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Daniel Sannwald
Dazed's December 2008 IssuePhotography by Daniel Sannwald, Make-up by Ayami Nishimura

Daniel Sannwald once photographed Rihanna in a bathtub full of slime

TextAlex Peters

Daniel Sannwald: “I like to find beauty in errors”

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

Daniel Sannwald’s photographs exist in a world slightly more fantastical than this one, where the line between reality and fantasy, between art and fashion is blurred. Inspired by sci-fi and the magical, Sannwald’s work explores hyperreal and hallucinatory places producing truly original and eye-catching images full of vibrant colour and unusual textures and glitches. “I like to combine and play with forms, colours and shapes in a way that they communicate with me,” Sannwald says. “I like to find beauty in errors and failures too. I like to create beauty with contradictions.”

Currently based in London, the German photographer grew up in Munich and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium before living for a short time in Bangkok and Yogyakarta where he was an artist in residency with the political group MES 56. “All these places, the melange of cultures have shaped me and my work,” he says. It was Sannwald’s time at the Royal Academy, a school well known for its prestigious fashion department, however, that opened his eyes to the creative possibilities of fashion and by his graduation he had already been commissioned by both Dazed and i-D.

Since then, Sannwald has shot everyone from Travis Scott and M.I.A to Pharrell Williams. Fresh off photographing Kylie Jenner for Dazed Beauty’s inaugural issue cover, we spoke to Sannwald about his creative process, shooting Rihanna is a bathtub full of slime, and how an old TV inspired his love of glitches.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity?
Daniel Sannwald: I grew up in a family who played live role-playing games and were very much into sci-fi and fantasy stories and movies. I loved anime and foreign films growing up. We had amazing independent cinemas in Munich.

Have you always been interested in imagery?
Daniel Sannwald: My father died when I was seven years old and I grew up being very close to my mother. When I was around 12 or 13 I found a box left behind by my late father. It was filled with artworks, a few airbrush paintings but mainly video and photography work. As I hardly had memories of my father, this box and its contents was a way to learn more about his mind. That day I understood the impact and power of imagery and a few years later I realised that I wanted to create images too.

What made you want to become a photographer? How did you actually get into it?
Daniel Sannwald: I studied visual arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium with a major in Photography and Video. After my classes in the academy, I started to build a lot of friendships and collaborated with the fashion students and slowly understood my interests. In the second year of my studies, I shared my portfolio with i-D and Dazed and got commissioned by both of them.

Tell us a bit about your creative process. From initial idea to final image.
Daniel Sannwald: I have a workspace in my flat for research and creative idea development, where I work with up to three assistants. It's a space where most of my pitches and ideas come together and take form. I get inspired by different things in life, it really depends on the project. Normally I spend more time in research, development and post than on set shooting. Depending on the project, different teams are called in to help me in post-production with CGI, the burning and bleaching of images, chemical emulsions, or hyper-real retouching.

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to “beauty”?
Daniel Sannwald: Of course, I like beauty. I am an artist, I love to combine and play with forms, colours and shapes in a way that they communicate with me. I like to find beauty in errors and failures too. I like to create beauty with contradictions such as hi-fi and lo-fi.

What do you think your work says about beauty?
Daniel Sannwald: My beauty work, in particular, is quite hyper real. I think the work of my late father had an impact on that. He used to do airbrush paintings of my mother or self-portraits where he’s sleeping with these super sleek airbrushed other women. It almost looked like people from another planet yet so familiar. I felt my father’s desire for these airbrushed ladies and I think my beauty work is inspired by that.

How would you describe your aesthetic?
Daniel Sannwald: In my work, I explore hyperrealism, hallucinatory and fantastical places. I am inspired by sci-fi and by the magical. I like to explore new ways to capture images using everything from flip phones to broken scanners to big cameras. I like mixing and combining textures. A friend of mine once said that in a very sensitive way I create fantasy postcards from everywhere. Greetings from the uncertain cosmos, from ancient Egypt, amethyst caverns or Krypton, amongst others.

There seems to be an emphasis on colour and unusual texture in your work, where does this interest come from?
Daniel Sannwald: I grew up appreciating new textures. When I was a teenager my family gave me an old TV to avoid me occupying the living room. The TV had a glitch from time to time which interrupted and distorted my cartoons and anime.  I had this bad printer when I went to the art academy and all my online research images had printed out in black and white with extreme pixelation... I think all these small things had a big impact on my work.

You’ve worked with a lot of notable people – Kelela, Travis Scott etc. What do you think your images say about each sitter?
Daniel Sannwald: If you work with a musician on an album artwork like M.I.A., Yves Tumour, Kelela it’s really the merging of two creatives — the artist’s world and then my artistic interpretation of that world.  It's a special feeling if you can be part of a musician’s visual journey. I feel I have more stories to tell about the shoots I’ve done with musicians than in my work with fashion. When I shot Rihanna a few years ago we rented the presidential suite in the hotel where she was staying and covered the bathroom and living room with litres of slime to bathe in. It ended in a fantastic slime party. All the music collaborations are like a diary filled with invisible stories and memories to me.

Can you tell us a bit about your shoot with Kylie for Dazed Beauty?
Daniel Sannwald: It was quite funny because I shot her boyfriend Travis two days prior. When Kylie arrived she mentioned that he’d showed her the images in bed on his phone and that he was very happy. It was so sweet. Kylie arrived early and was super professional and fun to work with. The shoot itself was rather quick and simple as most of the magic happened afterwards. Over the holidays my partner and I worked in Mexico with Lukas from BeautyGan in Berlin, creating collages of makeup images generated from algorithms to blend with the images I shot of Kylie.

How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out?
Daniel Sannwald: When I started social media wasn’t that big. I only used MySpace. With the growth of social media, everything became faster and faster. Deadlines and turnarounds are much quicker now. More content is needed, more and more images need to be produced. Clients don’t have more money so they need to divide their budgets tighter to fit all the content they need. But along with those challenges comes something I find beautiful. Everyone is more connected and intertwined.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Daniel Sannwald: Be passionate, work hard and build a network of other creatives who inspired you and you inspire.

What are you currently working on?
Daniel Sannwald: I just shot a perfume campaign with Isamaya Ffrench and I’m busy preparing a shoot in Shanghai. I like to balance my photography and video work with community work.

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