Nadja Wohlleben’s local exploration with Bell Collective

16.03.2021 | Interview: Alina Rudya/Bell Collective | Photos: Alina Rudya, Nadja Wohlleben

Nadja Wohlleben sits in the new Mercedes-Benz CLA and looks through the windscreen.
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Follow photojournalist and martial artist Nadja Wohlleben on a road trip in the CLA, exploring Berlin and its surroundings.

Nadja Wohlleben stands in a field and takes pictures with her camera, in the background you can see the new Mercedes-Benz CLA.
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Photojournalist and martial artist Nadja Wohlleben is used to constant international travelling and tough situations. While exploring female rights and exposing social injustices in the world, she visited countries and continents – from the slums of Nairobi to the secluded Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas.

In autumn 2020, Nadja took a deserved break from her usual rhythm and went on a more peaceful and comfortable journey with She’s Mercedes and Bell Collective.

While testing the new CLA in Berlin and rural surroundings, she told She’s Mercedes about her current documentary projects, her lifetime quest as well as sharing some inspiring thoughts about female empowerment and strength.

Was there any particular reason why you decided to become a photojournalist?

Since I was a kid, I travelled the world a lot with my parents and I loved diving into different cultures while meeting fascinating people and listening to their stories. When my father passed away, I inherited his old camera and began shooting on 35 mm film during my teenage years. Photography allowed me to paint with light and realize my artistic ideas. I was inspired by photography magazines like National Geographic and GEO that made me dream of becoming a photojournalist one day.

I was playing around with photography from an early age onwards, but I only dared to pursue it as a career in my late twenties. At first, I earned an MA in Anthropology/Cultural Studies, then went on to work as an event manager, film producer, and journalist, before finally going back to university and majoring in photojournalism. It was the best decision of my life – I love my job and as difficult as it may be at times, to me, it is the best profession in the world.

In your work, you have a strong focus on women, identity, and human rights. Was there a particular event or events in your life, which provoked this interest?

My interest in stories about warrior women who fight back against gender oppression and physical violence stems from a very personal, autobiographical place. As a woman, I have experienced multiple uncomfortable situations in my life where men were harassing me, be it complete strangers or ex-boyfriends. 

Even as a little girl, I had a highly developed sense of justice and could never stand by and witness any injustice taking place. Back in school, I would stand up for the child that was being teased by everyone else. 

When I was five or six years old, I told my mother that I wanted to learn martial arts and become a warrior woman one day. My mom told me that I was a girl and should do ballet instead. Ten years of ballet later, when I was old enough to make my own decisions, I finally began training Shaolin Kung Fu, obsessively. Since then, martial arts have become one of the most vital parts of my life. 

Do you prefer short-term or long-term projects and which photography project are you currently working on?

I prefer to work on longer-term, documentary projects whenever possible.

Since 2017, I’ve been working on a long-term photo project called “Amazons”. I am collecting stories of inspiring, fighting women around the globe, ultimately creating an atlas of powerful warrior women worldwide.  

So far, I’ve documented the story of a group of fierce grandmothers in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, called “Shosho Jikinge”. These brave women are successfully fighting off rapists who believe that having sex with an elderly woman will cure them of HIV.

For “A Sword & a Sari”, I followed India’s female martial arts grandmaster Meenakshi “Gurukhal” (79) who is breaking stereotypes and teaching young women to fight in Kerala, India. Since 2018, I’ve been following German featherweight boxing champion Zeina Nassar who fought to change international boxing rules to be able to participate in competitions wearing a hijab. Since 2019, I’ve been working on an ongoing documentary photography project following the fascinating “Kung Fu Nuns of the Himalayas”. Initiated by their progressive spiritual leader, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the nuns advocate gender equality in their conservative culture and teach young, local women self-defence to fight against the biggest threat for women in the region: sexual violence. 

These stories are the beginning of what I envision to be my lifetime project. The more research I do, the more compelling stories of warrior women I discover, which I intend to document one day.

Nadja Wohlleben stands next to the new Mercedes-Benz CLA.

You have a black belt in Taekwondo and you teach women and girls self-defence. Do physical strength and women empowerment come hand in hand for you?

You don’t need to be physically strong to be a fighter. Every living being has the innate ability to defend itself, even if one has no training or fighting experience at all. Our survival instinct is built into our DNA. Self-defence starts as a mindset, the physical aspect comes second.

Women empowerment doesn’t derive from physical strength but a psychological decision. Women don’t need a male rescuer to save them – they are perfectly capable of saving themselves. The problem is that socialisation from early childhood tells young girls to be “a good girl” and not cause any trouble for anyone. Girls are taught that they have to be nice, to smile through awkward situations, to pretend it is all good, even when it is not, rather than risking the embarrassment of someone else. Self-defence is about consciously making the decision that your safety and self-respect are more important than anything or anyone else. 

The sad truth, which is revealed in statistics, is that one in three women has experienced some sort of physical, or sexual violence in her life. A much lesser-known fact is that actively fighting back increases the chances to get away from an attacker by 80 percent.

