Sensibility, love, compassion: Life of a 20-year-old girl with Down Syndrome

Russian photographer Snezhana von Büdigen was announced one of the grand winners of 2018 Sente Antu International Photo contest for “Meeting Sofie” , which is a series of environmental portraits of Sofie, a 20 year-old girl with Down syndrome. The judges were deeply moved by the sensuality of the images.

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.

©Snezhana von Büdigen

GP: We learned that you keep exploring people and culture. To achieve that, did you travel to specific places?

My life has taken me from one place to another. I was born in Perm (Ural, Russia), then moved to Moscow where I spent several years, and finally relocated to Germany, where I have been living for 9 years. The experiences of living in different countries definitely realigns a person's identity. As a photographer, I am particularly fascinated by places rich in color. So is the small village where Sofie lives, which I find to be a very unique place. In the past, the whole village consisted of a monastery, and the high walls frame the image of this place.

©Snezhana von Büdigen

GP: How do you know about Sofie?

About two years ago I came into contact with children with Down syndrome through a photo project called “Mother”. I portrayed them together with their mothers in my photo studio in Cologne. Sofie and her mother also wanted to participate in the project, unfortunately they could not come to me to Cologne because of the distance. I was invited by them to visit them. That's how I met Sofie. Sofie fascinated me. When I first visited Sofie, I spent three days living with her. I was with Sofie around the clock, learned about her childhood, saw the farm where she grew up, and lived with her and her family. This allowed me to immerse myself in her world.

GP: Can you give us more details about Sofie's life? What did she bring to your mind concerning Life?

She helps Barbara in the household, she likes listening to music and painting.

I've learned so much from and about Sofie. But by 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.

©Snezhana von Büdigen

GP: Can tell us your shooting procedure? Like what is hard to shoot, what do you focus on, how to communicate with Sofie, etc.

I am really intuitive while shooting. I don't care if the image might be good or not. Because I shoot analog, I can't control the image on the back monitor. While studying photography in cologne, I just shot digital. My first analog photo was 2017 with a Hasselblad 500cm. It was a portrait of Sofie. Since then I never shot digital again and want to shoot analog as long as possible. Its a totally different working style shooting analog. I like it that I can't check the image for technical perfection or composition. This check/controlling would rip me out of the ”here and now”. To feel every second while shooting is what counts. I also like the analog photography as a handcraft. I like to get the films a few days back to sight them. I also like the dynamic-range of analog. Mostly I shoot medium format.

Sofie, like unfortunately many people with down syndrome can't speak well. But we don't care much about it when we have a shooting and spend time together. We understand us on an intuitive level.

GP: Please describe your series Meet Sofie with three words.

Sensibility, love, compassion

©Snezhana von Büdigen

GP: What do you want to say with you photos? How to achieve that?

I have a feeling that in society there is a slightly guarded attitude towards people with DS. I wanted this series to bring the nature of Sofie (a person with DS) closer to the viewer. To show that she can have the same feelings, the same longing for love and security, as every each of us.

I hope the audience would find some pictures "relatable" and even recognize oneself while looking on them. However, at the same time, I wish that the viewers will reflect on Sofie's unique way of interacting with the world. In many situations Sofie is just like any other young woman. On the flip side, sometimes Sofie tends to see and comprehend things differently. Each of us experienced our first love and sorrow of separation at age 19 or earlier. The girls of this age are experiencing the transition to becoming a woman, a very complex part of their lives. Sofie is going through this stage, too. That's what some of the pictures in the series are about.

©Snezhana von Büdigen

©Snezhana von Büdigen

GP: What are the preparations that you do before starting a project?

First I do preliminary research into the topic, mostly through a lot of reading. When I reach the place of the project, I let the people and the environment affect me. It is extremely important to have your own view of the subject, the personality of the protagonists. Before I choose the light and photography equipment, I try to get to know my protagonist as much as possible, to feel the personality and spirit of that person.

©Snezhana von Büdigen

GP: What are your future plans?

The story of Sofie will go on. I will continue to take pictures and proceed to work on this series. Actually I am working on a book about Sofie.

©Snezhana von Büdigen

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