north of neutral dialog

September 6, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Ralf Schmerberg, Artist, Berlin

September 2006, Berlin: Bebelplatz 9. Around the largest round table in the world, 112 intellectuals, artists and human rights activists gather for a day to share their thoughts on 100 thought provoking questions. This ‘Table of Free Voices’ seated luminaries such as US actor Willem Dafoe, star of Mississippi Burning and The English Patient; Nicaraguan human rights advocate Bianca Jagger; German entrepreneur Roland Berger, founder of the successful strategy consulting firm that carries his name; Kenyan sports’ icon Tegla Loroupe, world record holder for 20, 25 and 30 kilometers; and India’s grassroots activist against child labor, Kailash Satyarthi, survivor of numerous attacks on his life for defending his cause.

Questions covered a wide range of topics and came from people like you and I from across the globe. Here’s a sample of the questions asked: What is today’s most important unreported story? Do I really think myself or am I just influenced by all the things I have learned and see? And If we produce enough food to feed everyone in the world, why don’t we? They were subsequently listed on the website and were captured in ‘Problema’, a dramatic visualization of the event with a mix of documentary and photo story line.

Behind this event was one man, Ralf Schmerberg, who brings his creative talent to social discourse. Schmerberg and I sat down in New York’s Highline Park to talk about his journey from butcher apprentice to Cannes Festival awards as an international artist, filmmaker and producer.

Professional context

The autodidact Schmerberg has been working since 1987 as a photographer, and got into film in the mid 90s when he founded Trigger Happy Productions, a multifaceted production company. Schmerberg has produced ad campaigns for clients such as American Express, Hewlett Packard, Lufthansa, LEVI’S, Nike and the city of Paris, as well as two anti-Aids campaigns for the United Nations Foundation. One of the most sought after directors in the German music business, he produced music videos for leading German rock bands ‘Die Fantastischen Vier’, ‘Die Toten Hosen’ and for Chaka Khan.

His work is part of the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, and he has received numerous accolades and awards around the globe, including the “The Polaroid Final Award” and the “Gold Medal for Humanity” for his documentary “Hommage a Noir” at the New York Film Festival. He has been nominated for the “Unesco Award”, and his commercial “Bottled courage” for Nike was nominated for Hollywood’s 2009 Emmy Awards. Member of the exclusive Directors Guild of America as well as the Art Directors Club Germany, he also won several Lions in Cannes and has received the prestigious Lead Award.

From the day I went away, I am going home

Schmerberg was raised in Germany as the middle child of a ‘typical’ post second war family, his father a salesman for automotive supplier Bosch, and mother a homemaker who attended to home and family. “I have always been very outgoing and independent,” Schmerberg smiles, “even when I was in elementary school I would ring the door bell of our neighbor in the morning and might say something like ‘Frau Krötz, I am going to school now’.”

Much to the chagrin of his conservative father, Schmerberg in his early teens began identifying with left wing politics and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. He stopped after middle school, deeply disliking the German school system that “forces everyone to follow a rigid curriculum, regardless of their particular talents and passions.” This resulted in further friction at home. Schmerberg was developing a concept of autonomy. His desire to be independent with his choices could be aligned with psychologist Jack Brehm’s ‘reactance theory’ which shows that whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us want them significantly more than before.

Conversations which he had about ‘the world’ with the butcher in his local village (of less than 10,000 people) just outside of Stuttgart, intrigued him as it was the first time that a ‘father figure’ had approached him as an equal, and engaged him in discussions around the meaning of life. As a result, and partly to spite his father, Schmerberg – at the age of 16 – started an apprenticeship as a butcher.

