Conversations about Germany: Anne Morgenstern

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When I received Anne Morgenstern‘s 2015 book Land Ohne Mitte in the mail, I knew immediately that it was a landmark publication. The book looks deeply into something that in the immediate next years would explode out into the open in Germany, first with Pegida and then with the far-right AfD, a party that would openly establish racist and neo-fascist discourse in Germany.

It’s too easy and simple to tie all pf this to the East German states. After all, West Germany had had its fair share of far-right extremists. Before the AfD, those had mostly been bound to other far-right parties but had also had representation in the nationalist wings of the main conservative parties (to some extent, the latter is still true today).

Given its history, though, there was something different going on in East Germany, something that I had a hard time understanding, given my own biography as someone born in the West. Anne’s book pried something open, and it helped me see things less black and white. A little later, Anne produced Reinheit, another book that centered on something very specifically German.

What’s striking about Anne’s work is her ability to convey things using an imagery that is, for a lack of a better description, visually endearing first — before it cuts to the chase. This approach might confuse non-Germans and Germans alike, given that photography made in Germany often (but not always) is very cerebral, at best keeping things at arm’s length. It’s not that Germans have no emotions, but they don’t tend to wear them on their sleeves. For better or worse, much of Germany’s photography reflects this approach.

Given the preceding and given my interest in German photographers dealing with their country’s hugely problematic history, I had wanted to speak with Anne about her work and about what it meant to her. For my ongoing series of conversations about Germany, I reached out to her, and much to my delight, she was happy to chat. For this conversation, I spoke with Anne over Zoom at the end of November this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it was translated from its original German.

Jörg Colberg
You were born in 1976 in Leipzig. So you experienced quite a bit of the GDR?

Anne Morgenstern
Yes, and I think it had a big impact on me. I’ve read a lot about it later. It’s very interesting to realize that it’s not just me, but that quite a lot of things and sensitivities that shape me are partly a historical phenomenon.

I find that very interesting because I grew up in West Germany. I have the imprint of the “other side”. How would you say that it shaped you? How would you describe that?

I have to tell you a little bit about my biography. It’s pretty rough. When the Wall came down… Actually, I have to start a little earlier. The year 1989 was a really dense affair.

My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a senior lecturer in German and journalism. She had an old apartment. Since there was a housing shortage in the East, my parents moved in with her. The four of us lived in the apartment, which wasn’t always easy, especially for my parents.

In the fall of 89, I was 13 and the Monday demonstrations were in full swing. The mood was very charged. In my family, too. My mother always wanted to go to the West and probably would have gone without my father. Then, three weeks before the fall of the Wall, my father took his own life. From today’s perspective, I would say that my father was severely depressed. He slept a lot, he was very withdrawn, and as a person he was always somehow absent. I assume that the fear of change, the fear of the unknown was the trigger for his suicide.

I later realized that my father also was a person of his generation in the GDR. There were many depressed people who were not allowed to be depressed. There were an inordinate number of suicides, but you were not allowed to call them that. It was the same in my family. You weren’t allowed talk about it. “You don’t do that.” Therefore, I had to come up with something that happened to my father.

Then the Wende happened. When the Wall came down, my mother applied to leave the country. In February 90, she immediately moved with me to Munich because her sister lived there. My aunt had left for the West when she was 19, before the Wall had been built. She was seven years older than my mother. That’s why we ended up in Munich. As I said, I was 13 years old. I think that’s really a difficult age.

Later, I read a very good book by Steffen Mau, Lütten Klein. As someone born in 1968, the author himself grew up in Lütten Klein, a prefabricated-housing estate near Rostock. He is a micro-sociologist and can describe these phenomena extremely well. That was an incredible eye-opener for me. My generation is called Wende-Kinder [children of the Wende]. These are people who were born in the GDR between 1975 and 85 and whose parents were completely overwhelmed and marked by existential fears.

The parents were born between 1940 and 1960, had lived in the GDR for too long and were so firmly rooted in it. They were no longer young enough or already too established to be able to go through the tour de force of having to redefine themselves. The Wende-Kinder are a generation of people “lacking guidance”. That’s how Mau describes it. Everything changed 180 degrees. Teachers no longer had any authority. And the parents were, as I said, totally overwhelmed. In some cases, children had to assume the position of adults. Adults didn’t provide any guidance. This is similar to what happened to me.

