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Duran Levinson: "I'm inspired by the chaos and madness of Berlin"

By: Amanda Sandström Beijer

Photos: Duran Levinson

This photographer is driven by a ’loser’/ underdog attitude'. With an open heart he’s living for the experiences of life. Not giving a damn about photographing beautiful people and showing a side of the world that is only attainable for the young, rich and beautiful.

This is Duran Levinson's words, an unfiltered journey of how he became an artist who’s searching for the life he wants for himself, something that’s been ’nothing short of hell’, but with some pretty happy times in between.

From Cape Town to Berlin – how were your impressions of the city?

I was born in South-Africa and spent the first 18 years of my life in various parts of the country. As soon as I finished high-school I had this deep urge to see whatever parts of the world I could and figure out what the hell was going on out there.

I ended up living in London at 19, learning about things the hard way and realizing from a young age that life is about experiences. Since then, I have somehow managed to travel and live in various countries doing what I love all over Asia, Africa and Europe. I was first introduced to Berlin in 2016, when I was touring with a rock band, we spent a few days in Berlin, and I fell in love. I ended up going back to Asia where I was living at the time, quitting my job, leaving half of my stuff behind and figuring out how to get a tourist visa. A few years passed and I ended up moving to Berlin for a girl. We broke up the first week after I arrived, but I decided to dive headfirst into the city and make it work.

What was your first impression of Berlin, and what made you decide to move here?

It was the music and art scene that initially made me fall in love with Berlin. Just getting a chance to see the musicians I grew up worshiping, performing in Berlin. All the bands that are touring through Berlin was enough for me to take the chance and move here.

I grew up in small town in South-Africa and it can feel extremely frustrating watching your life and your friend’s lives pass by with very little change or chances of greatness. I know from traveling and living overseas in my 20’s that life is full of beauty and opportunity and throwing yourself into new situations can be the most rewarding experience. If I were to explain to someone why I moved to Berlin I would say: Photography, Punk Rock, Flea Markets, Girls, Art and Vegan Food.

How did your photography journey start and what made you continue with it?

I started out focusing on filmmaking and was working in the film industry since my teenage years. I originally studied Cinematography and wished to be a Director of Photography one day. I worked on a bunch of Hollywood movies from Black Panther to Resident Evil as an assistant and was trying to find my way in the hierarchy that is the industry ladder. I eventually joined a VFX team for a few years, focusing on postproduction, and my main job was on-set photography.

I realized that I had so much passion for photography and analogue photography in particular. So once again, I left my job, and moved to China to focus on my photography career. This was an extremely stressful time.

I ended up in various other fields, mainly making social media content for different brands and touring with rock bands to pay the bills and to pay for all my film expenses. I spent many years just self-funding my career and trying my best to not give up.

Today I do film photography more as a hobby and try not to take it too seriously. I am the type of person who’s working hard, but still think I’m not good enough or don’t deserve the opportunities I have been given. I feel like the typical “loser / underdog” attitude pushes me today to just not give a fuck anymore, and go as hard as I can, into the fields that interest me.

What has your creative journey looked like? Is there something that inspired you once you got started with photography, that still drives you today within your art? I come from a pretty poor family background, but I have also been aware of my privilege in South-Africa since I was a child. I never felt like I fitted in, in my hometown. Although I am lucky that I was still able to have a supporting family. My journey to become an artist and live the life I want for myself, has been nothing short of hell. I’ve lost friends and family along the way, but I realized a few years ago how short life is, and I will be spending my time focusing on the good experiences.

I am inspired by underdogs and the underbelly of society. I couldn’t give a damn about photographing beautiful people and showing a side of the world that is only attainable for the young, rich and beautiful. I want to capture reality and the darker parts of society. I shoot a lot of my friends, people I meet in the street, and I find that I am more inspired when talking to someone, or shooting the photos, than editing them or sharing them.

I don’t feel like I am the best photographer at all, but I have support from many people, therefor I’ve realized that I must take it seriously and try to create bodies of work that I am proud of. In Berlin I am inspired by the chaos and madness of the city. My favourite genre of photography is ‘street-photography’, and Berlin is just a wild place for this topic. Every day you just need to walk outside to experience it, the city always feels like there is so much going on and I love living in between the rubble and chaos, which fits my current mental state quite well.

