Josef Hoflehner: In Zanzibar

March 1, 2012

By RF Staff

Zanzibar! The archipelago 30 miles east of Tanzania conjures a far-off and exotic land, but it’s exactly the kind of destination that Austrian fine art photographer, Josef Hoflehner, wanted to shoot for his latest book, ZNZ: Zanzibar. Zanzibar’s million or so population is 95% Islamic, with an economy based on spices and tourism. “The island was on my shortlist for two or three years,” Hoflehner says. “In late summer of 2010, I flew out of Munich and spent 16 hours getting to Dar es Salaam, via Dubai. Then, after a two-night stay in that polluted city, I took a 20-minute flight to Zanzibar where I stayed at a resort on the coast.”

Sometimes Hoflehner will make two trips to a location, the first to get an overview of the area followed by another to do the actual shooting. Other times, he’ll do intensive research and planning from his Austrian home, then hop on a plane and go. That’s how it was this time—a two-week trip to photograph the semi-autonomous island group surrounded by the Indian Ocean. 

Traveling Light
Once in Zanzibar, Hoflehner avoided the capital Stone Town. Though it was ripe with historic sites, he found it to be a huge market overcrowded with people. Instead, he chose to shoot on beaches along the coast where traditional, hand-made dhows—sailing vessels—are still made. Dhows carry a triangular sail, one edge of which is secured to a long wooden spar attached at a steep angle to the top of a stubby mast.

“The dhows in Zanzibar immediately take you back a century or so,” Hoflehner says. “In most other African countries—Egypt, for example—dhows are much more modernly built; they have latest-generation outboard motors and industrial-made sails bearing huge logos of Heineken or other companies.”

As for weather conditions, Hoflehner photographed during the rainy season and recalls that “there were a couple of thunderstorms each day. Though it was sunny at times, the sky was always covered with a very thin layer of high clouds so that the sky, water and sand often blended into each other.”

This gave his images a unique look—almost pictorial of a time long past. He shot about 50 rolls of Ilford PAN F Plus (ISO 50) using two Hasselblad cameras (the Super Wide and a 501CM, for which he had several lenses of different focal lengths). If one had to describe Hoflehner’s working technique succinctly, the word would be “simplicity.” To him, the image is everything and equipment must not get in the way. Once on the beaches, “it could be tricky to get the exposure right,” he says. “The sand is similar to snow, so you often have to overexpose by one to two stops. I consider my work to be very aesthetic, so if there were aesthetic problems with the subject, light or weather, I did not take the picture. Sometimes I waited for hours or even days to get the right weather or light for a specific location.”

Protection of his equipment was another story: “The sea was very calm so there were no big waves producing spray,” he says. “Even if there were, Hasselblad cameras are quite resistant since everything is mechanical.” He also kept a close eye on the air conditioning in his hotel room and rental car: “Otherwise you have to wait until the equipment acclimates—the camera case should be closed so this can happen slowly.”

Location Incidentals
Shooting seemed easy compared to daily hassles Hoflehner endured. He had arrived during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and food was not easily available during the day. Electricity at the hotel was erratic and swarms of mosquitoes invaded his room at night. The authorities were not exactly pleasant either—he was stopped at checkpoints about every five miles.

“Once they didn’t let me pass because, according to one officer, I didn’t have the correct driver’s license, but it was fine at the 25 checkpoints before,” he says. “Another day I was given a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt, in a country where up to a 100 people are on a bus that only has space for 30, and with another 10 riders on top.”

When he showed up in court to pay his fine, the police told him to go away, that “this time it’s free.” In the end Hoflehner suspected they wanted bribes but he says, “not with me, no chance. I would have loved to go to court and file a complaint.”

On the beaches, every fisherman became a travel agent hawking boat tours, and anything else. “I had the impression they would sell their mothers if they got an offer,” he says, his tone softening. “This is clearly an indication that it’s a very poor country.”

After Capture
Once back in Austria, Hoflehner went to work on the book. After his film was processed and scanned, his son Jakob used QuarkXPress to lay out the images that Hoflehner had chosen. “Our printers then printed a few images on various papers we pre-selected, so we could decide what paper was best,” he says. “Then they hand-bound a blank dummy book and slipcase in the right size and we had a de-facto book in our hands.”

Hoflehner is a stickler for perfection and insists on press proofs for each page rather than only a few sample ones, which is most of the reason why his books are profitable. “Sometimes the printers have to redo the proofs again and again until we are happy with the results,” he says. “Only then does the book go into production.”

At 72 pages, ZNZ: Zanzibar is one of the shortest of 13 books that Hoflehner has produced, but it has already almost sold out of its 1,000 limited edition run. “After all, it’s all about quality, and that’s what the book delivers,” he says. “It’s really beautiful—size doesn’t matter.”
Those who are familiar with Hoflehner’s exquisite images would readily agree. His limited edition silver halide prints command prices from $1,000 to more than 15 times that. “I make a good living at photography,” he says, “and it gives me a chance to travel and control my own destiny.”

See more of Hoflehner’s work at He is represented in the U.S. by the Stephen Cohen Gallery (NYC), in L.A. by the Bonni Benrubi Gallery, and in Canada by the Stephen Bulger Gallery (in Toronto). He can be e-mailed at:

Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator. He does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at and his workshop cruise site at