My mother was very cool. But she was a woman of her time from the GDR: independent, emancipated, in a practical, everyday sense. She left without a man. That is a phenomenon that was typical of the GDR. The migration movement from the East to the West was dominated by women. In some areas, more than two-thirds of the women went to the West, and the men stayed behind. Women were used to having jobs, earning their own money. They were more flexible and pragmatic. That’s why they were much better off in the West, especially in the service sector — unlike the male labor heroes who stayed behind.

And then I had this hard impact in Munich: to feel what it means to be an Ossi. I thought that that was the ultimate crash.

What was that like for you at that age? I remember when I was 13 years old that was a weird time.

It was really terrible.

I’m trying to imagine having to move at that age into a completely different environment… And Munich of all places. I’m from the north and lived in Munich for a while. I hated it.

Munich is still okay. I moved to the affluent suburbs because my aunt lived there. I don’t know why my mother did that. She never suffered from it and always thought it was a bit cool. I thought it was terrible. Even today, when I go to those suburbs, I feel paralysed and suffocated. That’s what I was trying to work through with Reinheit, the tightness that surrounds me there. It was such a double whammy, Munich and Ossi. Munich is difficult anyway. [laughs] Add to that being East German… That was something totally new for me.

Up to that point, I had had a very nice childhood and a great youth despite my absent father. And lots of girlfriends. That was really beautiful. It actually hurt me to leave, even though there was the promise of the West. When I arrived there, I thought “What? That’s it? That can’t be what everyone was talking about.” Bavarians and Westerners can be very… Well, it’s probably the Bavarians, because I didn’t know the others. But to be burdened with being inferior — that was quite corrosive, also from the teachers’ side. At times, that was rather tough.

I lived in Munich myself, and even as a West German I found it very restricted and narrow minded. I imagine it’s very difficult to be an East German there.

When the Wende came, I had just gone to university. I had lived at home for a very long time, I was dependent on my parents. For the first time, I got out to study physics.

When were you born?


Ah, so you’re another one from 68.

Yes. I got out and studied in Bonn, the capital of West Germany. That’s when I had to stand on my own two feet for the first time. The fall of the Wall and reunification — with all the upheavals in my personal life, I didn’t really notice it so much. But I noticed that I was unable to place people in East Germany.

Two years before I graduated from high school, my class went on a trip to the GDR, to Dresden and Postdam.

The real GDR experience?

Yes. That had been the only opportunity I had had to meet people from the GDR. The FDJ had a lot of control over whom you would meet. There was a youth evening where selected GDR youths hung out with us. It was just like you’d imagine it from West German anti-GDR television programs.

I am a little bit envious. If I could time through travel, I would definitely go there, but as an older me.

Right, that’s what I always think. I often think about it, even if it doesn’t make sense. I really wish that at the time in Bonn or during the trip to the GDR… I wish I had had the knowledge I have now.

Absolutely! I agree completely.

That is such a missed opportunity for me, not dealing more closely with the Wende. At the time, I was very actively looking into West Germany’s Nazi past and asked around in my family, “What happened then?” All those stories you heard — nobody knew anything, and there had been so few people who had actively participated… I simple didn’t believe that. That just couldn’t be correct.

I don’t believe that, either.

Over time, the truth emerged. So I looked into German history. On the other hand, though, I was busy with petty personal problems and practically missed German history unfold in real time.

I can’t imagine being thrown into a completely different world at a time like that. That world is not so different in itself, because there are also Germans. But at the same time, it is totally different.

How did you find the topic that became Land ohne Mitte? Where did you study?

I studied in Munich at the Staatliche Fachakademie für Foto-Design (State Academy for Photo Design), and then in Zürich at the ZHdK (Züricher Hochschule der Künste — Zurich University of the Arts).

I read the interview with Jonas Feige. He says that he has always been interested in history. I am a person who always tried to pay attention in history classes. But I had very bad history teachers. I never understood the larger context.

Something I always have to do if I don’t understand something is to look at it from the inside. I knew Michael Schmidt a little bit. He pushed me and told me [Michael Schmidt voice:] “You have to work on something that has something to do with you!” So I started taking pictures of some of my girlfriends. That was very pretty lame.

