INSIDE HAMBURG’S GLORIOUS, SLEAZY DIVE BARS

Over four years Henrik Malmström photographed Hamburg’s dive bars, most of which happened to be in the same block where he lived.

With a candid flash, he throws light on the bars’ colourful down-and-out characters, who appear like the cast of a tawdry 70s film by New German Cinema maestro Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Some look sad and lonely; some look like they’re about to pass out; others just look like they’re having a hell of a time. But Malmström didn’t know these people, and taking photographs of them – especially in the state they were in – wasn’t as easy as simply thrusting his camera in their faces and blinding them with his flash. He had to earn their trust, and to do this he had his methods.

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

Malmström’s project – which is collected in the photo-book, Life Is One Live It Well– was inspired by the process of gentrification occurring in Hamburg: he wanted to capture the city’s traditional bars that were – and still are – fading away. I called the photographer to get his thoughts on how the city has changed over the past few years. We talked about the mixed and diverse area next to the railway station where he worked, how he entered the bars as an outsider, and what his methods were for earning the trust of the people he photographed. 

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

Hi Henrik. Whereabouts in Hamburg did you shoot your photos and what is the district like?
Henrik Malmstr
öm: The area is called St. Georg. It’s right next to the main railway station. It used to be a much rougher neighbourhood – in German terms, with prostitution, addicts, alcoholics. I’d say it’s a very mixed and diverse area.

How many bars in Hamburg did you visit? 
In the book the photos are from twelve different bars. All the bars were basically in the same block I lived in. They were and are all around the Hansaplatz [a central location in the district of St. Georg]. 

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTROM

We see all sorts of characters in the bars – some sad, some joyful. How would you describe the characters you discovered? 
I would describe them as normal, good people, who either from choice, accident or force, chose a different path in life. 

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

And were they happy to be photographed?
In the beginning, not at all. But people started getting used to me being there. People were different too. Some liked it and some didn’t. It also depended on how drunk the people were.

"DEPRESSING? I FIND SHOPPING MALLS DEPRESSING. THE BARS ARE INTERESTING."

Did you have any methods for earning their trust?
Living in the neighbourhood and visiting the bars regularly for four years already earned me some trust. I also got permission to photograph from the owners of some of the bars, so that helped too. I would also bring them photos – which they had asked for – and they would hang them on the wall. That definitely helps in earning trust.

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

Did you feel like an outsider in these bars or were you part of the action?
As a non-German [Malmström is Finnish] I was automatically an outsider. In the beginning I didn’t speak so much German either. So that didn’t help. But yes, I was an outsider and didn’t take part in much of the life in the bars. I would get home from my work and take a quick round and photograph in the bars. Or spend evenings watching some football, having some beers and taking photos. One Christmas I stayed with my girlfriend in town just so I could photograph the bars during the holidays. So, of course, in a way, I took part.

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

The bars in the photos have been described as depressing. Would you agree with that?
I think it’s all relative. I find shopping malls depressing, for example, but there are people who like them. I would say the bars are interesting.

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

You photographed the area for four years. How has it changed?
The big changes I noticed were that there was less and less street prostitution. Also some bars I photographed closed during the time I lived there. They tried to clean up the main square too, from all the bums hanging around. But as it’s so close to the main station that there will always be a transit of a mixed variety of people.

IMAGE COURTESY HENRIK MALMSTRÖM

What effect is gentrification having on bars like these in the city? 
That’s how the project started. I wanted to photograph all the old traditional bars in Hamburg that were apparently fading away. Then I just focused on the area where I lived, to make things easier. I guess it’s just that people don’t have any interest in these types of bars anymore; they maybe belong to another era. Things change anyway. But apparently I heard in Berlin young people are taking over these kind of bars, keeping them original and making them popular again.