in frame documentary photography photographer down syndrome inframe photo germany east snezhana von büdingen valentine zeler kalel koven interview work series contemporary portrait nature long term project inside farm intimacy

Interview Snezhana Von Budingen

Can you describe the series about Sophie?
I got to know Sofie, 18 years old girl with Down syndrome, in the autumn of 2017. She’s just finished school and spent almost every day on the family estate in Eilenstedt (Germany). Sofie comes from a family of famous antique dealers and grew up in the magical atmosphere of this farm.

Sofie has a very strong bond with her mother Barbara. Barbara was 40 when Sofie was born, at home. It was only a few days later during a routine doctor’s appointment, that she found out Sofie had Down syndrome, and would also require an operation on her heart. Barbara recounted her story of that day, sitting opposite the doctor as he explained: ”your child has Down syndrome, but reflect on the fact that it is the same child you‘ve lovingly held in your arms these first days. Nothing has changed, it’s still this amazing child“. Sofie is now 21, and the close relationship and love that Barbara and her share, hasn’t changed since the day she was born.

« when every feeling is extremely intense and love seems to be the main purpose of life »

I’ve been visiting Sofie and her family for over three years, I had a chance to experience their everyday lives; sharing the highs and lows of her first steps into love. At that time Sofie was in that awkward yet beautiful and thrilling age of transition from a girl to a woman, when every feeling is extremely intense and love seems to be the main purpose of life. Sofie continues to live on the farm estate with her parents, her brother, and the countless animals.

How did you meet Sophie?
In 2017 while shooting my photo project « Mother » I came into contact with children with Down syndrome. I portrayed them together with their mothers in my photo studio in Cologne. Sofie and her mother also wanted to participate in the project, but unfortunately, they couldn’t come to Cologne due to distance. However, they invited me for a visit. So I went to their home in the East of Germany. After I met Sofie and spent some time with her and the family at the farm, I realized that I wanted to make a series about her and her life. It was something special from the beginning. I enjoy interacting with Sofie while taking pictures of her. When Sofie likes somebody, she lets her or him come and stay close to her, she is very open and warmhearted.

« The intimate relationship, the love, and tenderness that this woman felt for her child touched me deeply. This woman radiated love with not a hint of fear or despair. »

You’ve already worked on Down’s syndrome with the beautiful series « Mother »,
why is this subject particularly appealing to you? Why did you start and deepen it
with Sophie?
I find it very insightful how people with Down Syndrome perceive and interact with the world. It is very unique and absolutely fascinating. I had a chance to meet children of many different characters through this project. It was a revelation to me because I didn’t know much about people with DS before. But I think anyone who doesn’t have a child with Down syndrome among his or her family, relatives, or close friends would feel the same way.

Briefly about how I came up with the idea of the « Mother » project. In 2017 I portrayed a mother with her son who had trisomy 21 in my photo studio in Cologne. The intimate relationship, the love, and tenderness that this woman felt for her child touched me deeply. This woman radiated love with not a hint of fear or despair. Many women are afraid of having a child with Down syndrome. I think it is like that because they have in mind the challenges it could bring with it. As well as the fear that your child will never be reintegrated into society and live an independent, happy life.

Many women are afraid of that… But as I saw this woman with her son, I saw a loving mother who is happy about her son. That’s where the idea for the « Mother » project came from, in which I wanted to show this page of « Being a Mother of a child with Down syndrome ».

Why did you include photographs of Sophie’s living space in the series? How
would you describe her world?
The country house where Sofie has grown up, dates from the 16th century. Sofie’s parents are antique collectors. Her father runs an antique shop in the nearby town of Quedlinburg. The family appreciates the beauty of the antiques. I think Sofie has imbibed this atmosphere. I believe that the environment in which we grow up influences us unconsciously. A lot of objects that I include in the picture tell the story of this family. For example, Barbara’s room still has the bed in which Sofie was born in (Barbara gave birth to Sofie at home). There is also Sofie’s baby crib and countless pictures and paintings that I consciously include in photographs to reinforce the statement of the picture.

Do you have any particular photographs that can describe the series? What’s its story?
There are a few photographs of this kind that bring some important aspects of her life in the foreground — the process of adulting from a girl into a woman, self-cognition, learning about her own body, her relationship with the mother as well as young people of the same age, the experience of first love.

« …my boyfriend gave me the photo book « Tiny streetwise revisited » by Mary Ellen Mark. I was absolutely fascinated by this work. »

Are you still photographing Sofie?
Yes, and I hope she will always let me accompany her as a friend and as a photographer. I still remember the moment my boyfriend gave me the photo book « Tiny streetwise revisited » by Mary Ellen Mark. I was absolutely fascinated by this work. When I flipped through the book, the whole life of a person flashed before my eyes. Such long-term projects, such life stories in pictures are absolutely fascinating in my eyes. I am very excited to see what changes will come into Sofie’s life, how she will develop as a woman, whether she will eventually start a family. So much can still happen. I hope I get a chance to tell Sofie’s life story in pictures.

« I often think of how photography and people, who let me enter into their lives, have enriched my own life. Through photography, we get a chance to touch on the life of others. You are not just an observer, you live their life together with the protagonist. »

What is your inspiration for this work? And in general?
The inspiration for this work but also other photo projects always comes from my protagonists, from their characters, their view of life, and ideally from the feeling of connection between me and these people, as is the case of Sofie. I haven’t had any experience of spending as much time with my other protagonists to compare with the « Meeting Sofie » project. I got to know Sofie for the first time in October 2017 and from then on I visit her regularly every 2-3 months. I and she have developed a very close bond.

I often think of how photography and people, who let me enter into their lives, have enriched my own life. Through photography, we get a chance to touch on the life of others. You are not just an observer, you live their life together with the protagonist. These encounters broadened my horizons, made me emotionally mature, and gave me the opportunity to go through life experiences that are completely different from my own. I believe this is one of the most valuable things one can experience, ever.

What is next for you? Future ideas of projects?
At the moment I am working on the photo book “Meeting Sofie”. In the book, in addition to the pictures I took as part of the project, I will also give an insight into Sofie’s childhood (pictures from the family archive), as well as add interviews from Barbara, Sofie’s mother.

Your top 5 photobooks?
It’s really hard to name just five… But let me try.

Annie Leibovitz « A Photographer’s Life 1990 – 2005 »
Diane Arbus « Untitled »
Mary Ellen Mark « Tiny streetwise revisited »
Anders Petersen « Monographie »
Nan Goldin « The Ballad of Sexual Dependency »


Interview by Valentine Zeler
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