Storytellers: Lene Münch, Opening Doors to Secret Worlds

By Amy Touchette

 PRIVATE LIVES: As a student in Germany, Lene Münch obtained privileged access to photograph German fraternities, whose members seem to live by the rules of another era. “even though active members are young students, I’ve never met them in the street or at the university,” she says.

"It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument." —Eve Arnold

Lene Münch became a photographer before she had even made a photograph in earnest. Inspired by her own deep-seated curiosity to see and understand the world, she decided to apply to the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hanover, Germany, when—quite simply—she learned of its photojournalism program. Using her father’s camera, she made images of hunters, assembled them in a portfolio with some portraits and was accepted—proving late Magnum photographer Eve Arnold’s profound, surprisingly unobvious insight that it is the photographer’s unique drive that makes a photograph, not the camera.

“Looking back on it now, I don’t think it was very good work,” Münch confesses—likely what all of us would say about our first photographs. Even still, this intuitive, rather heroic personal leap marked the beginning of her life as a photographer and set the tone for how she would approach her photography thereafter: confronting challenges, staying open-minded and trusting her instincts.

Eager for an international setting while completing her bachelor of arts degree in Germany in 2011, Münch won a scholarship enabling her to apply to New York City’s International Center of Photography (ICP) one-year certificate program in photojournalism and documentary photography. “At ICP, there are three full-time programs,” she explains. “In total we are a hundred students, from 21 different countries, so you get a lot of new viewpoints on photography—in thinking about photography and in talking about photography.”

Not surprisingly, given her ambition and self-confidence, all of Münch’s plans to relocate to New York quickly began to take shape. In October 2011 she was one of the hundred hand-picked students to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop (see Out of the Past), a four-day intensive held annually in upstate New York. “It was very intense,” says Münch. “Maybe you sleep four hours every night.” The rigorous schedule paid off for many reasons, one of which was an assignment Münch received from TV Guide magazine based on her series “The Secret World of Fraternities.”

This compelling body of work documents several of the thousand fraternities that currently exist in Germany, which are notorious in the media for being right-wing, racist, exclusive, anti-feminist clubs full of alcoholics. Part of Münch’s interest in photographing this population was to find out firsthand whether this representation was indeed true. As she discovered, the media were both right and wrong: “They try to put all of them in the same box, and I found you can’t do that.”

Part of her attraction to this story was that fraternity members seem to be from a different time—singing ancient songs, wearing clothing customary of a century ago, and tipping their cap in the presence of women. They also fence, oftentimes with only their eyes and nose protected from the sharp blade. Resulting facial scars are worn with pride—a show of weathering difficulties—and rumor has it that scars are made more prominent by rubbing salt on them. Another custom is to hold drinking contests. “They do this for fun but also to learn how to stay in control,” says Münch. “It’s kind of a test.”

Her interest in photography is to give viewers access, to show “closed worlds not open to everybody—to open a door and look into these secret places.” Obtaining access is therefore one of her biggest challenges, but Münch finds if you are truly driven, you find a way to get in.

Since her next project is still in planning stages, Münch isn’t ready to reveal details yet. In the process, opening closed doors seems to be her main guide, with the photographs showing her the way. As for the future, she states, “I have goals, but I just let things come. I try to be open—I do everything on my own and learn by doing it,” revealing the same heroic attitude that started her on this inspiring path.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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