The Japanese

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If, like me, you have a hard time remembering people’s names, reading history books becomes a real chore, especially in cases such as Japan. There, for the longest time the ruling class played elaborate games with the idea of power, all of them of course at the expense of those not typically mentioned in history books at all: all those thousands of people listed as numbers in battles and all those millions of people whose job it was to sustain all of it.

Furthermore, the ruling class also created a bizarrely complicated power structure for the country, with emperors resigning the moment their heirs were old enough to take over, only to then continue ruling behind the scenes as “retired” emperors (often “cloistered”). This immediately doubles the number of characters because each emperor of course needed his own court (power structure). You thus get twice the number of names, a game made even more complicated by not uncommon name changes.

But power did not always reside with an emperor at all, whether retired or not. Other figures — it’s easiest to think of them as warlords — jockeyed for influence in a variety of positions, whose actual amount of power would shift as well. At some stages, being a shōgun was mostly meaningless. At other stages, you were the man (and yes, it’s almost all centered around men).

When Tokugawa Ieyasu reunited the fractured country in 1603, creating what became known as the Edo period, his most important achievement for the ruling class was the elimination of all of those power games. For the rest of the country, it meant peace, a peace that had been elusive for so long.

You would imagine that an arguably seminal figure such as Tokugawa Ieyasu would be featured prominently in a book that is centered on the lives of 20 Japanese people throughout the country’s history, but he is absent. As it turns out, Christopher Harding‘s The Japanese — A History in Twenty Lives is not your ordinary history book. Harding is a cultural historian. Consequently, the country’s culture features very prominently in the book.

For those eager to learn about the reunification, there is a chapter on the first of the three warlords who sewed the seeds for what Tokugawa would harvest later. In his earliest years, the fiendishly brutal Oda Nobunaga was simply known as “the fool”. Thankfully, the book only briefly mentions some of the brutality this particular man engaged in.

I have always considered it as a shortcoming that so few history books deal with anything other than power. For example, you can understand parts of Germany’s history through its rulers. But you will still not be able to understand why certain things evolved as they did and why the country even today is so insecure about its own identity. In the very different context of Japan, you could make the same observation.

Located near the much older and usually much more powerful Chinese nation, the Japanese looked to that region for inspiration in any number of ways, whether in terms of religion or culture. In fact, for the longest time the Japanese ruling class would learn and speak Chinese, adopting Chinese script to write their own language (for which previously there simply was no script).

The court was so engaged in cosplaying another country’s culture that what would turn out as one of the defining pieces of Japanese culture was produced by someone who had no real part in any of that: Murasaki Shikibu is one of the early characters in The Japanese. Her real name is unknown. “She was born around 973,”Harding writes, “at a time when it was considered poor form to record — or even use, in public — an aristocratic woman’s personal name.” Unlike the cosplaying aristocrats around her, Murasaki Shikibu left a lasting impression in the form of The Tale of Genji, arguably the world’s first novel.

Harding’s use of writers, monks, travelers, inventors, or financiers is masterly: instead of telling the story of Japan as one of battles and court successions and land reforms, it becomes one of people, around whom things are happening and who have a role, whether small or sometimes large, in it. Some of the stories are almost too fantastical to believe, such as Hasekura Tsunenaga’s travels to Europe via the Americas to meet with the pope some time in the early 1600s.

As a consequence, if there’s one overarching achievement — besides providing the sheer joy of reading an incredibly engaging book — The Japanese does the country a huge service. All too often, Japan is seen in the West as something that is just different; Orientalism — whether of the malign or now mostly benign kind — is never far away. By presenting the lives of twenty people, most of them as ordinary as extraordinary, for the reader any otherness encountered is always only the otherness of the past, an otherness that we all know from our own personal histories.

For this writer and photography critic, the book also hit a different note. Over the past few years, I have become very interested in Japan. But I have also become rather disenchanted with the fact that photography is usually discussed in ways that is not too dissimilar from how history is discussed. That photographers are embedded in their societies and that they often are deeply affected by them too often is simply ignored.

To stay in the context of Japan, I personally couldn’t care less about the Provoke movement’s use of blurry and grainy photographs if there is no mention of how the photographers got there in the first place, what the aesthetic actually says about its time, and what ideas were being played with by some of its practitioners. That way, the movement becomes a lot more interesting, because it speaks of a very particular time in recent Japanese history.

