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Photographed Angela Merkel: Interview with Herlinde Koelbl

Ms. Koelbl, it has been 30 years since you started your “Traces of Power” project. In it you photographed and interviewed a total of 15 politicians, representatives from business and the media every year. What they all had in common was that they were in important positions of power.

Yes, that they have recently come to a high public office and that they had future prospects, that was the basis.

Noticeable: There was no scientist there at the time, although they are also very much in the public eye today. If you started your project all over again, would you have considered researchers today?

I think I would make the selection the same way. Scientists belong to a different category, especially with regard to their personality structure. At the moment some are actually very much in the public eye. But the scientists as persons are still rather hidden.

But does this really also apply to scientists such as Christian Drosten? Isn’t it an example of how the role of scientists has changed a lot?

It has absolutely changed. But Christian Drosten is also in the public eye, above all as a scientist. His private life is not researched or discussed, what kind of hairstyle he has or what clothes he wears. This is usually not an issue for a scientist, but it is for a politician. There is a big difference in the type of public. Angela Merkel once said that she constantly expects to be photographed. A sweat stain under the arm is a topic in the newspapers for days. As politicians you therefore automatically put on a mask to have a certain protection so that one cannot immediately see the emotions on your face. They think about what clothes to wear so that their neckline is not discussed.

Psychological research with camera and notepad: the photographer and author Herlinde Koelbl


Psychological research with camera and notepad: the photographer and author Herlinde Koelbl
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Image: © Johannes Rodach

Is the difference also that scientists with factual issues are in public, while politicians are more likely to advocate opinions and their personal assessments?

Yes. But there is something else that is crucial: politicians want to be re-elected, and they do a lot for it. As politicians, you have to love the public and be almost exhibitionistic because you always have to be present in the public eye. The scientists, on the other hand, are known for their research results. As a result, the scientists are more protected, because only these facts play a role and not whether they were in Ibiza or own a sailboat. Scientists know that the public is peripheral, that the real thing they do is research. That is what preoccupies them and not their external impact. They have a place of retreat in their research.

In your most recent major project, you dealt exclusively with scientists and photographed and interviewed 60 renowned researchers around the world. Was it a coincidence that you realized this project at a time when science was so much in the focus of public interest?

I started the project in 2014, before the pandemic. I worked on it for several years, two years of high intensity. My goal was to make the scientists and what they are doing and what they have discovered more visible and understandable in society, perhaps to inspire young people to follow this path as well. It appealed to me to take a look behind the scenes. I also wanted to get closer to the personality of the scientist. What made you a scientist? I always find these paths in life exciting: What brings you to a certain point and why?

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