Having assisted Wolfgang Tillmans for a year after studying photography at Kingston University, Carmen Brunner returned in 2008 to become his photo editor and publications manager.
Last year she went out on her own as a Berlin-based visual consultant and freelance photo editor, working on a major redesign for Geo and continuing as director of photography on Dummy magazine, which she took on in 2011. A year later she took on the same role at Fluter, a magazine aimed at young people and distributed free, created for Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education to “open up complex topics to first-time voters by giving them high-quality journalism and different perspectives”. Recent themes have included migration and integration.
How does working with an artist compare with photo-editing?
Both revolve around complex content – understanding the artistic concept of a show or a book, or the mission statement of a magazine, and thinking within that logic while bringing my own ideas to the table.
What did you learn from Tillmans?
I really enjoy seeing the world through Wolfgang’s eyes. I admire his constant effort to look at things as if he has only just seen them for the first time. I learned a lot from his genuine curiosity and attention to detail.
Each issue of Dummy begins afresh – new theme, new design, new art director. Does each issue need a new identity in terms of the photography?
I don’t restrict myself to the idea that the magazine needs to be coherent in its approach to photography. We have the freedom to show reportage alongside personal stories, conceptual projects and found images. We’ve maintained our sense of adventure, and we like to challenge ourselves and the readers with different perspectives. Being mono-thematic, the challenge is to create tension or balance between the spreads, because the context adds an interesting layer to the individual works. That relationship has to be renegotiated in each issue, and it’s amazing to be able to do that with a different sparring partner each time.
How integral is photography to Fluter?
It is quite dense text-wise, but we try to make space for generous independent use of photography. My favourite tasks are the cover pages for the different chapters that introduce a section of the magazine that focuses on a certain theme. Ideally, they illustrate a bigger concept and tell a story at the same time.
Does your approach to each differ?
Fluter is shorter and stories sometimes have to come together in a very limited space. So I am often looking for strong single images that can tell a story or summarise a concept. Fluter’s focus is also more directly political. For Dummy I mainly look for projects that work as spreads and add an unexpected aspect to a more general topic. The challenge for both is that the work we need often can’t be found neatly keyworded in a database, and so I have to screen a lot of material from different sources.
What’s the best way to pitch an idea?
Pitches are more likely to be successful if they are brief and the gist comes across clearly. Summarise the story or proposal so it can be understood within three sentences and thoroughly consider what you are pitching to which publication. It makes no sense to try to spin a story differently to fit a certain brief within a paper. We can tell if the images don’t live up to the project description.
How essential is personality?
Personality doesn’t just refer to a distinctive visual style but also to the way photographers interact with their subjects. I would compare it to being a good conversationalist: you know when to listen but feel confident enough to interrupt when you have to, you have opinions and can express them with a certain elegance, and you keep calm when things get difficult.
Is there a particular photographer you enjoy working with?
I really like Jörg Brüggemann’s independent thinking and the way he always brings his own take to a project. I don’t like to rely on detailed briefs, preferring to commission photographers who have the vision to become the author.