Michael Honegger: The Need-to-Know
In the film Memento, the story line is like a puzzle where every scene jumps back in time and ends where the previous one began. In Benjamin Button, the main character gets younger and younger in every frame; and in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the removing memories is done in reverse, with newer incidents receding first, followed by the incidents of a comparative past. These backward chronologies are efforts to understand time differently and investigate the past in a unique way. For most of us, our trip into the past starts with the family photo album. As children, we simply enjoyed revisiting the documentation of our lives, but as adults, we read the photographs differently. We look for clues of reality. Why is my mother not smiling? Why is my father looking uncomfortable? Who is absent and who is present?
When we consider our lives spread out before us, what if you discovered that all you knew to be true, wasn’t? And the person who could provide the truth was no longer alive? Photographer Michael Honegger explores his personal enigma of a life that didn’t ask questions and/or provide all the answers. His book, The Need-to-Know, is a brilliant exploration of the past, of memory, and, most importantly, family, as the photographer creates his own interrogation of his father’s life and work, traversing his familial landscape backwards, looking for clues in the dark corridors of the Cold War.
Honegger has created a scrapbook of visual searching, layered with maps and passports, objects and memorabilia, family photos and new capture, all with an invisible red thread connecting the ideas to reach a conclusion. Like all good detectives, Honegger collects the evidence, opens every box, lays it out, and tries to piece together a life he thought he knew. His research and storytelling combine into a form of visual cinema — flashes of the past and present, the known and unknown — creating a movie of still images. The work pushes and pulls us through time and place, through espionage and secrets.
The writing above is an except from the essay that I wrote for Michael Honegger’s stunning new monograph, The Need-to-Know, published by BLOW UP PRESS (BUP). I have followed this project since it’s inception and watched how an idea turns into deep thinking, research, and activation, resulting in a retelling and reseeing of childhood memories during a most complex period. It’s a multi-layered and incredibly creative visual narrative of family secrets, brought to life with exceptional book design.
My father was a spy during the Cold War. Bilingual in German and English, he worked for the U.S. Air Force and sent agents into East Germany and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1960’s. The Need-to-Know is my exploration of the meager details that emerged from brief and cryptic conversations with my father and my curiosity about Cold War espionage and its impact upon my family at the time.
My father led two lives that rarely intersected. Family members were often the unwitting participants in indecipherable events that left us with many more questions than answers. Mysterious strangers would show up at our apartment late at night only to depart before dawn without saying a word to anyone other than my father. Peculiar encounters, curious radio transmissions, and unexplained coincidences became the norms of my childhood.
I now have the need to know more about the secret world my father inhabited and the lives of others with whom he interacted. The book that I have worked on for the past four years is a photographic re-creation of the intersections and divergences of his secret life and the traditional paternal role he played. The project consists of vernacular photographs, new captures and ephemera to tell a story and investigate a childhood mystery. Ironically, several the archival photos in the project were photographed by me and my father on separate trips to West Berlin in the winter of 1961 but were only re-discovered recently. The Need-to- Know is the intersection of the factual and fictional based upon historical research, family archives, my memories, and my imagination.
The project is particularly timely as the issues of the Cold War have evolved but continue to play out on the international stage. The current crisis in Ukraine is just one example of the evolution of the conflict. The espionage tools of the 1960’s look primitive to a degree but they, too, have changed to conform to the current applications and tools used for cyber-warfare and propaganda purposes. The cycle of history continues to unwind in an ever-repetitive pattern. – Michael Honegger
Tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography.
I am not certain that I have completed the process of growing up, but it all began in Germany while my parents were stationed there after the war. I was an Air Force brat and as a result the family was transferred every three or four years. So, I had a peripatetic childhood until we moved back to Germany in 1959 where my interest in photography was awakened. My father was an avid photographer, and he was the one to jumpstart my interest. However, it was not until I retired from working for the Peace Corps for 25 years, that I finally decided it was time to get serious about photography. I enrolled in the Professional Certificate program at Maine Media in 2003 and spent a year honing my skills in the darkroom and with alternative processes. The adventure has continued ever since.
A number of your projects explore self-portraiture, but you also have compelling documentary work. Can you tell us about Human Tide?
Human Tide is a project near and dear to my heart and it unfolded by sheer chance. My partner and I normally spend three or four weeks each spring at a village on the Greek island of Lesvos. The village is on the north of the island and is roughly six kilometers off the coast of Turkey. In the spring of 2015 thousands of refugees, primarily Syrians fleeing the civil war and economic refugees from Afghanistan, flooded the shores of Lesvos and other nearby islands. So many rubber rafts began arriving during our stay that we were enlisted in a cadre of Greeks and other visitors to help prepare food, water and assistance to the thousands of refugees who swamped the island. I began photographing this tide of desperate humanity in order to raise awareness of their plight in fleeing to safety. I witnessed first-hand so many touching and tragic stories as well as the bravery and determination of people simply searching for a peaceful place to live their lives. During that spring and through the fall, 500,000 men, women and children passed through the island with a population of 80,00. I was gratified that Human Rights Watch used my photos in their initial press release about the refugee crisis in Europe and other European news sources also began to run the images and write stories about what was actually happening.
Your work took a different direction with the creation of this book. What was the catalyst for the shift and what new ways of working have you explored in creating the book? I imagine that you worked with archives and researched museums and places that were important to telling your story.
