing street photography. For me real life is even better and more surprising than what I can imagine in my head. That’s the thing with street photography. I was always going through the city with a camera around my neck and my head totally empty. Only observing. I learnt a lot by waiting, seeing, observing, and then the weirdest things happen. I’m like, ”Is this real life?” “Yeah, that’s Berlin. That’s real life.” Yesterday I was sitting here, there was this guy coming by on a bike that was huge and really beautiful. He was waiting for his tram and we started talking about how he made his bike himself and this whole story. Then the tram came and he went off. I love it. You have no idea what kind of story someone has to tell and I think it’s even better than what I can imagine myself.

Learn more about Marga and her work on her website.