Creative, with a precise and methodical approach, Stefan Imielski discovered his passion for imagery, still or moving, at a young age. Driven by challenge and with a lengthy experience in the fashion industry as a model, Stefan took the leap to pursue his dream of becoming a fashion photographer and has not looked back ever since. We talk with the Bavarian photographer about his goals, his beginning and everything in between.
Interview by Demétrios Drystéllas
Describe Stefan with three words.
Positive, motivated, sarcastic.
You have worked as a model for 15 years and now you are on the opposite side of the camera for four years. Which mistakes do you believe photographers make when treating models and also, are there things that you wish a photographer would have explained to you when you were modelling?
Photographers who have never worked as a model can’t possibly imagine how tough a model’s job can be at times. Nowadays everybody wants to become a model and all the young girls and boys think it’s an easy job. But I can tell you, modelling is very hard and sometimes the models have to pose under very harsh conditions; in strong sun, heavy wind or very low temperatures.
Usually, photographers are under a lot of pressure to get the perfect beautiful pictures. This means that sometimes, they don’t care so much about how the model feels. Some models are afraid to speak their minds and let the photographer know that they don’t feel well. Also, some photographers lack empathy and the ability to read the model’s feelings.
Due to the above, they may force the models to pose under difficult conditions, with the result being that the models feel bad and consequently, the photographer receives bad images.
Therefore, always try to read the model’s feelings and try to imagine how you would feel if you were in the model’s place. This would definitely help a lot.
I have been lucky to have worked with very good and professional photographers at the beginning. They were very friendly, helpful and supportive. The more jobs under your belt, the more experienced you become and your self-confidence gets stronger.
In which ways has modelling helped you to become a better photographer?
In many ways. I always say modelling was the school to become a photographer. If you are attentive and focus on how a skilled photographer builds the light setup, sets the camera and does the post production, then you already have acquired a solid foundation to become a good photographer. The rest will show up if you have talent because this is difficult to learn. You either have it or you do not.
When did you realise that photography was your dream job?
I was always very interested in film and photography. But I never wanted to mix it with the model job. So one day, I just made the decision that I will switch from in front of the camera to behind the camera.
And when you get the first jobs and you see people like your work it strengthens the feeling that you took the right decision. But like I said, for me, it was always a dream to work as a photographer because I love to be free and creative, but sometimes we don’t have the courage to realise our dreams.
When I look back I am so happy that I did it…
The first time you touched a camera, it was back in the 90s. Do you use film at all or have you embraced digital totally, and do you see any benefit in being taught with the discipline that analogue demands?
Well, at the very beginning I worked with analogue cameras but in my opinion, the digital word makes everything much easier. I don’t see any benefit if you got reached by analogue technique.
How different was modelling back then in the analogue era, compared to nowadays, has the digital medium lowered the standards? And out of curiosity, how were you going to castings in foreign cities without google maps, which all models depend heavily upon today?
The shootings with analogue cameras were maybe more planned and you could not shoot hundreds of pictures. You really had to know what you are doing and have a solid education in photography. Nowadays everybody can take a camera and just experiment…
And you know everybody catches a nice moment sometimes by luck. But with the analogue photography, you could not make any such experiments. The only way how to check if the pictures are fine was with polaroids. So you can imagine how much more time all the shootings took. I would say that for the models it was maybe not such a big difference compared to now, but for the photographers, it was a bit more stressful.
I remember I always bought a map and check the locations of the castings on it. So you had your book, map and that was it.
Do you recall the first shoot after which you knew that you established yourself as a professional photographer?
Sure. When you get your first editorial in a well-known magazine, you know you are in the right way.
Munich is home to one of the oldest cinema studios, Bavaria film in Grunwald, and you have mentioned that you wanted to be a camera operator. Is there a correlation and which is the kind of cinema you enjoy and could you name some of your favourite movies?
That’s right. I was always interested in becoming a cameraman but at the end, I decided for photography. The film industry is, in my opinion, a lot more difficult. I just do some very artistic movies, with a nice background music, for myself. But that’s all.
Yes, my favourite movies are:
Blow with Johnny Depp (director Ted Demme)
What dreams may come with Robin Wiliams (director Vincent Ward)
Man on fire with Denzel Washington (director Tony Scott)
You see, I like dramas.
When you first started, what was your biggest dream and have you realised it?
When I started, my dream was to one day shoot for the biggest magazines, such as Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ… Up until now, I have succeeded in shooting for all magazines with top models, my work being featured even on the cover. Except for Vogue; and this is my next step.
It’s always good to still have dreams, that keeps us alive.
