Nanna Heitmann

German miners covered in coal dust and wearing hard hats emerge from a narrow, dark elevator.

German miners emerge from the narrow, dark elevator that leads to the coal face, thousands of metres underground, in this 2017 photograph taken by Canon Ambassador Nanna Heitmann, as part of her long-term project, Gone From the Window. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.5 and ISO1600. © Nanna Heitmann

"For me, photography is an excuse to meet all kinds of different people, from politicians to coal miners to punks," says documentary photographer and Canon Ambassador Nanna Heitmann. "I get to know people I would otherwise never have met or had the chance to see into their lives."

Nanna's curiosity about people who are physically, mentally or culturally isolated, and how their environment shapes them, drives much of her work. Her photographs have been published in magazines including National Geographic, Time and The New York Times. In 2019, she won the prestigious Sunday Times Award for Achievement and was invited to join Magnum Photos as a nominee.

Nanna was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1994 to a Russian mother and a German father. She was educated in Germany and completed a degree in photojournalism and documentary photography at Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts. She bought her first DSLR, a Canon EOS 400D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D), when she was 14, and her passion for documentary photography was ignited by reading National Geographic as a teenager. "I was fascinated by the magazine's stories about things I'd never heard about in another part of the world," she says.

Since then, inspired by her National Geographic heroes, Nanna has worked on long-term projects that often highlight the lives of people in extreme situations or on the margins of society. These have included Gone From the Window, a study of the community around Germany's last coal mine, and Hiding From Baba Yaga, which focuses on isolated people living near the Yenisei River in Siberia.

"When I work on a project, I start looking at my surroundings in a totally different way," Nanna says. "I have an almost childlike sense of curiosity, the kind we lose when we become adults. I pay much more attention to the small details I wouldn't normally notice."

A headshot of Canon Ambassador Nanna Heitmann.
Location: Moscow, Russia

Specialist areas: Documentary photography

Favourite kit:

Canon EOS R

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

This image of an elderly patient who had been given a bouquet in Moscow City Clinical Hospital 52 is part of Nanna's recent series on the Covid-19 pandemic. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2.5 and ISO1600. © Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos

A female nurse wearing personal protective equipment stands in front of patients' beds in a Russian hospital.

Nanna photographed Nurse Patimat at a hospital in Makhachkala as part of her project, Pandemic in Russia, about the ongoing struggle against Covid-19 in the country. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/2 and ISO320. © Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos

One of Nanna's most recent projects, Pandemic in Russia, examined the battle against Covid-19 in a country with one of the world's highest infection rates. She photographed the work of charities helping society's most vulnerable and the reality of daily life in Moscow's overwhelmed hospitals. It was the most challenging project she has done so far, she says.

"I'd never worked really on something like that, a crisis situation, so for me it was really shocking to see thousands of people suffering so much, or dying in front of me," Nanna explains. "It was also difficult in a practical way because I was wearing full PPE for 12 hours at a time without drinking or eating. I really admired the doctors working in this demanding situation for 24 or 28 hours at a time with breaks of only 12 or 24 hours between shifts."

An older man wearing a breathing tube lies down on a sofa.

Former miner Alfons fights the consequences of a lifetime working with coal in this telling image. "The inhaled coal dust led to a malignant form of silicosis and caused lung cancer. His illness was recognised as an occupational disease," says Nanna. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Nanna Heitmann

Although her projects span a range of subjects, Nanna says her aim is always to draw attention to the situation of the people she's photographing. "When I'm doing journalistic work, I want to raise awareness of the topic," she says. "I also want to record things of cultural significance that are disappearing. For example, when I was photographing coal mining in Germany, I was aware that this industry, which was so important for the postwar German economy, wouldn't exist in the near future. But sometimes I'm motivated by something other than raising awareness or creating a historical document. Sometimes I just want to take the viewer into another world."

How do you find the people you photograph?

"It's a mixture of planning and coincidence. For my project on Germany's last coal mine, for example, the company allowed me to walk around and meet people, and I found others through miners' cultural associations. On a road trip, however, I often meet people by accident. If I'm following a feeling, I seem to attract more people to photograph."

Do you know what a project is going to be about before you start? Or does it develop gradually?

"Some stories are as I expect, such as the one on Covid-19, but most of the time projects change a lot from the way they begin. On my current project, for instance, I went on a road trip to photograph people in a certain area but by coincidence ended up in another place and community, so it became a completely different project."

How long do you normally work on a project?

"It totally depends on the subject, but I'm not a person who could work on something for many years. I'm not sure I would have the patience to do that. When I come to a new place, I see so much, but after a while I see less and new pictures appear more slowly."

How can documentary photographers stand out from the crowd?

"For me it was important to have a solid portfolio – at least two bodies of work you can show to editors and use to apply for competitions and grants. Even if you don't win, the same important people such as picture editors are sitting on so many juries. If they continue to see your work there's a chance they will commission you."

What's been the highlight of your career so far?

"Career-wise, it was very unexpected and a blessing to become a Magnum nominee in 2019. I still can't really believe it and I'm super happy about it."

One thing I know

Nanna Heitmann

"To be a documentary photographer working on long-term projects, you have to photograph what fascinates you. If it's a subject you're photographing because it's fashionable, or something you think other people are looking for, you won't have the energy to put 100% into it. You have to be completely dedicated."

Instagram: @nannaheitmann

Twitter: @HeitmannNanna


Nanna Heitmann's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Nanna Heitmann's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R

With a full-frame 30.3MP sensor, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, the Canon EOS R offers the ultimate shooting experience. "I like using the Canon EOS R for its small size and features like the touchscreen and the ability to change the aspect ratios of the picture," says Nanna.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to Nanna's Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder, capturing every nuance, colour and detail thanks to a new sensor capable of impressive clarity. Nanna says: "A fast full-frame camera that works well in low light."


Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

Setting new standards in photographic performance, this RF lens delivers supreme sharpness and a low-light performance that's simply remarkable. "I like the bokeh of the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM, especially when I'm doing portraits and details. It comes close to the look you get from a medium format camera," says Nanna.

Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

A 35mm prime lens with a four-stop Image Stabilizer and f/2 maximum aperture – ideal for low-light photography. Nanna says: "I like to use the 35mm when I need a little more space when working indoors, or if I'm photographing moving subjects outdoors."

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom lens that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. "This lens is great for shooting subjects where you need to be fast as it covers all main focal lengths," says Nanna.


Speedlite 600EX II-RT

The latest version of the Speedlite Nanna uses is engineered for fast frame rate shooting, and performs in the most demanding situations. "It's a flash that works fast and you can adjust the output in detail," says Nanna.

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