What would you say brings you visions on what to create, and what do you want to tell through your photos?

I tried for a few years when I travelled around Africa to make every photo that I shared evoke some type of emotion or feeling. I’m not good with words or storytelling, and that’s why I focus on the visual aspect of things. I know how to make a great series of images but struggle to find the words to describe what I observe for the viewer, or the perplexity of the emotions I personally feel when I’m making images. With Instagram and social media, I feel like my work doesn’t really feel represented in the way that feels natural to me, meaning I struggle to even share my work these days or post much about it. Like I mentioned earlier, analogue photography and film is my absolute passion. I love the whole process and the slowing down of images and time. For me photography is a way to vent my frustrations and keep my wits sharp, while still trying to find frames I’ve made that I am proud of.

What’s the best thing about Berlin? Honestly, I just love the mixture of people from around the world that inhabit the city. I’ve met so many cool people and been thrown into experiences I could never imagine myself in, if it wasn’t for such eclectic and energetic groups of people… I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with. I was raised Jewish and have had a lot of my family killed in the Holocaust. Living in Berlin these days just reminds me of how insanely far the world has come in under 100 years. The history is just insane in Berlin, and I love that it has become this cultural hub for all of Europe. Also, the ability to live a first-class life and enjoy things that people in Berlin take for granted still keeps me grounded. I love going everywhere on my bicycle, meeting people, trying new things, and just generally trying to be a useful person. I feel like there are so many opportunities in Berlin and chances to reinvent yourself and truly be whoever you want to be without the judgement of people in smaller towns or smaller-minded communities. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings after corona and can’t wait to reinvent myself again.

When you have visitors, what does a dream weekend together in the city look like?

If I were to have visitors come over, I would recommend that they come during Spring or Summer to maximize the long summer days and hazy-stoned summer hangs. I’m always excited to play tour guide, because when I move to a new city, I make sure to immerse myself in it and try to learn as much as I can about the past and present of that city.

A perfect weekend for me would entail the following: Friday: Waking up early and hitting either gym or the Boulder Garden, to gather myself together for the weekend. Then I’d meet my homies and take them to Safelight Berlin, to drop my films off for development and scanning. Then taking a coffee or some Georgian snacks across the street at Tbilsi or a treat at Zeit für Brot. Of course, we’d do our traveling on bicycles so I can also pass through P-Berg and Mitte and show them some of the sights and grab some Späti beers.

We’d end up in Kreuzberg where we could have a beer on the canal and take in vibes on Admiralbrucke or Weichselplatz. Lunch / early Dinner @ Best Friends or Koisan, for some incredible Asian food. Followed by a bunch of street beers on the Maybachuffer. In the evening maybe heading to an art exhibition or some type of culturally relevant event to ease into the weekend. Saturday: waking up early and heading to Schöneberg flohmarkt, the most underrated market in Berlin where literal treasure can be found in boxes, you just have to dig. I always find flohmarkts in Berlin to be a lot of fun, even if nothing is to be found, with a ton of good photo opportunities. After that heading next door to Rathaus park for a spliff and chill on the beautiful lawns while we gather ourselves for the day. Depending on the vibe I’d take them to Neukölln, my favourite area in Berlin for authentic Turkish lunch at Imren Grill, Akroum Snack or Azzam. After that a definite hang at Tempelhof Feld, chilling in the garden or lying on the grass with a JBL speaker discussing plans, hopes and dreams. Towards the evening maybe a little chill and pre-drinks Tennis Bar / Loophole / Sameheads or Klunkerkranich depending on the mood and keeping it local in Neukölln. In the evenings my favourite actives would be going to punk or hip hop shows and saving the raving for Sundays, so finding some fun show at SO36, Cassiopeia or Lido to attend. Great thing about shows in Berlin is that they always end by midnight so there’s still plenty of time to go out or have an early one, usually I save myself for Sundays anyway. Sunday: My usual Sunday is quite intense in Berlin, I am an avid thrifter and have my own vintage clothing business so this day entails waking up extremely early for me around 6am, throwing on my Sunday best and getting my ass to F’hain as fast as possible.