How was your style developed and which have your major visual influences been?
I didn’t change my style too much. I always love to mix skin with fashion; it should always be a bit provocative and not so boring. The only thing which changed are the people I work now with. I am lucky to collaborate with very good models, like Ana Beatriz Barros, Kelly Rohrbach, Caroline Winberg, Petra Nemcova, Julie Ordon, Bar Refaeli and so on…So I am now in the position to choose my team and my models. That’s a great freedom and can help you to make the maximum out of the production.
How spontaneous is the photographic process for you? Do you do spend time pre-planning, story-boarding etc or do you rather let creativity flow during the session?
No, I plan everything very carefully. Sometimes it may take weeks for a big production.
I don’t like surprises. Maybe I am very german in this case.
Your favourite place in Munich and what do you love about the city?
My home. I love everything. Maybe because I grew up here and feel quite at home.
What is more, the location of the city is very good. We are close to Italy, Switzerland, Austria and many other countries. Munich is a very quiet city, offering a lot of great places to visit. You have a great nightlife but also places to relax. And a lot of cultural events and museums.
Publishing a book is a dream for many photographers, to view their images printed and the book, with their names on, being featured in bookstores. You have shown teasers of a new book that is in the works. Would you like to talk about it and the publication process and the challenges?
Yes, that is true. I have been producing for over a year, my first coffee-table book. In it, there will be 25 great fashion models almost nude in very nice locations. My inspiration was the Pirelli calendar or the works of Helmut Newton. We are now in the printing stage and hopefully, it will come out in the spring.
Was there a defining moment in your career so far, that in retrospect changed you?
Hmm, not really.
One little-known fact about you, which would perhaps come as the biggest surprise to many people?
When I was young I always wanted to become a professional tennis player.
What do you seek when making a picture?
I don’t seek, I let it happen and hope that I find something that you can’t seek for.
And how do you define beauty?
Beauty is the magic which captivates you when you look at someone and allows a special feeling to flow within you, which you did not expect.
A guilty pleasure?
Every good party ☺
Favourite music bands and what about german bands?
I love german punk bands, Die Toten Hosen, Die Ärzte, Wizo and many more…
What is your favourite thing to shoot for yourself? And is there something else you would like to try in photography?
My favourite thing is to shoot editorials. Because I am free to do what I want and you can be more artistic. I think you should be always open.
Which trait do you dislike in others the most?
Promising something and not fulfilling, not calling back or ignoring, pretending to be more than you are.
Would you change something in the way you shoot fashion editorials and campaigns if you were given total freedom, without any art/creative directors or the client interfering?
Well, I always make the plans and the concept of the shootings. So I have a lot of freedom, which is very good.
Is there a talent or superpower you would you like to have?
I want to fly.
And what would you do if you were invisible for a day?
Hahaha, that’s a good question. Maybe walk through a gangster area from a city where normal tourists are not able to go. I like adventure trips…
In the years that you have been active, there have been tremendous changes in the fashion industry. We observe the rise of fashion bloggers, the key role Instagram and the desire of more people than ever to become models, stylists, designers, photographers etc, plus top fashion models have now an unprecedented cultural impact with such huge online audiences the size of small countries. Where do you think this is headed and how has it affected the industry?
Yes, that’s true. I am a bit sad about the situation because everybody has the feeling to be a superstar if they have more than 1000 followers. At the end, it’s also a big fake world because you can buy followers and likes so easily. So, I don’t understand the value of all this social media stuff. On the other side, you have to go with the time and companies book models and photographers because of the number of followers. So you can’t really escape from this development.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you and doing what?
I like to spend time in the countryside at my parents’ place where I grew up. It’s really beautiful there and you can relax perfectly. I like to practice a sport and then go in the mountains or swimming in the lake, or snowboarding if it is wintertime.
But I also like to spend time in Munich; go to a nice restaurant or visit the spa. We have on of the biggest spas in Europe. It’s like one day holiday.
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
Make peace in the world.
Do you ever get disappointed with photography?
No, I really love it. I could spend every minute photographing.
There are parts of the process which I find unappealing, e.g. having to retouch hundreds of pictures for some clients, I defer to other collaborators for fulfilment.
What does fulfil you as a person/ what makes you happy?
If you had the knowledge you do now, back when you entered the fashion industry as a model and more recently as a photographer, would you do something differently?
No, not really. That I will be a photographer one day was never planned. Also, that I worked as a model before I could have never imagined. But at the end, the modelling period helped me a lot to become a photographer.
What should we expect to see in the future?
I am just working on the shoot with Adriana Lima for GQ. We will see…