Sofie’s universe is one imbued with wonder. At 20 years old, she lives with her family, eminent antique collectors, on a 16th-century estate in Eilenstadt, Germany: a place where grand old paintings hang on paint-flecked walls, and verdant farmland acts as a barrier to the world. Sofie is dreamy and deliberate. She is persistent about what she wants. She refuses to rush. She also has Down’s syndrome.
Snezhana von Buedingen conceived of Meeting Sofie, a series winner of Portrait of Humanity 2020, following a casting call-out for a mother-daughter portrait series in Cologne. When Sofie and her mother, Barbara, couldn’t travel the distance, they invited the Russian-born photographer to visit them instead, and something magical clicked into place. “It was just special from the beginning,” von Buedingen recalls. “The way their family lives is a kind of art.”
The sheer poeticism of Meeting Sofie is enthralling. The location, romantic and pastoral, could be the setting of a Renoir painting: soft light, dappled sun; sprawling greenery and rich fabrics; a world so free of friction or hostility that it doesn’t feel real at all. “Being on that farm is like being in a different time and space dimension,” von Buedingen describes. “The fairytale ambience in the yard. Magical light that floods the house. And, of course, Sofie’s peaceful and harmonious nature.”
Von Buedingen began shooting in 2017 when Sofie was 18, and continued to photograph her sporadically over several years. The result is a delicate documentation of a girl’s first steps into love, loss and adulthood: in one image Sofie peers eagerly over a wall, encapsulating careless youth in a summer dress; in another, she smokes a cigarette in a thick black coat — a grown woman gazing knowingly into the lens. Perhaps most affecting of all is a portrait of Sofie with her first boyfriend, Andy, enveloped by poppies beneath a darkening sky.
“Her whole life revolved around him,” von Buedingen remembers. “Every day she went to the bus stop and waited until he returned from work to see him for a few minutes. Sometimes she was already sitting at the bus stop an hour earlier. She still hasn’t gotten over that love story.”
Elsewhere in the series, Sofie appears alongside her mother, her brother and her friend Lina. Portraits of intimacy, reflection, and curiosity; searing with emotion, sparing of action. “When I’m out with Sofie, I notice how people look at her,” says von Buedingen. “I want them to see a girl in these pictures who, like all of us, loves, grieves, laughs and feels. Yes, she has Down’s syndrome. But in some respects, it’s not of much importance.”
Meeting Sofie is exhibiting as part of the Portrait of Humanity 2020 Global Tour, on show at Capa Center, Budapest, until 11 October and Indian Photo Festival, Hyderabad, between 12 November and 13 December 2020.