Starting off at RAW, digging for treasures. I find RAW to be one of the best clothing flohmarkts in Berlin where you can find the craziest stuff – sometimes for great prices. It’s just the luck and timing of it all that I love. Then heading over to Boxi or Maybachuffer for more markets and digging, followed by a delicious coffee and croissant from La Mason or The Croissanterie. After that a little chill or change of clothing and then depending on the weather heading to either Grunewald or a club. I absolutely love forest Grunewald and the lakes around there - I could easily spend an entire day in nature just chilling, swimming and relaxing or going into the middle of the forest, getting lost and cycling on those gorgeous forest roads.

Club wise I tend to enjoy Berghain the most or if there are any events or shows by The Brvtalist or Spandau2.0. For Berghain, I realized that I could be jumping the fence in broad daylight in front of bouncers, and still be let in every time, So I just stuck to that technique. Never got bounced and hopefully my guests get in with me. Then inside the club I’m just taking it easy and watch people, while having some fruits and iced coffee. That’s pretty nice. When it gets to the point of leaving, I’d head back to Neukölln, where I stay and end it off with some legit Italian pizza at either Masaniello or beautiful Vietnamese food at Hamy opposite to Hasenheide. After that I head back to the apartment to throw on some Kitchen Nightmares or Netflix with a nice Indica spliff before bed.

What 3 words would you say captures your photographies?

Sexy, Vegan, Nightmares.

What’s your view on limitations within your art, is there something you’d like to do, but for some reason feel limited to get started with?

I actually got signed in Germany as a Director and VFX artist and that’s how I’m able to sort of live between Berlin and Cape Town right now. I feel very limited in this field as I know I am a very visual person but driving narrative based work is extremely challenging for me and knowing that I usually only win about 10% of the projects I pitch on, can be very disheartening and overwhelming at times, when it feels like you are constantly failing, you’re having the urge to push forth and erase those mental limitations that keep getting you down.

Do you believe people can hide behind an attitude? If so, how do you make vulnerability shine through in your photos. Like what’s the connection between those two?

I think many people use all kinds of ways to do this yes, myself included. I find that I am still quite a shy person, even though I have improved my skills to talk to complete strangers all the time and also try to make their portraits.

But I also find that I cannot objectively judge my photos at this point anymore, and I am always surprised when a certain photo gets a big reaction while other photos I share might not hit in that way, I am unable to really connect to almost anything I’ve shot, because by the time I post them, I am already over it. I guess this is another reason using Instagram as a main source of showcasing ones work can be a shitty way to judge anything, from self-worth to vulnerability to “technically good photography” and so on. In short I think a good connection and a simple image can convey a lot of emotions which can be interpreted in so many ways by the viewer that I cannot really plan how my work hits at all.

Many people you shoot, have an energy of having ’lived’, what’s your view on ’everyday life’ and routines?

I don’t focus on shooting fashion models and heavily retouching my work, but rather on looking for unique characters. I like to show the darker sides of reality and do enjoy raw images.

You’re playing with femininity and masculinity - what’s your view on that? I never really think about traditional gender roles or traditional femininity in my work anymore. I try my best to present and post different types of people and levels of photography because I don’t like to be judged as another male photographer who only shoots women or models. I don’t want to be known as another guy who posts stuff for likes - I honestly hate that.

Who are 3 of your Berlin inspirations when it comes to photography?

My favourite Berlin born photographer is Jürgen Schadeberg, who died in 2020. He lived in South-Africa and photographed key moments in South African history, including iconic photographs such as Nelson Mandela at Robben Island prison. His body of work is insane, a true hero and artist. I also love Wolfgang Tillmans, because his work feels so raw and real to me, I love his attitude with social-media and the way he shares his work, especially through his exhibitions. Finally, I’d say Juergen Teller is my favourite German fashion photographer. His work is just so good, that it really inspires me to try to seek out more portrait and commercial jobs to try to inject my own style into it.


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