Why did I then go back to the East… After the birth of my son, I had an endless longing a) to get away again and b) for these places. The sociological moment that resulted from it came later. In the beginning, I had a longing for landscapes in the East. I chose Knappensee. I didn’t want to go to Leipzig because it’s a city. It had changed very quickly. The city of my childhood had disappeared extremely quickly.

That’s another aspect of me being a child of my time. Having to deal with it again and again – that always comes back. Also the longing for it. The visuals — the symbols, the pictures, but also one’s biography — that was not accepted. It wasn’t valued either. I had a longing for big trees and trails and lush, strangely overgrown hedges.

So I went to Knappensee, which is in Upper Lusatia. I researched it a little bit. The area is a conglomeration of my mother and my grandmother. My mother used to work as an engineer, industrial hygiene. Se took measurements in lignite-fired power plants to see how much of a health risk they posed. She also did asbestos measurements.

My grandmother was a Germanist. There were letters between her and Brigitte Reimann, a writer. Reimann wrote a lot about everyday working life in the GDR. She also wrote about an architect, “Franziska Linkerhand,” who was involved in designing a new city and was critical of it. For a while, Reimann lived in Hoyerswerda. She went to these places especially to be able to write from there, from the inside. That’s why I went there. There was something for me.

The first time I went to Upper Lusatia with my mother, who was babysitting my son. I kept walking around the lake. The lake is in the book. It comes up again and again. At some point I realized that that wasn’t enough. [laughs] I printed out the pictures that offered something, put them on the floor, and asked myself “what’s missing?”

I realized that I might have to go to Hoyerswerda after all. At first I wanted to avoid it, because for me it was associated with the events of 1991. But then I went anyway. I started to meet people there, at parties, in pubs, etc. Before I did that, there was no tension at work.

When I work on photographs, I always need something that attracts me very much and that repels me at the same time, something that is a bit unwieldy — full of love and yet raw. That’s where I was digging: where do I find this unwieldy material?

With Hoyerswerda, you picked something really unwieldy.

It’s unwieldy, but also not so unwieldy. I also have a very loving attitude towards it. I can see myself very much in it. And I accept that, I think, also the people. But of course I exclude the radical right-wing scene from that.

Perhaps my reaction is simply based on how I perceived Hoyerswerda at the time. I read newspapers and Der Spiegel, and I learned about the big news items while I was busy studying physics. Hoyerswerda was one of the big topics where I was just shocked. I remember that. I asked myself how it was possible that something like that was back, that something like that was happening again in Germany. I don’t remember if it was the first pogrom…

It was the first pogrom.

Now, I know how little I understood at the time about what was going on in the East. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t go there to deal with it myself. To meet people and so on. But I remember how shocked I was. And that’s why this is a huge issue for me. I’ve also been dealing with the subject in my own work: the far-right movement in Germany. That’s why I find it so impressive that you have dealt with it. But with your socialization and your background, you probably see the topic differently.

Yes, I have always tried not to treat this particular aspect as the main part. It is one aspect of many, and it shines through. In my work, I’m fundamentally interested in approaching it without prejudice: To look for the places, to try to understand. I try to understand what is going on or what is present not with my head but with my heart.

Do you know the Thomas Heise’s films? He produced many documentaries in the East, Stau – Jetzt geht’s los and Kinder. Wie die Zeit vergeht. He did a lot of interviews. He did these in 1990, 91, 92, and then again in 2007 in Halle Neustadt. In the past, they were always impossible to find. But now they are available from the Bundesamt für politische Bildung (Federal Office for Political Education). I can highly recommend them. Among other things, there are interviews with 18, 19, 20-year-olds from the right-wing scene. They are very interesting.

Steffen Mau takes a completely different approach in his book. Unfortunately, it was not yet available when I did my work. He describes how the emigration of women and the fact that men stayed behind created a strongly male-dominated society in the East. Between 1991 and 2005, in some cases two-thirds of the women left for the West, excluding Leipzig and Berlin. That is the first point.

The second point is that there was a very striking drop in the birth rate at the time of the Wende. Normally, something like that would have been in the single digits. But due to the combination of these two facts, there really were years in which there were 300 men for every 100 women.