How such a retelling could be achieved is demonstrated by Christopher Harding in The Japanese — A History in Twenty Lives. Even if you’re not at all interested in the country, I suspect that you will still enjoy reading the book. Ultimately, it’s a collection of people’s aspirations, some fulfilled, others not; and not all heroes (if that’s even the right word here) remain untainted by their times.

Highly recommended.

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A Conversation with Thana Faroq

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In early 2021 I reviewed Thana Faroq‘s I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows, a book that foregrounded the photographer’s and other people’s experiences as refugees in the Netherlands. The book left a lasting impression on me.

Usually, it’s photographers taking on such topics as outsiders, which might or might not lead to all kinds of problems (particularly in the world of photojournalism, which often prefers flashy images at the expense of deeper, meaningful stories). Here, the photographer was directly affected herself. In other words, the separation between photographer and subject had ceased to exist.

Late last year, Thana’s second book, how shall we greet the sun arrived, with which she yet again challenged her way of working through the inclusion of very personal writing. The combination of these two books had me convinced that I needed to speak with her to find out more about the books and the person behind it. In April, we connected over Zoom. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Jörg Colberg
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people, me included, don’t really know all that much about Yemen. What would you like people to know about the country and your background?

Thana Faroq
I was born and raised in Yemen, absorbing its culture, language, and ideas. I’d like people to understand that Yemen is truly a beautiful country, despite the cliché it might sound like ‘oh my country is beautiful’. Beyond the harsh portrayals often seen in the media, there is beauty and peace. Socially, there’s a strong sense of cohesion, which isn’t usually highlighted. Being from Yemen gives me a deep sense of community. Its history is endlessly fascinating, and every day I discover something new, realizing how much more there is to learn about my culture and everything it entails. That’s what I wish more people knew about Yemen. As for the aspects I prefer not to mention, I’ll leave it to others to discover those on their own.

Jörg
I seem to remember that the country was divided into two right for a long time.

Thana
Yeah, it used to be divided into the south and the north, but that’s no longer the case since unification occurred in 1990. Occasionally, when I apply for things and need to select a country, I still see both options listed, but in reality, it’s been united. However, with the ongoing conflict, there’s a growing desire in the south to separate and become distinct again.

Yemen is actually what got me into photography, even though I started photography in the US during my undergraduate studies. But to be honest, it’s really hard to be a Yemeni woman and not have anything in your hands. You need to say a lot about a lot of things. Not necessarily the good things, the ones I mentioned before, but things you’re angry or frustrated about. Or you want to ask questions for the sake of asking questions. So Yemen got me into photography. We were a really small group of Yemeni women, a minority of photographers there. We weren’t many back then. For me, using the camera back then was an act of empowerment. The subject matter was not my main focus: It doesn’t matter what I photograph, but look at me, people! I’m holding the camera! That got me into photography.

I think that in a way Yemen challenges me. I hate it and love it at the same time. I never figured this relationship out.

Jörg
That is really interesting. I often tell people in the world of photography, that it’s not just the pictures. The act of taking the pictures can be very powerful. And often it’s more important than the pictures themselves. It sounds as if for you as a woman in Yemen, the camera in your hand was more important than the pictures themselves.

Thana
Definitely. I would not necessarily take selfies back then. The culture of selfies did not really exist. The camera gives me a sense of confidence. When I used to walk around the streets with a camera, I would hear: “Where’s her husband?” “Where’s her man?” “Where’s a family?” “She’s going around with a camera. Is she a foreigner?” The camera was really a protector. I am walking with a camera for a reason. It gives me the confidence. I claimed my space. And I loved it.

There were times I returned home empty-handed, without a single photo. Yet, I felt accomplished, as if I had captured something significant (not images), but their perceptions and emotions. Being a woman with a camera was enough to challenge people’s perception.

Jörg
I love that. I think photography is best where it can make people think or challenge people’s ideas. That’s so important.

Is it correct to say that you were forced to leave or that you had to leave Yemen? Maybe because of the war?

Thana
Well, how can I explain this?I left Yemen in 2016 after receiving a scholarship to study photography in London. At the time, I was quite naive, believing that the war back home would end by the time I completed my studies. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I was eager to return, but then the airport was bombed, leaving me stranded. In the UK, without a valid visa or a clear purpose, I felt utterly hopeless. This prompted me to seek asylum, and I chose to go to the Netherlands. Looking back, it was definitely the right decision.

When you hear that refugees don’t have a choice I want people to believe that. No, for sure they don’t have a choice. For real. I would have definitely not left my country if it wasn’t for what happened in the world.