The very willingness to defend themselves makes one a much less appealing target, as most attackers are cowards who want it easy and don’t expect a woman to fight back. Choosing to defend yourself subconsciously signals that you are not someone to be messed with. It is your life, and you have the power to protect that life.

I love teaching self-defence and martial arts to other women. It is incredibly rewarding to witness my students become stronger and more self-confident over time. Even after a small, three-hour workshop, most girls will leave the room more assured, with a proud body posture that makes them appear 10 centimetres taller than when they arrived. The big finale of my workshops is that the girls break a piece of wood with their bare hands. And except for one girl in hundreds that I trained over many years, they all succeed.

Nadja Wohlleben takes photos with her camera.
Nadja Wohlleben drives the new Mercedes-Benz CLA.

As a female photojournalist, do you feel that your work is different from that of your male colleagues? 

As a woman, I certainly have access to stories about other women that I wouldn’t be able to document if I were male.

In your work, you often go to developing countries to research female rights stories. What about our society – do you feel that there are still changes to be made in this area?

We are very privileged and live in a big and safe bubble. But there is certainly still much room for improvement when it comes to gender equality and the pay gap, for instance. There is still much work to be done. 

You travel the world alone a lot. Do you have any particular tips on how to stay safe, when abroad?

As a solo female traveller, it is important to be alert and attentive to your surroundings. Be aware of what is happening around you and don’t let your guard down. Remember that you have the power to defend yourself. Our intuition is our body’s earliest warning system of impending danger. If used correctly, it will help you avoid trouble before it even begins. Listen to your intuition, it is the fastest risk assessment tool that we have at our disposal, your personal built-in alarm system.

Also, do share a travel itinerary with friends and family.

Nadja Wohlleben getting out of the new Mercedes-Benz CLA.

What is your preferred way of transportation, when on assignment?

I really love driving. It gives me a wonderful sense of freedom, independence, and mobility. I can take all the camera equipment I need with me, hassle-free. The fact that I can go anywhere at any time, travelling at my own pace, makes a car my favourite way to travel. Hardly any experience beats driving through a picturesque landscape, listening to your favourite music, and singing along loudly. 

Women like Nadja Wohlleben are not taken aback by stereotypes or fear. The world of photojournalism is dominated by men and very often female-centred stories are overlooked in the newsrooms. Someone, who is helping to balance this bias through exposing topics which were not spoken on before, is a big inspiration.

Together with Bell Collective, She’s Mercedes continues to meet talented women who are challenging the status quo.

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Kraftstoffverbrauch kombiniert CO₂-Emissionen kombiniert Stromverbrauch im kombinierten Testzyklus

Product may vary after press date on 16.03.2021.

1 Die angegebenen Werte wurden nach dem vorgeschriebenen Messverfahren ermittelt. Es handelt sich um die „NEFZ-CO₂-Werte“ i. S. v. Art. 2 Nr. 1 Durchführungsverordnung (EU) 2017/1153. Die Kraftstoffverbrauchswerte wurden auf Basis dieser Werte errechnet. Der Stromverbrauch wurde auf der Grundlage der VO 692/2008/EG ermittelt. Weitere Informationen zum offiziellen Kraftstoffverbrauch und den offiziellen spezifischen CO₂-Emissionen neuer Personenkraftwagen können dem „Leitfaden über den Kraftstoffverbrauch, die CO₂-Emissionen und den Stromverbrauch aller neuen Personenkraftwagenmodelle“ entnommen werden, der an allen Verkaufsstellen und bei der Deutschen Automobil Treuhand GmbH unter unentgeltlich erhältlich ist.

4 Angaben zu Kraftstoffverbrauch, Stromverbrauch und CO₂-Emissionen sind vorläufig und wurden vom Technischen Dienst für das Zertifizierungsverfahren nach Maßgabe des WLTP-Prüfverfahrens ermittelt und in NEFZ-Werte korreliert. Eine EG-Typgenehmigung und Konformitätsbescheinigung mit amtlichen Werten liegen noch nicht vor. Abweichungen zwischen den Angaben und den amtlichen Werten sind möglich.

6 Stromverbrauch und Reichweite wurden auf der Grundlage der VO 692/2008/EG ermittelt. Stromverbrauch und Reichweite sind abhängig von der Fahrzeugkonfiguration. Weitere Informationen zum offiziellen Kraftstoffverbrauch und den offiziellen spezifischen CO₂-Emissionen neuer Personenkraftwagen können dem „Leitfaden über den Kraftstoffverbrauch, die CO₂-Emissionen und den Stromverbrauch aller neuen Personenkraftwagenmodelle“ entnommen werden, der an allen Verkaufsstellen und bei der Deutschen Automobil Treuhand GmbH unter unentgeltlich erhältlich ist.

8 Alle technischen Angaben sind vorläufig und wurden intern nach Maßgabe der jeweils anwendbaren Zertifizierungsmethode ermittelt. Es liegen bislang weder bestätigte Werte vom TÜV noch eine EG-Typgenehmigung noch eine Konformitätsbescheinigung mit amtlichen Werten vor. Abweichungen zwischen den Angaben und den amtlichen Werten sind möglich.