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  A Celebrity Photographer Finds True Meaning in the Little Things: Into the Woods, with Moritz Schmid
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A Celebrity Photographer Finds True Meaning in the Little Things: Into the Woods, with Moritz Schmid

Vivian Kanchian
Vivian Kanchian
July 01, 2024
14 min

For over 20 years, Moritz Schmid was a jet-setting fashion and advertising photographer. As he traveled to nearly 90 countries, partied his “ass off,” and captured some of the world’s most famous faces through his lens, this self-professed city kid found himself desperately seeking a more balanced way of life. Whenever he could, he would retreat into the woods, where he found a feeling of reconnection  – with himself and with nature. 

Eventually, he quit his longtime career to make the forest his office. His business, Into the Woods, offers retreats and workshops on the outskirts of Berlin, where he shares the gifts of forest bathing, mushroom foraging, art making, and re-embodiment through the practices of swimming, Qi Gong, and yoga.

For our interview over Zoom, I find Moritz perched on a small boat in the middle of a big, beautiful lake with a thick forest of trees behind him. 


VK: 

First of all, I think you may have one of the most breathtaking backdrops in an interview that I’ve ever seen. 

You’re currently running your retreats out of a town called Uckermark, is that right?

MS:

Yes, it’s a village that’s close to Berlin. 

Speaking of backgrounds, would you like to know how I got into this mushroom thing?

VK:

You’re one step ahead of me, but by all means – we can start there! 

MS: 

As you know, I was a photographer, and I was deep into the game. I was high up there in terms of my career, shooting people like Kate Hudson and Claudia Schiffer… all these big names. But, it was never really fulfilling for me. 

So, when I got home, whenever I could find the time, I would head into the woods, where I found genuine freedom, peace, and happiness. With time, it became more than just a hobby for me. These experiences actually turned my life around, and upside down. 

At that same time, I had noticed that the whole industry around mushrooms had begun to boom. So, I decided to go all-in. I quit my job as a professional photographer, and now, I apply those skills to running my retreats and to my art photography with mushrooms. It’s been really great. This work gives me a lot of energy and joy, and it’s nice that it has worked out, because shifting careers is always a gamble.


VK:

Not too long ago, I interviewed Ann Wood (Woodlucker) who was also a photographer who switched to making art that featured mushrooms and other botanicals. 

MS:

I’m actually connected with her.

It’s funny how all the mushroom artists, and people who are into mushrooms, are connecting worldwide. It’s really amazing for me to see.

And there’s no such thing as envy. The people who I have met are usually really nice and like to share their work and their knowledge, and to help each other out. So, it’s not just a saying that we’re connected like mycelium. It’s really like that. 


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VK:

You mentioned that you’re much more fulfilled in your career now. Can you tell me what has been the biggest difference in waking up doing what you’re doing, versus your time as a photographer?

MS:

What I’m doing now comes with a lot of freedom, and some pressure too. But ultimately, I get to wake up and do whatever I like. So, I decide what I’m gonna do with this beautiful day that I just woke up to, instead of a client telling me that I have to be on set at 4 in the morning and shoot some advertisement that nobody really cares about, and that’s going to be gone in 2 weeks. Being able to do what I love and getting props from other people for doing it is really heartwarming, and it strengthens my resolve that I’m on the right path. 

Also, I don’t have to deal with assholes [laughs]. Sorry to be so direct. But yeah, I chose a life of freedom and not dealing with other people’s bullshit. 

And then, of course, the connectedness is awesome. I get to put a smile on people’s faces. That’s a really big plus whenever I go out into the woods to do my retreats. People come up to me, and they’re just delighted to tell me stuff like, “I’ve never found a Bolete,” or whatever. It’s just such a pleasure.

At the end of the day, I teach them how to make a mandala using mushrooms and other natural materials, which is very meditative. Then, we take the same (edible) mushrooms that we’ve been using for the mandala photo, and we cook them up for dinner and eat them over a bonfire. It makes for some special moments. 

intothewoods1 1

It’s really something to see how easy it is to make people happy by just reconnecting them with nature. We live in a society in which everyone has their smartphone and their computer, and we’re constantly bombarded with information all day. Everything is human-made or AI-made. At the risk of sounding esoteric, it’s really a different kind of feeling to be out there, connecting with nature and realizing that we’re a part of nature. Although we have these super high-tech lives, and we’re always “connected,” it’s good to unplug every now and then and just get outside, forage for food, and look for the little things in life – like lichen, which is a micro-universe. It’s just so cool to see these tiny things, like mycelium, that, in reality, are so strong and have this immense power to connect everything. You don’t even see it, but it’s everywhere.

