Hahn + Hartung On Playing With Fire

The lure of volcanoes and the mythology that surrounds natural disasters took Miguel Hahn and Jan-Christoph Hartung, of Berlin-based photography studio Hahn + Hartung, to Indonesia. Here, on the Pacific Ring of Fire, they captured their most recent documentary series, ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

The pair met whilst studying, and after traveling to Morocco to carry out separate projects on the same topic, they quickly realized they should pool their creativity and began working together. “To work together makes a lot of things easier,” Chris explains. “If you work on a project and have two brains thinking about it, and four eyes looking at it, it makes it much more efficient… it’s also more fun.” ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a result of the power of these two minds, and their collaborative inquisitiveness. We sat down with the pair to discuss the project, the shamans they met and the neo-noir film inspiration behind their aesthetic.

“If you work on a project and have two brains thinking about it, and four eyes looking at it, it makes it much more efficient… it’s also more fun.”
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Alongside more traditional work, you produce documentary series, the most recent being the widely acclaimed ‘Beauty and the Beast’. How do you find the topics for these projects?

Chris: It always costs us a lot of time to find a topic which we consider to be good enough. Even though there are a lot of good ones out there and we are constantly looking for them. That’s why we already have a huge list of topics all over the world but also in our neighborhood. The only thing is, that there are always doubts if they are good or interesting enough. Sometimes you just read a little note about something, or you hear about something, and you are going deeper into it or sometimes you just sit and think and while thinking, things come into your mind. I find it way more efficient to just sit and think to find a topic than looking for it on the internet though.

"I find it way more efficient to just sit and think... than looking for it on the internet."
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Could you tell us a little about ‘Beauty and the Beast’?

Chris: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a work we did from 2015 to 2016 in Indonesia. It’s about the constant threat of natural catastrophes in the country.  It’s located between the Pacific, Eurasian, and Australian tectonic plates. This region is known as the “Ring of Fire”, and is regularly affected by natural disasters which include the frequent occurrence of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. Indonesia has approximately 130 active volcanoes, the tsunami threat is constant, and earthquakes with a magnitude of around five or six on the scale of Richter happen almost on a daily basis. Yet the “Ring of Fire” does not only bring death and destruction. Farmers move next to volcanoes because the soil is especially fertile due to the volcanic-ashes and the material of the eruptions is sold as high-quality building material. Tourists are highly attracted by volcanoes and come to see ongoing eruptions.  We traveled across the country to look at how citizens, tourists, and authorities coexist with the constant risk of natural disasters.

How long did you spend on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and where did your exploration take you through Indonesia?

Miguel: We spent roughly two months working on this project. We started photographing in Bali, moved along to Java to photograph at Mount Ijen. Then we planned to stay for a couple of days in Jogjakarta, because there was a big earthquake a few years earlier and Mount Merapi is located there. Merapi turned out to be so interesting that we stayed almost three weeks over there. After that we moved along to Sumatra and ended our trip in Lombok.

"We traveled across the country to look at how citizens, tourists, and authorities coexist with the constant risk of natural disasters."
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What is your strategy for pursuing a story like this?

Miguel: Usually we try to research as much as possible up-front and make as many contacts as possible before we get to the place where the topic takes place. And then usually it is a chain reaction. While there, we start meeting people, talking to them and they come back to us with more contacts, it is very organic most of the time. For example, we met an earthquake specialist in Jogjakarta, while talking to him we mentioned that we were also interested in the spiritual aspect related to natural catastrophes. So he gave us the contact of a Belgian anthropologist that introduced us to the shaman of a small village close to the top of the volcano.

Of course, there are also moments of doubt and insecurities. Sometimes we have the feeling that we traveled for days somewhere remote just to get one picture that didn’t even turn out to be very strong. But at some point, there is always the moment when all the pictures fall together like a puzzle and start to make sense as a whole. At this point, it becomes clear to us which pieces of the puzzle are missing and we start to pursue those.

"...he gave us the contact of a Belgian anthropologist that introduced us to the shaman of a small village close to the top of the volcano."
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All images © Hahn + Hartung

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