"There is no such thing as can`t"
In conversation with press photographer Christof Sage
If I was to name all the celebrities that Christof Sage has photographed it would probably take hours. Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Morgan Freeman, …. even Pope and Queen. And of course all the celebs in his home country Germany – Angela Merkel Thomas Gottschalk, Boris Becker,… Attached to the shoulder straps of his cameras are hundreds of admission wristbands of all the big events that he`s been to as a press photographer. For years Christof Sage was traveling for magazines in order to photograph the most famous people in this world. Now, he has published his own glossy magazine – “Sage”. We met up in his home in Stuttgart-Filderstadt.
Christof, there are so many wanting to be high-profile photographers. Yet, only few make it. Why did you make it to the top?
That has to grow. You start in your twenties by getting into events. After time, people see you more and more often, if you present yourself well in terms of looks and attitude. But that takes years. In the Seventies, I attended the most important events. Then you get booked. In the Eighties, I photographed international celebrities on the set of the famous TV-Show “Wetten, dass…”. I started from the bottom. Things didn`t come easy, I wasn`t left with an inheritance or anything, I have worked very hard and with great diligence to achieve this.
Would you have thought, when you were twenty years old, that you would be photographing people like Bill Clinton one day?
No, I only knew that I wanted to have a house and a Porsche when I`m 60. I advise young people: You need to have a goal in mind. Where do you want to be when you`re 60? You need to divide and plan your life – what do you do between the ages of 20 and 30, 30 and 40? Before starting an apprenticeship, ask yourself: Do you have fun doing what you do? It`s not about money, you need to have love. I really do enjoy working with people. I have been working in a hundred different countries. That`s not that easy to achieve as a photographer. It worked out because I have worked twice as much as others, 17 hours each day. It requires great diligence – but that all comes back to you.
Why did you choose people-photography as your thing? I mean you could have as well become, say, for example, a landscape photographer, couldn`t you?
I love people. The press likes to call me a celebrity photographer, but in fact, I`m a communication photographer, a people photographer – I photograph people. And communication is very important for my job: You have to do a warm-up with people. You can`t just place yourself in front of people`s faces – “Here we go!” But you need to make people loosen up. Only once you managed to do that, you can start taking photos. You should see me photographing abroad: I often don`t understand the language, but I joke, and they understand me at once.
You take pictures of people who don`t necessarily look like models, who need to look as good as possible on photos though – after all, they`re in the public eye. Are you retouching a lot?
I don`t have time for retouching. I`ve got jobs that are demanding 400 portraits in one day – from morning to late in the evening. You`ve got 30 to 60 seconds for each person, you can exchange a few words only. I give directions, make chit-chat, say „Stand like this or like that” – then, boom – photo. That`s a different way of photographing than it`s commonly known. That is fun, but only very few photographers have that skill. That`s what I`m getting booked for. People know: When Sage is in the house, everything runs like clockwork.
Sounds great – but as well like a lot of pressure…
Well, I need to be quick. The camera is pre-set – I don`t have time to configure settings when I`m shooting. The camera has to run in burst mode. The photographer Helmut Newton once asked me at an event: “Why do you use flash? You don`t need to – look, I photograph using only ambient light.” But he was no contract photographer. He was there for fun, not to deliver contract work. My work is about being fast. When I`m at a horse race I have to photograph 200 couples, approach everyone, observe who belongs to whom, when is which person at which table. Then you need to act fast, everything has to be done chop chop. That`s a completely different way of working. I do enjoy photographing these kinds of events – I`m in full action and completely in my element.
Do you have a career highlight, maybe a photograph, that you love the most?
I don`t have that. Every photo is important to me. I have attended great events and am very grateful for that. If I set myself a goal I make it happen. There`s no such thing as can`t. Sometimes it needs three or four attempts. It has taken me years to get to know the right people to get accreditation for events like the Golden Globes. But that`s what makes it exciting. If you really want to achieve something, then you will succeed. But you won`t if you just try half-heartedly – then you`ll never make it. One has to be born to work independently, it`s not everybody’s cup of tea.
Your career started with film photography. How did you perceive the switch to digital?
Digital cameras have changed my work for the better. First, we refused to make the change, but only half a year in we bought the first digital camera for about 16000 Euro. You can now take better pictures with a smartphone than with that camera. When on delegation trips with the former chancellor Helmut Kohl and fellow politician Erwin Teufel the German press agency dpa wanted photos of every day. I had to transport camera films accompanied by escort vehicles. And while doing that I was missing on site. With digital everything was so much quicker and less complicated.
That`s quite a sign of trust that people like the former chancellor would take you on their state visits...
It`s been written about me: „Discretion is his life insurance“. When traveling with famous people you hear and see a lot of confidential things. Until this day I have been keeping my word of honor. Whatever private matters I would see or hear, I would never make them public. Only few are able to keep that word – there are people selling secrets and photos that aren`t meant for the public eye for 50 Euro.
And now there`s another milestone in your career: You`ve just published your very own magazine “Sage”!
You need to come up with new things all the time. Ask yourself: Where are my strengths? And then work on them further. Have new ideas. Where can I place my work on the market? Because of COVID, all events are being canceled for more than a year now, everything takes place online, so press photographers have nothing to photograph. Therefore I thought: If I can`t photograph, I have other people photograph for me and publish my own magazine “Sage”. Just lounging around or tidying my office all day isn`t for me. The magazine is a success – almost all copies have sold and I have to print more now.