It is hard to imagine, as Ralf Schmerberg sits in front of me, with his tall and lean frame, and long slender fingers, that he would even possess the strength and, moreover, some of the mental ‘brutality’, that comes with preparing animals for consumption: “It took me a while to admit to myself how miserable I was in this environment. A cultural value that was deeply engrained in me was that ‘you don’t quit something you have started’ though. So for about a year-and-a-half I dragged myself to this place. And one morning, the sun was shining through the windows, I could see the bright blue summer sky from inside the butchery, I threw up my hands in the air, looked at my colleagues that were at their cutting stations and started running out the door shouting ‘ I am leaving, and you can all go to hell!’ I ran faster and faster, it felt like I was running for my life, my own life.” Much like Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous tune ‘From the day I went away, I am going home’, Schmerberg sensed that his true journey was about to begin…


It was in the search of a home that he left, at the age of 16, to join the highly controversial Baghwan Shree Rajneesh spiritual community, first in India and later in Oregon. The Ashram in Poona was, by all accounts, a different world from that which Schmerberg was used to: intense, emotionally charged, and highly experimental. Days started out with meditative practices and continued with therapy groups, some of them involving physical aggression and sexual encounters between participants.

Schmerberg describes his time with the movement as an “intense time of learning and search of self”. Much like the movement’s founder Baghwan, an educated and intelligent man, Schmerberg struggled to subscribe to external discipline, convention and system. It is no surprise that, despite the controversies that surrounded the movement, he was touched by some of the key messages of the community. Baghwan’s teachings emphasized the importance of awareness, love, courage and creativity, qualities he saw as being negated by society and its norms. He delivered his message with a rhetoric that Schmerberg found inspiring, as it was so different from that of his own father – this iteration of a father figure used humor to communicate and never ‘discipled’ his followers.

Five years after joining the community, Schmerberg recalls doing farm work on the Oregon Ranch: “I was pulling carrots next to another member, and we were talking about life. At one point she asked me whether I thought I would be able to fend for myself and survive in the ‘world out there’. I did not have an answer. This really troubled me.”

The next morning Schmerberg left the ranch: “I cried in the bus as the landscape flew by, carrying me further and further away from what I had come to know as my home.” As he shares this with me, I can see him welling up.

I am a photographer

Back in his native Stuttgart, now 22 years of age, and Ralf Schmerberg was bartending in a club, uncertain about his future. “One night a group of photographers with models and make-up artists came in. We connected, and I ended up spending time with some of them. After a few weeks I grabbed my sister’s camera, asked two girls to pose as models, and we did some photo shoots out in the countryside. It was as if I had been struck by lightening. I was hooked, absolutely fascinated by how fast I could see the results of my work, how playful it was. The next day, I proclaimed I was a photographer.”

Schmerberg takes a camera out of his bag as he speaks, and shoots a butterfly in the high grass right behind the bench we are sitting on. “If someone would ask me ‘where will you learn to become a photographer’ I would respond that I am not learning to be a photographer, that I am a photographer.”

From self-belief to reality

Schmerberg claims that all of his work to date has been experimental, and he has gradually built on the experience he accumulated over the years. Schmerberg is an autodidact – he has never taken a course in photography or film, never read books about photography, nor does he know much about the different functions of the high end camera he is using other than a few buttons. His talent comes from his ‘eye’ – in fact, as he shares this he laughs: ”I have two differently colored eyes that also perceive different angles of what is around me.” Schmerberg’s work has an acute sense for beauty and of creatively translating words and meaning into images.

Working long hours and experimenting with his camera, his work soon received recognition, and he was hired to shoot ads for well-known brands such as Kodak.

Two years after the landmark initial first photo shoot he received his first two awards from the Art Director’s Club of Germany.

Schmerberg’s early work was characterized by constructing the image: “It really was a kick for me to create my own world. I could tell the models to tilt their head a certain way, to bend their body at a specific angle, it was the first time I experienced the rush of power.” It was four years later, as Schmerberg reviewed his portfolio one evening, that he got a sense that he may have “abused his power of holding the camera”. Appalled, he decided to no longer photograph humans, but to focus on still life. “I was focusing exclusively on objects, be it lanterns or cars. One day I found myself on a random walk and wanted to take a photo of a plant standing on a trash bin. However, it felt like it was not quite right and I started moving the trash bin. The bin was too heavy, so I ended up taking a photo without moving it. And what was interesting: the result was just as good. It was not necessary to move or change anything. This was the moment when I decided I would take photos of whatever I found interesting, be it humans, animals or objects. The key was not to change or influence the visual, but to simply capture it.”