Call me crazy, but I think mushrooms rule the world, and I think they made life possible on this earth, and we’ve not given them the reverence that they deserve. 

VK: 

Right. They brought us here, and they can take us out!


VK: 

So, where do you make your home with these retreats that you do? Are you living in Uckermark, or are you traveling to the countryside from Berlin?

MS:

I live on the outskirts of Berlin. It’s right on the edge, from Berlin to the woods. I bought an old house that was built in 1933 and renovated the eff out of it. I stripped it down and kind of rebuilt it. So, now I have a house that’s 5 minutes away from the lake, 3 minutes away from the woods, and I live in a very tiny neighborhood that’s close to nature.

I drive 25 minutes, and I’m in the city again. But I’m so done with city life after living in the center of Berlin for 12 years. I grew up in Hamburg, which is a really beautiful town in the north of Germany. I think it’s the third biggest town in Germany. But Berlin is just a different energy. I still like to visit every now to go to exhibitions, or to have a nice dinner. I have a lot of friends who are in the art scene and restaurant business. It’s not like I’m a totally disconnected guy who lives out there in the woods, doing his thing. I’m still part of the “cool clique” in Berlin, but I’m the one who was the first to move out. And, the funny thing is, all the cool kids from Berlin are following me. There’s a lot of people moving out of the city, or who still live in the city, but like to book my classes and enjoy weekends in the countryside. I’m sort of considered the go-to guy … so whenever a celebrity or famous actor wants to go on a mushroom hike and has no idea where to go or what to look for, they call me, and I go into the forest with them.

VK: 

Sounds like you left the city, but the city somehow followed you.

MS:

Yeah, but in a good way. The best people have a sense for nature and really appreciate what I’m doing.


VK: 

The impression I’ve had in our short conversation is that you sound pretty exasperated by city life and the daily grind that comes with a highly demanding career. And, there does seem to be a general (post-pandemic) trend of people returning to nature, at least in the Western world.

You were sort of an early adopter of this slower lifestyle. What do you think sparked your making such a big change? And have you always felt this deep connection with nature?

MS: 

Going out into the forest has always balanced me. I used to live a very stressful life as a photographer! It was important for me to go out there, to catch my breath, and to be around nothing that’s human-made. 

And then, of course, I think it’s an age thing too. At 43, I’ve lived a very full life. I’ve traveled the world, and I’ve seen everything. Been there, done that. 

I also think that COVID had a huge impact on civilization. I don’t know how it was in the US. I  know that you guys had lockdowns, too. In Germany, there was a rule that you could only be with one person if you’re meeting inside, or you were allowed up to 4 people if you met outside. So, a lot of people started to go hiking and foraging, doing all these nature-based activities. I think this had a huge impact because people started wondering about their purpose in life and questioning their jobs and how they’ve been spending their time. During that time, I saw a lot of people making changes, quitting their jobs to do something totally new.

That’s one of the positive outcomes that COVID had, that people really found their way back to nature. 


VK: 

I heard someone say recently that we’ve reached a post-secular time, when people are less inclined to be science-minded and are searching for something to believe in – whether that be spirit, God, or nature. They’re looking for a higher purpose or meaning.

I think that getting lost in the forest, the setting in which so many of our fairy tales (like Grimms’), and life lessons take place, may bring back a sense of mystery in a world where everything seems so predictable. Are you finding that this is something people are seeking when they come to your retreats?

MS:

My audience is anyone from Berlin hipsters to average 60-year-olds who just want to learn more about mushrooms.

I do think some of the renewed interest in mushrooms might be that they are one of the few remaining unknowns. We live in a world where you can just Google everything within a few seconds. And mushrooms are still this mysterious thing. They can kill you easily, but there’s a lot of mushrooms that can heal you and possibly even save the world. I think we’ve only discovered a very small percentage of mushrooms that exist. I don’t know; I’m just one person, but my hunch would be that maybe they want to dream more, and they want to get blown away by something they didn’t know before, and they want to dive into the mysterious. Even though I know a lot about mushrooms, and I’m pretty good at identifying them, I want to keep that inner child alive. I want to continue to be amazed by what I find. So, I’m always worried that knowing more might screw it up for me.