Mau dives deeper into it. Women tend to marry men that are socially better off. Consequently, there was such a blatant asymmetry between men and women that the classic working man ended up remaining single. There is the theory that men in male-surplus societies tend to be much more violent and that testosterone levels of men who are not in relationships are much higher. So they have to assert themselves through much more aggressive, physical behavior. That’s how Mau attempts to describe it.

On top of that, of course you have the issue of self-esteem, of not being seen, the fact that one’s descent, which has so much to do with identity, was never recognized. When you’re from the East, this wound always returns. It’s soooo deep. That’s really crazy. Of course, the AfD is heavily exploiting this, including with sentiments such as “now they’re also taking away our women.”

That’s consistent with what you see with neo-fascism here in the U.S. A lot of it runs on the idea of masculinity. A perceived loss of power, a loss of recognition. People are suffering from that — whether they’ve lost their jobs in the Rust Belt or they don’t have jobs. I think the U.S. is even more conservative than Germany in that regard. The image of the man, the masculine, is still much more pronounced here than in Germany. That’s where it gets charged, probably to a similar extent as in East Germany, only against a different background. Masculinity is seen as under threat. The right-wing right offers a way out with a constructed identity.

You now live in Switzerland. How long have you been there?

Forever. Twenty years.

Then you’ve been in Switzerland just as long as I’ve been in the USA. Switzerland is a foreign country, it’s not Germany. So you have the view of Germany from the outside as an East German who grew up partly in the former West Germany and then saw the reunified Germany. How do you see Germany against your personal background? What does that mean to you, personally but also as an artist?

I become much more German in Switzerland, because I am perceived much more as a German and treated as a German. In Bavaria, I was more of an East German.

I like this being foreign. I like it. In the beginning, it was difficult as well. Switzerland was much more encrusted then, it wasn’t very open. Zurich is not Switzerland, of course. You have to say that, too. Because of the bilateral agreements, there are many more foreigners in Zurich now. When I started studying, it wasn’t like that. Then, I found it all very difficult. But it has become very easy to live in Zurich. You can choose the people you want to see. [laughs] As a German, it’s a bit more difficult in Switzerland. For the Swiss, Germans are often too fast, too loud, too self-confident. Of course, that’s a total turn-off.

Now I can look at Germany in a completely different way. I also feel very connected. I realize how deeply it is embedded. I don’t know whether that is being German, but I know how much of a connection I have to the country of origin. It’s actually much more the East than Bavaria. Bavaria also influenced me, but not as deeply.

I notice it very strongly when it comes to language. German language in general, words that trigger me, that somehow are quite old and make something vibrate and sound in-between. Language delimits, but it also opens up a world. It influences perception. It is very powerful and it can be a tool. But it can also be deficient, have many gaps, and not describe things.

I think the German language is an absolutely beautiful language, even if it is a harsh, harsh language. But I feel at home in it. When I make work, I always try to describe or explore this gap that you can also find in language. To show or try to tell things that can’t necessarily be told with language either: Gaps, vibrations, things that can happen where spaces open up that cannot or cannot yet be described. In that sense, the German language has something to do with my work.

Winter Workshops 2023

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A workshop can provide a productive laboratory for a photographer who is interested in exploring a particular aspect of their practice. This is the main idea behind the workshops I’m offering. They each cover a specific topic or a part of a photographer’s practice. During a workshop, participants will produce new work, which is then being discussed by the group. At the same time, there will be discussions around the workshop’s focus that look into relevant pieces or photography/art and/or writing.

Unless otherwise noted (please see details below), the workshops will be held online in groups of 4 to 8 participants. Workshops are strictly limited to a relatively small number of participants to maximise the time and attention available for them.

Writing for photographers

You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.
— James Baldwin

You might not think of yourself as a writer. However, as a photographer you will be unable to avoid having to write about your work. Photographs are typically organised into projects, which come with a statement. Another important piece of writing is the artist statement — also a standard requirement in the world of photography. How do you produce those pieces of writing, though, when you’re not a writer?

We all have been taught to write. In fact, we write on a regular basis, whether it’s a shopping list on a small piece of paper, an email to a friend or business partner, a birthday card for a loved one, or whatever else. But that’s just writing, whereas producing the statement — that’s Writing, isn’t it? Well, no.