What evolved was Schmerberg’s signature style of bringing ‘real people’ into advertising, portraying life as it happened in front of his lens for fashion houses such as Joop. “I work to make things visible, touchable and aim to get to my audience’s head and heart. I think it is important to leave the human aspect in advertising and communication and not to artificially change or distort it.”

A vote of confidence

Schmerberg was becoming a sought after commercial photographer. In the mid nineties, barely 30, he was hired for a photo shoot for Mustang Jeans: “The company rep asked if, while on the road, I could take along a camera and film a few scenes. Even after I told him that I had never done this before and didn’t know if I could do it, he insisted and told me that he thought I could do it.”

This vote of confidence puzzles Ralf Schmerberg to this day: it was the unfamiliar situation of someone of authority believing in him and his ability to conquer the unknown. In his past, it seems, he often had to overcome the objection of others to believe in his convictions. He was familiar with their doubt – be it succeeding outside of his father’s social milieu, be it surviving in a world without the support of the Baghwan community, or be it creating a profession without any formal training in a society that was all about formal education and degrees. It had been that very doubt that further spurred his motivation to push forward.

In the psychology of motivational coaching, if a client is not moving forward towards an aspirational goal, despite a judicious mix of challenge and support on the part of the coach, one of the tactics left is that the coach slips into the role of the client: of not believing that progress is feasible. Often what happens is pushback on the part of the client. Much like passing the baton in sport: the need to belief in oneself is passed on to the client, the coach is off the ‘hook’ as a motivator, and the client frequently finds the motivation in him or herself.

A balancing act

Over the years, Schmerberg has mastered the art of aligning his need to make a living with his desire to be a catalyst for change. Given his status in the advertising world, producing a couple of ad campaigns is pretty lucrative. Rather than focusing on generating more income, however, Schmerberg devotes the remainder of the year to projects close to his mind and heart. Most of these he finances out of his own pocket, to keep his independence and the ability to craft the message that he wishes to communicate.

In 2003, he filmed and financed the 1.5 million Euro production ‘Poem’, a visualization of 19 poems by the likes of Goethe, Paul Celan and Heiner Mueller. In 2007 he filmed and financed the documentary ‘Trouble – Teatime In Heiligendamm’ about the resistance against the G-8 meeting in Germany. In 2011 he released ‘Problema’ which captures the highlights of the ‘Table of Free Voices’, where 58 nations gathered in their efforts to answer some of the most burning questions on social topics, the environment, peace, health and well-being. Again, he financed this million-Euro documentary out of his own pocket: “It was important to have total freedom when it came to putting this film together. I did not want to follow anybody’s agenda.”

Not surprisingly, critics have suggested that it is “not that difficult for a privileged producer who collects close to half a million Euros for a couple of advertising gigs to finance large scale projects out of pocket.” In fact, some have accused Schmerberg of being a narcissistic hypocrite who, on the one hand, works for organizations that through their very existence contribute to societal problems, and on the other hand uses that income to protest against social injustice. Their assumption is that his motive isn’t a noble one, but rather about developing his own status and his personal fame.

Then there are voices openly admiring Schmerberg as a man who follows his passion. In our work with clients who aspire to live an authentic life, we have often found them (understandably) struggling with the risk that comes with trailblazing one’s own path. The fear of compromising their standard of living, of stepping out of their comfort zone (and what is more: their innate fear of failure) often stands in the way. In addition to doing one’s own due diligence as to what is personally possible, it is key to look at others and see what we can learn and adopt from their life lessons. Schmerberg’s biography offers a few:

Awareness: Early on Schmerberg was focused on creating a life that felt authentic and real, in spite of resistance within his environment. He experimented, sought insights about who he was (and who he was not) and followed a number of leads, and he remained open to opportunities. Even in his career as a photographer he didn’t stop paying attention to how he was evolving and when course corrections were necessary.