It interests me that the new direction is the book form, but I am also intrigued by the thought that this project is just a continuation or variation on the work I have done with self-portraiture. It is a self-portrait with family and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. The primary catalyst for this slight course adjustment was the sudden realization that a book with the subject about a spy who just happened to be my father, was more likely to be viewed by more people than any gallery presentation could ever hope to achieve. I had always thought that a gallery show was the ultimate goal, but the book concept was actually more compelling to contemplate. It was also extremely interesting as the research for the book had me delving into the records and resources of the Air Force, the East German secret police, the German Spy Museum, family archives, and many reference books. It also gave me the opportunity to rekindle friendships with old family friends in Germany as I travelled to the places where we had lived in my youth. I also managed to visit a range of museums along the border that once divided Germany as well as my first foray into East Germany with visits to Leipzig, Weimar, and other towns.
The book design is such a creative presentation of ideas and images. Can you tell us about the process of going from concept to book form?
From my perspective the most critical element in making the transition from a treasure trove of photos to a book was finding the right book designer. I knew what I wanted the book to be: an object of mystery that let the viewers rely upon their own devices and instincts and told them little about what they were seeing. Christian Patterson’s book, Redheaded Peckerwood, was inspiring to me in this regard as well as Amani Willet’s, The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer. Both books left so much to the individual turning the pages and I wanted something similar with my effort. I explored the work of numerous book designers and landed upon a true gem in the work of Aneta Kowalczyk, a Polish book designer who has garnered considerable attention for her creative book design talents. She was named one of the top ten graphic artists in Poland last year which is no small feat. Aneta was able to listen to what I wanted and run with it. We spent two solid days talking about the book and life which was a refreshing introduction to her creative approach. She did a phenomenal job in meeting my expectations
Was there something unexpected that you were surprised by when seeing the book design and the layout?
There were many surprises in the final design, and I was thrilled with them all. The first surprise was having an outside perspective on a project that I had been working on for four years. My idea of the important images did not necessarily coincide with those of Aneta. The irony is that I liked her choices and rationale better than my own in a few instances. The other surprises concerned how my desire for mystery had been interpreted. This was accomplished with foldouts, tip-ins, secret codes in secret places, inserts such as my father’s passport, my mother’s train ticket, and the tools of the spy trade images. There were so many mysteries to unravel that filled me with delight. The final touch was the leporello (which I had no idea about…I had to look it up) or the ten-page fold-out at the end of the book which presents vignettes that explain a few family stories from the era.
What’s the best way to order the book?
The easiest way to order the book is directly from the publisher, Blow Up Press at:
or at my website:
Lastly, did you gain further insights into your father’s life from this journey that not only considering your past, but his?
I believe the whole process was a wonderful way to honor my father for what he accomplished. I always admired his commitment to both his work and his family, but I now realize how much he must have sacrificed personally in maintaining the delicate balance that his career demanded. I suppose the other element that still gnaws at me is my regret at not having asked more questions of him while he was still able to respond. But in the end, I think he would have been wildly proud of the book.
Anything coming up for you?
Luckily, I will always have a model for my self-portraiture so that will be a constant in my life. Other than that, I am delving into some street photography as I ponder where my next project will take me.
Michael S. Honegger is a visual artist born in Germany with roots in the United States and France. His practice as a fine art and documentary photographer explores the performative nature of self-portraiture, the complexities of memory and family and an investigation of the ironies of American culture with an expatriate’s eye. He received a B.A. in History & Spanish from Duke University, a M.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and a Professional Certificate in Visual Arts from Maine Media College. He has exhibited his work in numerous juried group and solo shows throughout the United States and Europe. His documentary project on the refugee crisis on the island of Lesvos, Greece in 2015 was widely published in major European newspapers and by Amnesty International in their initial press release on the crisis. The Economist The Guardian, Lenscratch and The Eye of Photography have also published his images. He is the European Content Editor for Lenscratch and currently resides in Nice, France.
Follow Michael Honegger on Instagram: @michaelhoneggerphotos
Established in 2012, BLOW UP PRESS (BUP) is a family run publisher of photobooks and lens-based art books. Originally online publisher, BUP switched to paper in 2016. Since then it has become a recognisable producer of sophistically designed books dealing with thought-provoking topics, following the motto When the story matters. BUP collaborates with emerging and established photographers from around the world. Next to the books, BUP also publishes doc! photo magazine dedicated to contemporary photography. Since 2020, BUP organises annual contest BUP Book Award which goal is to promote photobooks as a way of communicate important subjects.
Read about BLOW UP PRESS ON Lenscratch
Follow BLOW UP PRESS on Instagram: @Blow_up_Press
The Need to Know in a nutshell:
Photographs: Michael S. Honegger
Essays: Brenton Hamilton, Barbara Honegger,
Aline Smithson and George A. Reisch
Book design: Aneta Kowalczyk
Cover: Hard (clothbound + embossing + photo)
Papers: Munken Pure 120g and 150g, Munken
Print Cream 80g and Arctic Volume White 170g
Format: 160×220 mm
No. of pages: 100 + inserts + 10-page-long
No. of photographs: 54
Print run: 800 copies (all signed and numbered)
Month of publication: October 2023
Publisher: BLOW UP PRESS, Warsaw, Poland
Printing & binding: Argraf, Warsaw, Poland
Embossing: Marceli Printery, Warsaw, Poland
Price: EUR 65.00 | USD 72.00 | GBP 57.00
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
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