Theory & Practice

Nanna Heitmann: “I Think Failing is an Important Part of any Process”

Nanna Heitmann shares her approach to teaching, the lessons she learned in practice and education, and reveals the mentors who helped her grow as a photographer.

Nanna Heitmann

Nanna Heitmann Tuva, Russia. 2018. “Конь степной бежит устало, пена каплет с конских губ. Гость ночной тебя не стало, вдруг исчез ты на бегу.” “Horse of the steppe runs tired, froth drips down the equine (...)

Nanna Heitmann is currently engaged in teaching students on a course run in partnership between Magnum Photos and Speos in Paris. The Creative Documentary & Photojournalism program is designed for students who wish to pursue a career in documentary photography and/or photojournalism, in the Magnum Photos tradition of visual storytelling.

The course is currently accepting applications for the 2022/23 cohort. More information can be found here. 

How do you approach teaching? What ways do you try to connect with the students?

I’m still an enrolled student myself! I got a little sidetracked by photography. Since my student days are not too long ago, I try to pass on what helped me the most when developing projects, my own visual language, and establishing myself as a working photographer.

I think we all encounter the same issues, we all have the same problems: Procrastination, self-doubt, and overthinking. Sometimes we just need a little push to overcome our fears and go out shooting. As Susan Meiselas told me once: “It’s always more comfortable to be in your cozy home with your friends and close ones but sometimes you just need to venture out to pursue the work that is important to you.” When teaching, finding out what someone is really passionate about and interested in is key. Then, together, trying to develop and pursue the idea and photographic approach.

Nanna Heitmann Nobel Laureate Dmitry Muratov at his office at Novaya Gazeta.. Moscow, Russia. November 2021. © Nanna Heitmann | Magnum Photos for Nobel Peace Center © Nanna Heitmann | Magnum Photos

What are the key things, in your opinion, that a photographer looking to improve should focus their efforts on?

I think the most important thing is for people to go out and see and capture the world with your own eyes. Spending time to discover and research stories about places and people that they think the world should care about. It can be any story as long as it is important to the person telling the story.  Only if you are truly committed to a topic will you have the energy to pursue it 100% and return to the place again and again.

Who in your career has taught you your most important learnings? What did they teach you?

I studied photojournalism and documentary photography in Hanover and at the Faculty of Journalism in Tomsk, Siberia. I don’t think academic studying is essential, but for me, it was the perfect environment to invest all my time in photography and be surrounded by great people who share the same passion.

My professor, Rolf Nobel, helped me to understand the basics of photojournalism and storytelling. Rolf is a brutally honest and direct teacher. This can sometimes hurt but I found it often more helpful than someone being afraid of sharing their real thoughts.

Mads Nissen has influenced me a lot. As a human, and causing me to look at photography more from an emotional, poetic angle – trying to convey inner feelings. With little pieces of advice, he has helped me to follow a project over a longer period of time. “Accept that you can’t tell anything – but you have this one feeling that you’re chasing. What is it? That is the question you have to ask yourself day and night.“ I think his advice was crucial when photographing my work Hiding from Baba Yaga. I found photographing a river that doesn’t have a necessary storyline as apparent than more journalistic projects. 

On a more practical level, Dominic Nahr spent time honestly explaining to me how the photography market actually works. Without Dominic, I would have never understood the importance of grants, awards, etc.

Lastly,  being a Magnum nominee has been probably the biggest push and motivation to just go out and work. The more you photograph the more you grow and have this community of amazing photographers you can always reach out to.

Nanna Heitmann. A small ferry boat is the only connection to the village of Old Believers, Erzhey. The Old Believers turned against the reforms of the Patriarch Nikon, who reformed from 1652 texts (...)

"I think failing is an important part of any process. You learn so much from getting things wrong as well as right. "

Nanna Heitmann The ruins of Al-Tahira church, destroyed during the conflict. In 2017, UNESCO implemented a programme to reconstruct the cultural heritage of the city. Mosul, Iraq. 14 September 2021. © Nanna Heitmann | Magnum Photos

What is the hardest lesson you have learned in your photographic career?

You work pretty hard and sometimes you invest a lot of time in a project before realizing it doesn’t feel right or I’m not totally emotionally dedicated to that work. I think failing is an important part of any process. You learn so much from getting things wrong as well as right. 

Being a freelance photographer means a lot of work, juggling so many things and often feeling overwhelmed. I would never have thought before that I would need to spend so much time in front of my computer rather than actually being out in the field.

How does teaching help you as a photographer? What do you learn from the students?

Being engaged in their projects and brainstorming together with the students triggers my own creativity and even if it’s not me photographing, I become excited just seeing a project evolving. This makes me motivated to pursue my own projects.

Nanna Heitmann Dragon flies catching mosquitos while local volunteer firefighters are filling up the water truck at a pond before driving to a recently-discovered forest fire.. Bulgunnyakhtakh, Yakutia, Russia. J (...)
Nanna Heitmann A traditional horse race in the steppe. Yenisei River, Kyzyl. Russia. 2018. From the series, “Hiding from Baba Yaga.” “From time immemorial people have sought protection and freedom on the banks o (...)
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