When you talk about fairy tales and mushrooms, there’s always this mystical side about mushrooms. But then, of course, we have to talk about psilocybin. I know it’s different in the US compared to Germany. People here are very suspicious about it. It’s considered a drug. But it’s actually a mind opener and a way to access another dimension that’s always there, but hidden. And, it helps people reconnect with nature without a hangover. When you take psilocybin, you become one with nature. You can look at the bark of a tree for 5 hours and just be amazed by it. You understand how everything is connected and, how the universe is connected, and how every little thing on this planet is connected. And that’s a good thing.


VK: 

So, this leads me into a question about mycophobia. In his book, Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake talks about how some cultures (usually Eastern) are much more open to mushrooms, whereas Western cultures tend to be wary. How does Germany fit into these categories?

MS:

Foraging for mushrooms has always been a thing in Germany. The more you travel East, closer to Poland and the Czech Republic – you will find that everybody goes hunting for mushrooms. 

On the other hand…have you heard of Hildegard von Bingen? She was one of the first women to practice medicine, way back in the Middle Ages. She was kind of considered a witch for that reason.

Also, the Christian church has put mushrooms in this dark corner where they don’t belong, so they’ve always been connected with witchcraft and something evil or bad. For example, there’s a type of Bolete mushroom that’s called Witch’s Mushroom. You will find this to be a theme in many of the German names for mushrooms; there’s always some reference to witchcraft or something like that. So, there is a long history in Germany when it comes to mushrooms, but not magic mushrooms, but the edible kind. 

I visited the Amazon Forest 2 years ago. I went on a fishing (and mushroom exploration) trip to this reserve that only four people from the Western world have ever been –  21 hours away from civilization. I was very lucky to be able to go. And, I was seeing all these crazy mushrooms that I’m sure nobody has ever described before. But, the crazy thing was that when I asked the indigenous people who headed the reserve about them, they seemed very mycophobic. They would say, “We don’t know anything about it. Just leave them there, don’t even touch them!” They didn’t want to talk about it, and I couldn’t understand it. I thought, “Oh, fuck! I have to come back one day and see what I could find out”.

VK: 

Maybe they wanted to make sure you weren’t tempted to take any home with you. Maybe that was their goal [laughs].

MS: 

Oh, maybe. It didn’t seem like that, though. 

But, coming back to Germany for a moment. There’s always been a history associated with mushrooms, but I think a lot of our knowledge was lost during the Second World War. 

The ban on hunting for truffles in Germany dates back to the 1800s, with the German Kaiser (Emperor). He passed a law in the name of saving nature. Later, the Nazis came, and because the Jewish population were in the business of selling truffles, they said, “No more truffles for [just] you guys” because they’re fucking Nazis. And now, this law still stands, and no one can pick truffles. There’s a lot of mycologists who are actually getting together now to try to fight this law. Of course, we have to teach people how to do it sustainably, and not to dig up the whole thing and destroy the mycelium.

But, it just doesn’t make sense that you’re not allowed to hunt for truffles in Germany when you can do it in Italy and France. It’s allowed everywhere else, it seems. 


VK: 

That is quite a history.

For the people who might be reading this, and wanting to maybe attend one of your retreats, I want to paint a little bit of a picture for them. The location and activities seem so idyllic and peaceful.

intothewoods2 1

On your website, you write, “At the end of the beautiful village of Ringenwald lies the old Foresters House, embedded in a large fruit and flower garden, with cozy apartments for 2 to 4 people”. First of all, who’s the old forester? Is there a story there? 

MS: 

He’s not alive anymore. 

But it’s an old friend of mine who actually inherited the house from this old forester back in the day. And it’s really so beautiful. You know, Berlin is very flat. There are no hills or anything there. But this village is considered hill country. It has a beautiful landscape, and you have all these lakes around, so you can go for a swim. This is only one of the two places where I run my retreats. The other one is very similar. It’s called Märkischer Schweiz. It’s like the Switzerland of that region, because it also has some hills. And I’m very lucky to have a lot of friends all over because they let me run the retreats at these great locations for a fair price.