In this four-week workshop, we will cover the basics of how to write about one’s photographs. Specifically, we will see how the distinction between writing and Writing sets up a false dichotomy. We will learn what constitutes good writing in a photography/art context, and we will practice and discuss writing. In addition, the role of writing as a very useful tool for one’s photographic practice will be explored.

At the end of the workshop, each participant will have arrived at a fully formed artist statement, plus a statement for one of their projects. In addition, each participant will know how to apply the principles taught in the workshop to their future practice.

Four weeks
Sundays 12:00pm-2:00pm, 2:30pm-4:30pm EST
8, 15, 22, 29 January 2023
Open to all ages and intermediate to advanced levels
Participants need to have a finished or almost finished project that they can write about
Limited to 4-8 participants

The Workshop of Boredom

I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me.
(from: The Buzzcocks — Boredom)

If you have no concept of time, you have no concept of boredom. You’re bored because the flow of time appears to be in conflict with what you expect to be happening. If you think about it this way, boredom, possibly the most underappreciated state to be in, opens up a vast field of possibilities. Boredom is not an external fact; it is not something you are subjected to by outside forces. Instead, it’s the outcome of a mismatch between the external world and the internal one.

“The contemporary terror of boredom, which testifies to its apparent inevitability,” Elizabeth Goodstein wrote in 2005, “is saturated with the post-Romantic resignation to a world in which neither work nor leisure can bring happiness to subjects who no longer hope for divine restitution in the next.” Eight decades earlier, while exploring the idea of boredom Siegfried Kracauer concluded that “[i]f […] one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.”

The above provides the broad outlines of this workshop. Over the course of four weeks, its participants and I will explore what boredom actually means in the context of photography. We will study how the patience Kracauer mentioned can lead to an expansion of what might be considered an interesting photograph. To this end, we will discuss a number of texts, and we will set out to produce new work. In a nutshell, the idea is to make “boring” pictures in order to understand how useless such a descriptor actually is when thinking or talking about photography.

Each meeting will consist of a mix of conversations. Each week, there will be a text to discuss (which include both Goodstein’s and Kracauer’s essays). There will be examples of photography or other art to look at and discuss (participants are encouraged to share something that have come across as well). And there will be discussions of the work the workshop participants have produced since the last meeting. Given the short time spans between sessions, participants are strongly encouraged to use a digital camera or smartphone to take pictures.

Four weeks
Saturdays 12:00pm-2:00pm, 2:30pm-4:30pm EST
7, 14, 21, 28 January 2023
Open to all ages; intermediate to advanced levels
Limited to 4-8 participants

If you’re interested in participating in one of the workshops of if you have any questions, please be in touch:

Conversations about Germany: Tobias Kruse

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Earlier this year, I spoke with my friend Tobias Kruse about Deponie, a body of work that he photographed in East Germany. At the time, it was only available as a newsprint publication. But now, Tobias has made a new version with Spector Books, and the photographs are going to be on view in Berlin from mid December this year until the end of January 2023. This seems like a good moment to share the conversation I had with him.

Actually, it was maybe the most unusual interview I’ve ever done. I asked an introductory question, and Tobias told me the whole story, without me having to ask any further questions. The following is a transcript of Tobias’ words, edited for length and clarity and translated from the original German.

I had wanted to work on the project for a while, maybe for ten years. Then in 2015 the so-called refugee crisis and Pegida and the AfD happened. All of a sudden I had the feeling “Shit, you’re familiar with this. This happened before. You wouldn’t be able to go to a restaurant in the countryside without getting harassed from all sides. You know what it’s like to feel unsafe everywhere.“ There was this feeling of „I don’t belong here“, a feeling of „this is dangerous“. Everything could be dangerous. It could be dangerous to go shopping. Somehow the situation had come back, where these people, these radical people, were no longer in hiding but instead showed themselves and their mindsets.

One day, Ingo Taubhorn called and told me that I had received the Olympus Recommended Stipend. That’s what it was called. Unfortunately, Olympus was sold, which ended the relatively short period when this stipend existed. There were only two rounds. Anyway, that gave me an OK amount of money and some Olympus camera gear. I had to use the camera, that was part of the deal. That made it a little bit difficult for me, because I’m not good with new gear. Actually, I simply don’t care about camera gear. When I have a camera that works for me I’m happy.