I got the scholarship in London, and I wanted to be equipped with what I’d learn so I could go back and keep documenting everything. But if that space is not available anymore… If the woman with the camera cannot safely walk around anymore… That was not possible any longer.

Jörg
When you had to go through the process did you meet a lot of other people with similar experiences? I think a lot of people don’t understand how difficult that process is. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Thana
It took a few months. I was lucky because it was early. Now, it is getting difficult when it comes to asylum procedures in the Netherlands. At that time, it wasn’t that difficult. We were also few Yemenis here, and the media were reporting on the war. So we had legitimate reasons to apply for asylum.

But every day felt like three years or four years. It’s not easy. It’s the waiting part, which I talked about in the first book. You are waiting. You don’t have papers. Mentally, it was not okay for me to go somewhere, even though it was allowed. But I did not do anything. What if I crossed the street and somehow missed the lights? What would happen if the police ask for my papers and I don’t have any? Mentally, it was difficult. I didn’t feel that I existed at that time. If you ask me whether I was with other people… It’s hard to remember actually. I do not even remember that I was with someone. Of course, I was with people, with lots of people. But it was me — and all the world against me. And all those people were just in the shadows.

I always say this, also in the second book. We aged as women. We aged not in a physical sense, but I felt like I was 50, going through it on a daily basis, waiting… Am I gonna get the asylum papers? Am I in? Am I out? What is the situation? But somehow I used to see the light in the dark.The inspiration for my second book came from the daily gatherings with women over shisha and coffee in the camps. During these sessions, we discussed everything under the sun, love, movies, relationships, husbands, motherhood you name it… Everything, that is, except the war. These conversations have occupied my thoughts and taught me much about myself and women’s lives in post conflict and migration.

I didn’t know what resilience meant. What does it mean to say you have resilience? Is this resilience? Is it about strength? No, I was not strong. I don’t think I was strong. But it was able to endure. And I love the expression to endure in spite of it all. And of course, the camera was with me the whole time. I photographed everything.

Honestly, I didn’t want my work to be interpreted as another refugee project, that wasn’t the intention ; In my work I was concerned of what was happening? Was this even real? How can I visualize trauma? Can photography do that. I’m still trying to process it all, even now. I’d be lying if I said everything was okay. It’s still a work in progress, and it likely always will be.

Jörg
Looking at your books, I think you had an idea of what photography is and what you wanted to photograph. But then the reality of your life forced you to do things differently. You started writing in the second book. I think that’s what makes the work so interesting that there is photography — and then there’s all this uncertainty around it. Am I reading something into the books that’s not there? What do you think?

Thana
You’re absolutely right, I was responding. Whenever I’m asked about my methods, I think that I work intuitively. It was about me responding to the moment. There is no certainty. There is no such thing as it needs to be photographed this way or that way. I was confronting the circumstances I experienced.

I’m no longer sure what constitutes good photography. I’d love to create work that I can confidently call good, and I aim to improve all the time. However, defining what “good” really means in photography confuses me. I find myself reacting to moments as they occur, doing my best to capture them and the feelings they evoke. Sometimes, the images let me down. The frustration of not being able to capture a feeling exactly how I envision it is immense. My work, therefore, stems both from these spontaneous moments and disappointments. These disappointments aren’t a driving force, but they shape the images I create.

The position I’m currently in, I was wondering: is photography saying enough? That’s why I started writing from a lot of frustration and not knowing what good photography is. And I always keep the viewer in mind. Will you get it when you see it? Will it have an effect on you? In the pretentious photography world, they talk about affect theory.

I used to question things a lot. But I stopped questioning a long time ago. Now, I think that, OK, this is who I am as a photographer. Really poor images also count. So I include poor images in the process. And you’ve seen that a lot in the first and second book: the value of poor images and how I also include them and value them.

The writing… For me, text itself can be an image. And really, it excites me to produce images through text. If something else, maybe moving imagery, will be part of the equation, I will include it too. It’s all about the moment.

Jörg
I was really fascinated when you said you included poor images. That is not something that most photographers would admit, even if they do it. And I think most people probably wouldn’t do it.

This maybe is a strange question to ask. But what do you think when you look at your books? Do they do what you hope they do? Or do you think there’s something missing and you have to make the next one?

