Twelve seconds. Thirty-six shots. One unforgettable story.
This is something German artist Volker Gerling has managed to accomplish time and time again with his photo-journey-turned-theatre-performance, Portraits in Motion. A well-orchestrated piece of theatre has the ability speak to anyone on this planet, and this particular show transcends cultures to become just as appealing to an audience in Toronto as it is for an audience in Germany.
Gerling’s journey started in his hometown of Berlin, where he began by taking photos of real moments and real people, turning them into flipbooks. He then took his flipbooks and began walking around Berlin, showing them off and telling stories of his subjects to whoever would listen.
Gerling said by using his old school film-fed SLR camera, he would ask a person if he could get a picture of them, but instead of taking a single frame he would fire off his entire reel of film and take 36 shots of the person within 12 seconds, capturing a true and honest moment of the person’s life.
“When I was a film student at the Film Academy near Berlin, I realized that photographic flipbooks were a terrific medium to take moving portraits of people,” explains Gerling. “The next step was for me to see if I could make some money with my flipbooks, so I took my picture tray and turned it into a hawker’s tray, and I went into the streets of Berlin to show people my flipbook exhibition.”
Throughout his journey, Gerling’s only source of income was his hawker’s tray. Small donations from audience members were put into a small honey jar labelled “exit fee.”
His flipbooks proved to be much more popular than he had anticipated, and soon his journey grew to a 3,500 kilometre walk around Germany, sharing stories, and creating new ones as he went.
“I realized that I could live just from showing this exhibition.” Gerling said. “But I soon realized that I was only going to places where I knew there would be people who were interested in this kind of thing. So at one point I asked myself if I could live in a place away from these people and I set out to see if that would work. I left Berlin and went from village to village and town to town.”
Earning a living wasn’t Gerling’s only inspiration. It was also a chance for him to improve on his already impressive collection.
“I realized that I should wait for the people that find me, and wait for stories that find me,” Gerling said. “It’s much better to wait and to be open-minded, curious, and to walk. I have a sign on my hawker’s tray that says ‘please come visit my exhibition’ so there’s an invitation for all those people who are open-minded as well.”
Gerling explained that he cannot force a flipbook to be created, and he has to wait for the moment to present itself through a person he has spent time with, and forged a unique and intimate bond with.
“On average, I would photograph a flipbook situation maybe about once per week. It’s really a rare situation for me to create a flipbook, and when I say that’s the average sometimes I would go one or two weeks without making any, and then make, say, two flipbooks in one week,” Gerling said.
Gerling has encountered several people over his journeys and has created many flipbooks, but there is one story that really stands out to him, as proof that this creation was what he was meant to do.
“At the beginning of my first walk, which was in Berlin, I was walking past a house and a garden, when I heard a voice that asked me what I was doing. It was an old man, who asked me that, and we began talking, and very soon he asked me into his house, where he showed me his bed where his wife had died a few months before. That was of course a very touching moment,” he said.
“When I would walk, I would meet people I would otherwise never encounter in my life. It was a fantastic way to travel the country and a fantastic way learn something about people, and a fantastic way to learn something about me and my life.”
Portraits In Motion has already begun making waves with an award-winning show at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Now Canada can get a taste of this distinctive piece of theatre, as it becomes a part of Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage 2016. The show will be on stage from April 13 -16.