The grant provided the perfect opportunity to work on the project. But how do I explain what I wanted to do? I didn’t really know I wanted to take pictures of. But I knew the feeling associated with the project very well. It’s a feeling of anxiety, of something unpleasant, associated with the concept of Heimat. The focus is indeed that I am from the East. But it doesn’t only center on the 1990s.

Something has emerged (already at the time of the fall of communism) that was kept under wraps for a long time. It’s the fact that there were and still are very widespread authoritarian attitudes in the East. After the end of Nazi dictatorship those continued during the SED dictatorship. It was as if those attitudes were immersed in nutrients. They held up quite well. And that has continued until today. There is the relatively well-known study done by a Leipzig centre studying authoritarianism, which is being conducted every two years. It uses relatively subtle questions to ask Germans how they feel about certain things. Results have consistently shown that the trust in authority is actually much higher in the East than in the West. Researchers produce statements such as „What Germany needs right now is a single, strong party that embodies the people as a whole.“ And 38% of people agree with that. That’s crazy, isn’t it?

The 90s were totally intense. I was 10 when the Wall came down and 11 when reunification happened. At the beginning of the 90s, there were Nazis everywhere in the East. You’d go outside and ask yourself “Which way do I walk now? I’d rather not cross Platz der Freiheit“, because that’s where they always met. We always hung out in the youth center. That was a fairly left-wing youth club in Schwerin, the city I grew up in. The center was also attacked by them. At the same time, after the fall of communism there was a deluge of drugs in the East.

For me things were clear: as soon as I’m able to I’m going to go to Berlin. Back then, that was simply the place to be. In addition, party people from the big cities had started to discover the Mecklenburg fields as locations to party. The Fusion Festival was born at that time. Back then, those were events with 300 people. We were there, too. So on the one hand, you had a strong right-wing scene in the East. On the other hand, there also were alternative subcultures in smaller numbers. We were always fewer than them. And what we did wasn’t all good either. Many people took way too many drugs. Friends of mine died. These aspects show up a little bit in the work.

There was also such an intense moment of freedom. You have to remember that we had been locked up, and suddenly we weren’t anymore. I was young, but I perceived everything very clearly. My parents were Bürgerbewegte, they were members of the opposition. For them, everything was great. My father took part in disbanding the Stasi in the Schwerin district. For us, the fall of the Wall was the most important event in our lives. Now we were released into freedom. But we had no money. We were unable to make use of our freedom. That sucked. We found ourselves being told “now you can travel to America“. But who was going to pay for that? You also didn’t have money to buy Coca Cola. You had to shop at Aldi.

During the first few years, people tried to save their money. For years, people saved money. We kids tried to find shortcuts. We wanted to live life to the fullest. But it became clear relatively quickly that throughout the 90s we were second-class citizens. So there’s this component of identity politics. We were looked down upon. We were ridiculed. It simply sucked to be an Ossi. That only ended at the beginning of the oughts. In Berlin it was a little different because East Berlin was considered cool. But you really only were able to say “I’m from Schwerin” in Hamburg or Munich without worrying about it in the noughties. We East Germans have a fine sense for that. If you’re asked at a party where you’re from, you’ll often hear „ah, oh… from the East“.

Coming back to what I mentioned earlier, about that faith in authority and Nazis in the East… In fact, another type of fascination with the Nazi era has been preserved. My grandparents’ generation who had fought in the war — they were treated a bit like heroes. They had been in France, they had seen the world but in connection to the war. That fact was glorified so much. Those had been the good times before the war. In the East, there were many Nazis, people who were born at the end of the 60s or at the beginning of the 70s, who celebrated this. Of course, that erupted when the Wall came down: now we’re somebody again. All the West German neo-Nazi leaders recognized that immediately. They went East and grabbed people: the dissatisfied, the unemployed, the disoriented, kids… That’s still the case today. The AfD’s entire leadership is from the West.