Commitment: Once he had clarity as to his professional calling, Schmerberg was determined to make it reality. At the start of his career as a photographer, he decided to forgo monetary comfort to live his passion: “I waited tables and did whatever else came along to make money. I knew I wanted to be a photographer and was determined to live that dream.” As we all do, Schmerberg did have options: he could have apprenticed in a more ‘solid career’ in banking or insurance, for instance, but he chose not to.

Tolerance of uncertainty: Over the years, his films have been controversial and the possibility that his socially critical stance might upset his advertising clients is a real one. Schmerberg operates in a highly competitive industry and new talent rises daily. There is no ‘guarantee’ that he will find another gig, as his popularity might change. His ease of accepting the opaqueness of what may be next can, in part, be attributed to his notorious reluctance to plan far ahead. But there’s no doubt that part of this can also be attributed to his willingness to take the risks which enable him to live the life that he wants to.

Personal sacrifice: Producing his films not only consumes his time and financial resources but Schmerberg is also ready to lower his standard of living to live his convictions. When he decided to produce ‘Problema’, he moved to a smaller place, refrained from expensive travel, and decided not to buy anything new. In fact, as he is on tour for promoting ‘Problema’ when we meet up for our interview, I noticed as we stroll through New York’s Meatpacking district that his shirt is torn and that he is wearing no socks – which turns out not to be a fashion statement, but the result that for about two years he did not buy any new clothes.

That is not to say that Schmerberg is reckless. He maintains a reasonable level of personal comfort. What is more, he is the devoted and responsible father of four, planning for the future of his offspring: “I could be run over by a bus tomorrow, so while I do not think they need privileges, I am concerned with and plan for their financial security.”

It’s a process: Schmerberg did not start out as the social change agent that he has become. Early in his career much of Schmerberg’s focus had been on self-realization through his work as a photographer. His passion for and dedication to his profession combined with his talent has over the years resulted in an increasing reputation and success in his industry. Over the years he also evolved as a photographer, and has added new skills and competencies as an artist and filmmaker to his repertoire.

Despite his relatively young age (46), Schmerberg’s professional focus seems to have moved on to creating something ‘larger than the self’ with his increasingly big scale and global projects. Not one to prioritize profits over conviction, however, he offers his work as free downloads to maximize impact: “I’ve spent the last two years in the edit room making it. All together it took me eight crazy and exciting years. The whole project was based on giving, learning and questioning. We decided to release the film for free to the world because we think it’s too precious to pay for.”

The importance of closing doors

Part of his success is also based on Schmerberg’s uncanny ability to forgo opportunities and to leave behind options quickly once he realizes that they are not (or are no longer) part of his authentic path. Be it quitting school, leaving Baghwan, committing to the career as a photographer, or deciding what kinds of clients to categorically reject, he is not afraid to live up to what he believes is his path: “I refuse to take on any commercials that have to do with pharmaceuticals, insurance or banks. I have come to realize that advertising is more influential than religion.”

What we know from research when it comes to living a meaningful and fulfilling existence, a life that is characterized by playing to one’s strengths, it is no more about opening the right doors than it is about closing the wrong ones. And doing so consistently, ruthlessly, and without regret is a core characteristic of success stories.

‘Problema’, opportunities?

Schmerberg’s documentary Problema focuses on problems in the world and how we can find answers to them. An important step to creating awareness on social challenges and starting to develop solutions, no doubt.

However, an equally crucial element in finding solutions and creating a world that reduces suffering and offers well-being for life on earth would be to look at what is going ‘well’, and what we can learn from this to create a better world. This view is similar to the science of psychology, where in 1998 the newly elected president of the American Psychology Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, acknowledged that the discipline had been served well by focusing on what was wrong and how to fix problems, but charged that it would not be complete without looking at the other side of the coin – that it was now time to learn from people who were thriving within their lives. This started the increasingly powerful science movement of positive psychology that has since produced significant insights on what practical interventions we can use in every day life and work to live a more fulfilled, happy and successful life.

And, looking at things from that perspective, Ralf Schmerberg would certainly have plenty to offer… a project for the future?

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