Growing up, Fred Stichnoth was always drawn to adventure movies set in tropical locations. “I love ancient themes, from Egypt to Indonesia. I’ve spent a long time travelling around the world, being drawn to what is considered taboo,” he says. So, it was a dream come true when he located from his native Germany to the Indonesian Island of Bali. From here he has been able to explore some of the remotest areas in the East Indies and the tribes that call these places home. A home that is fast disappearing, along with their customs, legends, ceremony and regalia.
The German-born master of images relinquished life as a celebrity and fashion photographer in the late nineties, where he was poised for popularity, in order to decamp to the East Indies and collect shells. It’s a move that has yielded a distinctive body of work. Fred’s portraiture bears the hallmarks of his haute couture pedigree, applied to natural and exotic subjects.
Elusive, beautiful and hidden, Fred’s images from his East Indies Series are like birds of paradise. Catching sight of these rare creatures, documented in their natural habitat against neutral backdrops, they are fragile specimens to observe. They turn their heads and bodies away displaying bright plumage. Shy, even a little frightened, but allowing the viewer to admire their exotic beauty. “Indeed, if you get too close though, it feels like they might fly away at any moment,” Fred agrees, explaining that it can take over eight weeks to prepare a shoot, earning the trust of tribes, understanding their customs and sourcing the correct motifs, sometimes creating headdresses himself guided by the keepers of tradition in each remote village he visits.
Dancer, New Guinea, 2017
The results are stunning. “The idea was to create a special sound,” explains Fred. “The attitude and positioning of the female subjects was very important. East Indies women are shy and tend to hide, they don’t look at you.” Shot on location using natural light, Fred employs classic techniques to create a study of his female subjects without the resulting picture feeling invasive. “Around 1860 photographers began using things like a simple bed sheet to create a neutral background. I followed this old idea so as not to disturb or detract from the main focus of the image,” he explains. What is achieved is a portrait of a woman that is at once delicate yet strong, vulnerable yet mighty. Pops of colour delivered through the use of the foliage featured are a counterpoint to the largely neutral palette. But it is a reverence for the colour of skin that is striking.
“Around 1860 photographers began using things like a simple bed sheet to create a neutral background. I followed this old idea so as not to disturb or detract from the main focus of the image.” ~ Fred Stichnoth
Young Woman With Hornbill Headdress, Papua New Guinea, 2016
“I wanted to inspire people with these pictures. Show them something beautiful of a fast disappearing world,” muses Stichnoth. “What does progress mean for indigenous people? We bring them diseases, prohibit their faith, we give them underwear, subdue them, steal their land and natural resources, destroy ancient cultures and habitats in the shortest possible time. I am entering a world that is getting lost more and more every day. I just want us to remember them before it is all gone.”
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The Photography of Fred Stichnoth - Elusive, Beautiful and Hidden