Thana
I work in chapters. The first book is chapter one. The second book is two. When I look at the two books, they are a mix of imperfection, good photographs, perfect photographs, poor images, and less poor images. It’s exactly what I need to communicate. This process, the emotional interior landscape, the landscape of whatever I’m feeling… How can I revisit trauma? What does it look like? How does it feel?

That’s also why I struggle to exhibit the work. It needs to be seen as a book because a collection of photographs on the wall doesn’t do it. You need to see it as this package with the poor images, the imperfect, the perfect. With that packaging I feel satisfied that I communicated what I needed to communicate. But there will be more. It’s to be continued. It’s happening. It’s still coming for me. I haven’t said everything.

Every story traditionally has a beginning, a middle, and an end. My fascination lies not with the start or the conclusion, but with the middle—the heart of the narrative where everything intensifies. The middle is where the chaos unfolds, where the noise is loudest. As a photographer, my method is to focus on the central part of the story. Perhaps in a few years, when you look at a collection of my works and books, you’ll notice a theme: I capture only the middle. And it’s in these middles where you find the raw, unfiltered messiness of life.

Jörg
How do your students respond? Do you tell them about poor images?

Thana
I teach at the BA level. They are still young students and excited about photography. I don’t talk about poor images. During the sequencing and editing, I don’t even say “your least favorite pictures”. But I use the term “the images you discarded”, “the ones that you left at home before coming here”. I’m really curious to see these. Why did you leave them behind?

Jörg
I have another question. This is also a difficult topic. You have residency in the Netherlands.

Thana
I have a Dutch passport.

Jörg
I didn’t know that.

Thana
I became Dutch last year. That was a really happy moment.

Jörg
Europe as a whole has a big, big problem with the far right. It’s getting worse and worse. And they’re very racist. So you just arrived at a place where a lot of people would campaign against people like you. I think that is completely shameful. How do you deal with that? And is this something that will become part of your work?

Thana
I have to tell you that when I received the Dutch passport and became a Dutch citizen, it was one of my best moments. I had asked myself whether it was it worth it, all this hardship. It was worth it. It was definitely worth it to feel that you fit in. Physically and emotionally you are part of the Netherlands. It felt really good.

When events unfolded, I came to a startling realization: what I thought was real was actually an illusion. The sense of safety and security I felt was only temporary. Now, I find myself in a place where I have to teach myself not to get too comfortable, to stay alert and prepared for change

I feel lucky because I’m surrounded by a Dutch community that is really understanding and open minded, whether at work when I teach or my surroundings in the Dutch art scene here. But the whole world is not all of it like that. So I not I’m not comfortable. That’s the word. Not scared. I’ve experienced war. I’m a war survivor. So nothing scares me anymore. But not comfortable is exactly how I feel.

Because then I’m left questioning where to go next. Last year, I visited my family in Yemen for the first time, and I must admit, I felt like a stranger both to them and to myself. If I feel out of place there, and I feel like a stranger here, where do I belong? What comes next for me? It was a deeply unsettling experience.

Of course, I will do work about that, but I wouldn’t work to… I’m not an activist. It’s not going to be the kind of work where I’m holding everyone accountable: Look at what’s happening! I will stay in my zone. I will speak about it in my own means and ways .

In my second book, ‘ How shall we greet the sun ‘ I explored the themes of integration and fitting in. Now I started a new project about what does it mean to disturb memories? The word disturbing is really really strong for me. I’m talking about the awakening and the shock and the grief that comes from it. I think I will speak about what happens when you disturb things. I plan to also address the themes of grief, shock, and discomfort. These topics will likely be explored in one of the upcoming chapters.

As I mentioned, I feel that the true value of my work will be recognized over time. My approach isn’t tied to a single project. I view my work as a series of chapters, which collectively will serve as an archive in the long run.

Lebensborn

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(A preface of sorts:) As events have shown over the past decade (or more), we are collectively unable to keep more than one thought in our minds, especially if thoughts might be competing, whether for attention or for an assessment of moral or ethical aspects (you can see this very clearly in the discussions — if we want to call what’s happening that — around Israel and Gaza).

This fact is unfortunate for many reasons, the most important one being that it risks brushing aside a lot of individual hurt (even in the group you have decided to support). If we are unable to face individual hurt — how can we hope to address collective hurt?

There is only circumstantial evidence, and it is vague as is often the case in German family histories, but I believe that my paternal great grand-aunt worked for Lebensborn. I distinctly remember that at some stage, I overheard her say that the children of the failed 20 July 1944 plot had been taken to where she worked, and she had been taking care of them. At the time — I was very, very young (a very curious child), that statement sent chills down my spine: who would take children away from their parents?