There is a historical component that has always interested me very much. In the East, it was a thing to look for Nazi memorabilia in the woods. After the war, there were no funds. What was left behind from the war was not properly cleared. Perhaps metal was needed, meaning tanks were melted down. But even today, the forests are still full of war materials. The East had been one of the main theatres of war, because the Reich capital had been there. Around Berlin there still are thousands of installations, bunkers, and all the concentration camps: Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald… Buchenwald alone had over 400 subcamps. South of Berlin, East Germany was littered with subcamps. Nobody can tell you that they didn’t know that. They were everywhere. In Nordhausen in the Harz region, it was on the market square. Sachsenhausen is right here in Oranienburg. In Fürstenberg was the Ravensbrück women’s camp. These two concentration camps also had subcamps as far away as the Baltic Sea. In Buchenwald you arrive at this big parking lot, and there are old SS barracks. The Buchenwald staff lived there. Now Weimar squares live in them. The houses belong to the memorial. They rent them out themselves. All this Nazi shit — that was already an issue in the 90s. There are bunkers here that were never cleared out. Of course, Nazis happily have their campfires there.

And there is the landfill, the starting point of the story. If you drive from Schwerin to Lübeck, where back then we went from time to time, you drive past the landfill. (Lübeck was the closest place where you could buy Stüssy tshirts. “Forty marks for a tshirt – are you out of your mind?“) In 1979, they set up a landfill close to the German-German border near Lübeck. The idea was to earn foreign currency. It was done as a hush-hush operation that was illegal under GDR law. Western waste was dumped there for cheap, including from companies such as Shell and Bayersdorf. A lot of waste came from Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, but also from Holland. It’s a toxic-waste dump, the largest toxic-waste dump in Europe. There was a toxic-waste scandal in Seveso, Italy, in the 80s. Barrels disappeared in Seveso, and it is thought that they’re there. There still are eighteen million tons of toxic waste lying there, and nobody knows what to do with it. The operating permit for the landfill was granted on a questionable basis. It was not really legal, not even under GDR law. In the area, clay and gravel rivers alternate in the subsoil. It is relatively important to know whether it is clay or gravel. If it is gravel, it is bad. Lübeck is not far away, and they are worried that the groundwater will be contaminated. I thought this was quite a nice image for the unresolved issue of Germany’s East and West: toxic waste lying around in the landscape and nobody knows how to deal with it.

You cannot change the fact any longer that after reunification, the entire East was sold to the West. That means that all the real estate is owned by West Germans. It will never get adjusted again. I think 5% of the real estate in East Germany belongs to East Germans. This totally cements the question whether you are an Ossi or Wessi. If you are an Easterner, you inherit nothing. The huge inheritances that are going on right now are all inherited only from West Germans to West Germans. Prices for real estate in the area surrounding Berlin — this surrounding area has become very large, it’s already half of East Germany — are as high as in Berlin. In the Uckermark, 100 kilometers from Berlin, you pay half a million Euros for a simple little farmhouse. Ten years ago it still cost 50 thousand Euros. The people who can buy it are West Germans. Now, West Germans are buying up the very last remnants. It remains to be seen how such a social transformation is going to be handled. You have to make sure that things are fair. In Poland, for example, they put a stop to this development. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, foreigners became practically unable to buy real estate in Poland. It was possible, but you had to found a company and that was a considerable effort. But that didn’t happen here. That is another aspect of Deponie.

It was obvious that I wouldn’t do a reportage about a landfill. It’s just a huge green mountain. It’s not interesting. I started taking pictures in the immediate vicinity and realised relatively quickly that that wouldn’t work. So I decided that the project would cover the whole East. I went to places that clearly played a role in my personal life but also for the country: Hoyerswerda, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and other locations. I drove around a lot. In terms of distance, I covered three times the circumference of the GDR: 8,000km. But initially, I didn’t know what to photograph at all. I didn’t have a list of subjects. I started making a list of words that came to mind while driving. I tried to make sense of them. When you think about a word, you start thinking about images. In the end, I also compiled a list of the places I’d been to. Combined, this resulted in the list that is part of the exhibition.

Images then fell into place. You can also push your luck when you go to AfD events or demonstrations. There’s a legal element to it, because you’re not allowed to photograph people without their consent. But you are allowed to do so at demonstrations and political events.

