Mystery, Dignity and Grace


An interview with Snezhana von Büdingen

“Sofie brings with her the mysterious, the ponderous, the dignity, and the melancholy of heroes in the classical paintings of the old masters. I couldn’t have photographed her any differently.”

Snezhana von Büdingen won our ‘YOUTHHOOD’ theme with an exquisite, poetic portrait. Our judge, Wilfrid Estève of Studio Hans Lucas, described it as “a moment of sincerity and pleasure in a life that we imagine to be complicated”, praising the sensuality of the image and likening it to a Fernando Botero painting.

We posed some questions to Snezhana, keen to understand more about her images, her working practice, and of course her muse for the series, Sofie.

Hi Snezhana. Firstly, congratulations on winning the theme. How do you resonate with Wilfrid’s comments?

Thank you very much to Wilfrid for this honor – he captured the aesthetic and meaning of the photo very well. The joy in being one with nature, full of grace and happy. That’s how I saw Sofie when I took the photo.

The image is from the series ‘Meeting Sofie’. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of this work? How did you come to meet Sofie, and were her and her family immediately receptive to you documenting them?

About two years ago I came into contact with children with Down syndrome through a project. I photographed them with their mothers at my studio in Köln. Thanks to this project I met Sofie. She fascinated me. When I first visited Sofie, I spent three days living with her. I was with Sofie around the clock, learning about her childhood, seeing the farm where she grew up, and lived with her and her family. This allowed me to immerse myself in her world. The family received me very warmly. And we remain in contact.

Snezhana’s winning ‘YOUTHHOOD’ image, from her series Meeting Sofie

Tell us about your working process. I, like Wilfrid, am struck by the painterly qualities of the work – you draw on classic visual cues such as soft light, rich fabrics and flowers, and there’s a formality to the scene-setting, even in the more impromptu moments. Were there inspirations clear in your mind at the outset, or was it more of a response to the environment and the moment?

Deciding on certain photographic means of expression, whether it be light, composition, or color, is something intuitive for me. Those elements should give a certain aura to what one sees in the photo, and convey a certain feeling. Sofie’s father is an antiques dealer and they live on a very old farm. None of the photos were staged as far as location is concerned. Sofie grew up in this atmosphere. She has internalized it and lives it. Sofie brings with her the mysterious, the ponderous, the dignity, and the melancholy of heroes in the classical paintings of the old masters. I couldn’t have photographed this series about Sofie any differently.

Wilfrid mentions a “life we imagine to be complicated”, and he is no doubt correct. But there seems to be a happiness in simplicity too, something idyllic maybe. What have you learnt about life for Sofie, and what can we learn from her?

I’ve learned so much from and about Sofie. But on every visit I learn something more. She feels the same things as we do, but sometimes more intensely I find. I’ve seen her happy as well as terribly sad. She finds joy in simple things and is free from social pressure. She doesn’t think at all about what others think of her. So, social acceptance plays a small role. In that she’s freer than we are. What the people to whom she is close and loves feel is important to her. Also how they relate to her. She is also able to delve into herself and separate herself from the day-to-day. These are all things we can learn from her.

Since finishing the series, it seems like Sofie’s story is starting to travel the world – one of her portraits was a finalist in the 2018 LensCulture Portrait Awards, and now this. How has Sofie reacted to this news? Have you let her know about Life Framer?

Of course! I always keep Sofie and her mother up-to-date on the success of the series. We’re very happy that the series is reaching more and more people. This would hardly be possible without Life Framer, LensCulture and other important photographic media.

Contact with people with Down syndrome makes many people feel embarrassed, but that’s maybe because they understand so little about Down syndrome. Series such as “Meeting Sofie” can help to slowly reduce this fear of contact.

‘Meeting Sofie’ is not the first time you have photographed youth – your series ‘Twins’ is a collection of portraits of young twin brothers and sisters. Is there something in particular about photographing young people that engages you? An innocence, or a pliability perhaps?

I like to photograph young people. Youth is the phase of life in which one’s personality develops, it’s a turning point for one’s life. Of course we change over time, some more and some less. But certain things that happen at this time remain in us. How do twins experience growing up? How different can the personalities of twins be? These questions inspired me while working on that series.

And what next for you Snezhana? Are you still working on your current series, or thinking about the next project?

Currently I’m working further on the “Meeting Sofie” project. There are still parts of her life and sides of her personality that I would like to share. My hope is to publish the series as a photobook.

All images © Snezhana von Büdingen

Follow her on Instagram: @snezhana_von_buedingen and see more at

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