We do not have to go back in history to find an answer. It was that snippet of memory that had and still has me so revulsed about russia’s mass abduction of Ukrainian children for which the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against its dictator. Historical comparisons are always problematic, especially if they involve Nazi Germany; but here, a comparison seems apt: the underlying motivations are very similar.

The second piece of circumstantial evidence for my great grand-aunt is the locale, the Harz region. As I learned from Angeniet BerkersLebensborn (in its italicized version, throughout this text the word will refer to the book), there was such a home in Wernigerode. Unfortunately, she died many years ago; in any case it’s extremely unlikely that I would have been able to find out more. The code of silence that had been draped over German families’ past has been pierced here and there, but for the most part it remains intact.

Lebensborn homes included a variety of different children. The homes had been set up by the head of Germany’s SS, Heinrich Himmler, as a (literal) breeding ground for what he and his peers considered the ideal German. Following eugenics — at the time were widely believed across the globe — the idea was to counter Nazi Germany’s meagre birth rate by having those who were seen as following the highest human ideals — blond, blue-eyed “Aryans” — procreate to produce more of these kinds of people.

A lot less prosaic and probably much closer to the actual motivations was Himmler’s statement that “the number of cribs must be greater than the number of coffins.” In other words, if you want to wage war and you need to throw people into the meat grinder, you need to be able to replenish the raw material (and here we have one of the direct links to today’s russia).

For obvious reasons, the “Aryan” idea was complete nonsense: with few exceptions, none of the Nazi leaders looked remotely like one of those idealized blond, blue-eyed people. In fact, the influential propaganda minister had a club foot, which was carefully hidden, given that under the Nazi’s ideology disabilities rendered a person as belonging to a much lower category as a human being.

Nazi ideology aside, the Lebensborn homes ended up not only being the birth homes of SS spawns, they also housed a variety of other mothers and their children. The Nazis combed various countries to locate “Aryan” children. Using very crude pseudo-scientific methods, these children were taken from their families and put into a Lebensborn home, to be raised as German.

Germany families that either did not have children or wanted another one (for whatever reason) were able to apply to get one. That’s how children ended up in German families, with German names and German parents. But there were other cases where German soldiers had fathered children in occupied countries, and some of them were put into those homes as well.

There’s a popular internet meme: “fuck around and find out”. In the Lebensborn cases, there’s a perverse twist to it, given that some people were doing the literal fucking, whereas it would be upon their children to find out.

This might read like an unfortunately crass way to describe the situation. But I find it almost impossible to wrap my head around the situation many of the Lebensborn children found themselves in once they realized that their actual birth history was rather different than what they had been led to believe.

Lebensborn contains a number of stories of some of these children, which will haunt you forever if you have a beating heart in your chest. There is, for example, Ingrid von Oelhafen, born as Erna Matko in then Yugoslavia (pictured above), who spent years trying to find her family in now Slovenia. Or Paul Hansen, whose father was a German soldier and whose mother was Norwegian. Put into a Norwegian home for children with intellectual disabilities after the war, he managed to finally locate his mother (in then East Germany of all places) who told him “You are not welcome here.”

It is the stories that do the heavy emotional lifting in the book. These stories overflow with a hurt that is hard to imagine. One needs to be aware of the fact that all of the individuals Berkers spoke with are survivors. How many other lives ended up much shorter, possibly out of sheer despair? And when you’re reading these stories, think of the Ukrainian children held in russian institutions or homes. And think of all of those children in Gaza who lost their entire families and now face their lives like many of the Lebensborn ones: in a world largely hostile to their needs.

It’s painful and yet necessary to remain at the level of the individual hurt — or to try to approach it yet again if one forgot about that that is where it all has its beginning. Individual hurt offers no solace, it offer no quick and immediate solutions; it merely remains hurt.

Paul Hansen should have never been discarded by Norway’s post-war society because he happened to have the wrong parents. The children of Ukraine should have never been abducted to live in a fascist country. The children of Gaza should have never lost their parents, to now grow up in a massive field of rubble without food. Whatever the choices might have been that led to these very situations, if we lose track of the individual suffering, we will never be able to get to a world where such suffering will cease to exist.

Recommended.

Lebensborn; photographs and text by Angeniet Berkers; essay by Dr Ingvill Constanze Ødegaard; 272 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2024

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