anders petersen and cafe lehmitz

From the Guardian’s series My Best ShotAnders Petersen explains this photo’s backstory and offers this advice: ‘People always talk about having to be strong. But for me, you have to be weak – weak enough to feel, to be involved, to be as you are. Don’t be strong, be weak.’

Anders Petersen, Lilly and Rose

It was one in the morning and I was waiting for my friend Gertrude at Cafe Lehmitz in Hamburg. The place was chock full of people and there was great music playing on the jukebox. It was 1967. A man came up to me and asked about my camera, which was on the table. It was a Nikon F and I said it was a good camera. He said: “I have a nicer one.” His was a Kodak Retina 1C. We raised our beers and said cheers to the cameras. Then we danced with some beautiful ladies.

Suddenly, across the room, I noticed a group of people were throwing my camera back and forth, taking pictures of each other. I went over and said: “Please take a picture of me because it’s my camera.” OK, they said, then handed it back. So I took some pictures of my own – and that was how I started photographing in Cafe Lehmitz.

I kept taking shots there for the next three years, travelling back and forth to Stockholm, where I was studying photography, to develop my film. At the cafe, I would sleep in the kitchen for free, in exchange for looking after the cook’s children. My time there was very formative. The cafe even staged my first exhibition: I pinned 350 pictures above the bar and said if anyone recognised themselves they could take the picture down and keep it. After a few days the walls were empty.

This picture is all about the personalities. Lilly was everyone’s darling, a charismatic woman – many men were in love with her, and she knew it. The man on the left was known as Rose because of the tattoo on his chest. He was well dressed because he had come from work, a restaurant 10 minutes away. Every night, he would come to Cafe Lehmitz to see his friends, but mostly to see Lilly. Rose was a serious guy, and he only had eyes for her. Lilly was angry with me when I took this picture because I had been photographing her so much. She said: “Can’t you just behave like normal – have a beer and be like everyone else? Do you have to take pictures all the time? Please finito, now!” You see the little guy behind her? That is Scar. He was a very famous sword-swallower. He talked about it a lot and he got into a lot of fights – but he was still a nice man.

All sorts of people went to Cafe Lehmitz: locals, people from the harbour and surrounding cities, as well as a lot of elderly prostitutes from the St Pauli area. Old people went there who had had a hard life and were not accepted anywhere else. I took hundreds of photographs – it’s like a family album – but this one is special. I like these three characters and they are being themselves.

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