Violence was a topic. Where do you get a picture of a people’s brutalization? I don’t necessarily mean a brawl. Where does brutalization manifest itself? I simply went to a football match: Dynamo Dresden playing FC Sankt Pauli in Dresden. I got accredited and stood at the sidelines. I always stood with my back to the pitch in front of this wall of 5,000 hooligans from Dresden. Whenever the La Ola wave came around, they always performed the Hitler salute. I had not expected that they would show it so openly. I wanted that picture. I wanted to tell the story of the past and present at the same time. That was important for me. That’s why early on, it was obvious that I had to photograph in black and white to create that connection.

How to read a photobook

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How do you go about reading a photobook? What exactly do you do to understand a book that operates purely on a visual level? In the following, I want to focus on books that either have no text whatsoever or very minor supportive text. These are books that either show the titles of the pictures somewhere near them — whether right underneath or maybe on the opposite page, provide them in a list in the back, or simply do without titles. In these books, a viewer you only have the pictures to understand what’s going on (because the titles mostly don’t help). How do you understand such books?

I wanted to write this article for all those people who aren’t necessarily deeply invested in the photobook already. Maybe you are starting out in photography and are discovering the medium’s many different possibilities. Maybe you have been looking at photographs for along time, but books aren’t really your thing (yet). In a somewhat regular fashion, someone will tell me (typically in an email) that they have trouble approaching photobooks. As someone who is part of the world of the photobook, I will admit that we don’t necessarily make it easy for newcomers to embrace the very books for which we desperately want (and need!) to find a larger audience. While there isn’t any single reason for this (it’s too conveniently populist to claim that the world of the photobook consists of snobs), I think we can (and should!) do a lot better. My hope is that the following might help all those who are interested in photobooks but who don’t quite know how to go about them.

To begin with, it’s important to disregard a few very common but completely misguided ideas. First, while there are a number of books that have come to occupy important spots in the world of the photobook, you’re actually under no obligation to like any of them. I just dismissed snobbery as a convenient talking point. But there is a fair amount of snobbery when it comes to well-known books. If you don’t believe me, try telling someone that you really don’t like William Eggleston’s Guide, say, or that you think Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is overrated. The cult created around these types of books is off putting (to say the least). That’s too bad. But you’re still not obliged to like any of the famous books. Or you can like some and dislike others. That’s all good.

Especially if you’re starting out with photobooks, you want to first find books that you respond to — for whatever reason. If one of those books happens to be a famous one, that’s nice. But it doesn’t mean quite as much as you might imagine. It’s true that some of the famous books can teach you a lot about photography. But the same is true for many non-famous ones. Consequently, as someone starting out with photobooks, the key is to engage with the books you respond to, regardless of what they are and regardless of who made them.

When you discover books that resonate with you, you’ve made your first step into the medium. Even if you couldn’t tell why you respond to them, you have started to pick up on how and what they communicate. That’s very important. This gives you a good basis to continue looking. After all, looking at photobooks should be mostly a source of enjoyment, regardless of what form that enjoyment takes. Remember that enjoyment is always personal: mine might be very different than yours. But mine is not any more relevant than yours. I think this is a very important lesson for someone trying to look into photobooks: in the end, it’s always going to be about your personal enjoyment. In all likelihood you are the only person who can gauge what that means.

If you’re new to the photobook you need to realise that there is no prescribed way to look at one, and there is no prescribed outcome of that looking, either. However you want to look at the book is fine, as long as it feels right for you. You can go about it very slowly, looking at each photograph for along time. You can go about it rather quickly, going back and forth between pages (that’s what I typically do). Anything works that allows you to discover something in the book. The reason why I am writing this is because looking at photobooks is not necessarily something that you either know how to do or not. Instead, it’s a way of engagement that expands and changes with time. You will want to give yourself the mental space to find your own engagement with these books. This will take some time, and you will have to be fine with that.

In the very beginning, you obviously will pick up on less than someone who has spent many years with books. But instead of focusing on what you’re supposed to pick up (which doesn’t exist), focus on what you’re picking up. What are those pictures doing that come one after another? What emotions do they create in you, what ideas do they launch? Be aware of what’s happening inside you, and take that — and only that — as the basis from which to expand your engagement with photobooks. While you might start out with some wrong ideas or conclusions, as you continue your exploration, you will learn more, which help you to correct misinterpretations.


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