So, usually, I will advertise the events, and they sell out really quickly. The group meets up on a Friday, and I start with an introduction. Everybody gets their apartment, then we have a little food, followed by some forest bathing. On the first day, I do a lot of talking, to explain what lies ahead. Saturday morning, we start with a sunrise Yoga routine on this beautiful deck that overlooks the hills – when nature is waking up. Then, we take off into the woods, and there we do some shinrin-yoku, some forest bathing. We focus on just being in the woods without having any real purpose. It’s about being in the moment and maybe doing a little Qi Gong just to get the energy flowing and to get into the right mood, because usually what happens is that all these people from the city come in with that city energy. They want to “do” a retreat, and they want to find a lot of mushrooms, and they want to fill that basket as quickly as they can. And, what I have to do is to calm them down. I tell them, “Guys, if you want to find mushrooms… first of all, just breathe, relax, and find the right tempo.” If you want to find mushrooms you have to be really slow, and you have to really connect. It’s when you’re bending down to tie your shoelaces, or you have to stop for a wee or something; it’s in these magic moments that you realize there are mushrooms everywhere and wonder why you didn’t see them before. 

So, for example, I do a couples exercise, where I blindfold one of them, and the other one gets to take the blindfolded person through the woods. It’s about trust. It’s also about feeling stuff, like feeling the bark of a tree or feeling and smelling the moss.

I also like to give people lupes, so they can really zoom in on tiny things like lichen. 

These exercises help people get lost in the moment and to feel amazed by what they’re seeing. It automatically calms them down and makes them forget the surrounding world.

After about an hour of doing that… I like to annoy the people [laughs] by really getting them calm before we start foraging. So, we take a slow walk through the woods, looking through the trees, seeing all kinds of birds, and listening for things you might hear walking in the woods, really just dropping into the senses. Then, we go mushroom foraging!

Afterwards, we get together to have some food. I identify all the mushrooms that we find, and sometimes, I have to look them up. I also teach people how to identify mushrooms and how to be on the safe side.

Then, we start working on the mandalas, which is another very meditative practice. One of the things that’s very important to me is this idea of how we choose to fill our time. On an average day, let’s say you sleep 8 hours, so you have 16 hours left. How do you want to fill that time? Do you wanna fill it with some bullshit in your head? Whether it’s ruminating about a work colleague that wasn’t nice to you last week or whatever it may be for you. The alternative is to let all that go and not think about anything, [at least for a little while]. That’s the secret to this whole thing I do. It’s not only about mushrooms; it’s really about being in the moment. Looking at mushrooms and identifying mushrooms it’s just a trick that helps you empty your mind.


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VK:

Yes, and I think one of the things that we all need more of right now is to allow our minds to wander. This is where creativity blooms.

MS:

Oh, yeah, big time.

It’s good to not have a purpose sometimes. I mean, we all have a purpose. But you know what I mean – just not to have the next task lined up and to free your mind.

VK:

Right, some might say that freeing the mind is what leads us to our true purpose. 

MS:

Yes, your deeper purpose will come to you eventually if you make the space for it. That’s what happened to me, too.

VK: 

There seems to be a genuine service in doing what you love in life – and in doing work that you’re naturally good at.

It can have a profound ripple effect. So, if you’re happy in the work you’re doing, you’re more likely to be kind to others. And everyone you encounter takes some of the joy and goodwill you share with them, and spreads it to those around them… and so on. We need more of that in the world.


VK:

So, I have a funny question for you. You seem pretty fulfilled and happy in your day-to-day life. Tell me, what do you do to unwind? 

MS:

What do I do to unwind? [Looks confused]

It’s actually a good question, because sometimes [the events] do feel like work because I am leading and teaching the whole time. Sometimes, it gets stressful. Also, the social media piece can be so absurd or schizophrenic. I’m like, “Hey, I’m the nature guy”! But here I am online. So, I try to strike a balance. When it gets to be a bit much, I just fuck off, go into the water and go fishing. That’s my hobby.

For me, being on the water, that’s my freedom.

VK: 

Well, I want to thank you so much for being so willing and gracious to take this interview from one of your favorite places, when you’d probably rather be fishing! [laughs]

MS: 

What better place to do this interview than on my boat? And, I still have two hours until sunset, so I’m gonna go fishing now.


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Vivian Kanchian

Vivian Kanchian

Content Writer

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