You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Germany’ tag.
‘Claudia. 4 years’ © Julia Schönstädt
Statement of Being by Julia Schönstädt is a series of portraits and interviews with prisoners in Germany. According to Fotografia Magazine — which is running a series of six portraits currently — Schönstädt’s aim is “to dispel the stigma of the criminal and simply make the subject human.”
Schönstädt has worked with subjects of different age, gender, race and criminal prosecution. Some are sympathetic characters, others less so. Three women in their fifties are addicted to drugs; two see it as a problem, the other not. Harry is only 23 and doesn’t really seem to care if he goes back to prison or not. Then there’s the older guys who seem to be reforming themselves or aging out the game.
Most of the statements are insightful and honest. For example, when asked if prison helps people, Claudia (above) weighs her owns needs against those of others. There was positives for Claudia in the mere fact she was forced to come off drugs, but she accepts without that small mercy, prison is roundly a tough, tough place for most:
I know that I was in a personal situation where prison gave me space to breathe at first. If I would be torn out of my normal life now, and that can happen to anyone, that they get falsely accused, I would probably find that very traumatic. You are very helpless. You have very few possibilities to influence or shape things. You are completely dependent on the good will and concession of the officers. And part of it is also always luck, depending on what kind of people you will be put together with, and the groups that form. I think for a person who isn’t in an emergency situation as I was in, this is very dark.”
In every case, Schönstädt does a good job of revealing the interviewee. I suspect the excerpts are taken from longer conversations allowing Schönstädt to focus on the meat of the message. It’s a well-made project. But I am not without criticisms.
Schönstädt asks “Are You Ready To Listen?” but the query “Are You Ready To Look?” seems as appropriate.
Within in her presentation of both text and image, Schönstädt’s question seems to sideline the importance of the image . (This is not to say that we cannot conceive of a metaphor of “listening” to images, but for the purposes of my argument, I think it’s useful if think of listening as something related to written, read and spoken words.)
The question elevates the words of her subjects. Great. I’m all for portrait sitters having a platform to speak in their own voice. But I get the sense that here photography is used as filler and that the B&W portraits behave as illustration to the words, and as supplement. This is, of course, sad. We know photography can do many things and, I believe, it can be an activating agent in a project. In a purported photography project such as Statement of Being it absolutely must be activating.
But are we ready to look? When I do and inspect Schönstädt’s portraits I’m left wanting. They’re flat.
‘Volkert, 13 years’ © Julia Schönstädt
Now, we all know how difficult it is to make a good portrait, but these are so tightly cropped and made monochrome, I feel like I’m looking at a really earnest effort by an artist to depict someone, as opposed to looking at that someone. Schönstädt’s politics are aligned with mine and her use of multiple media is praiseworthy, but I don’t feel she has managed to do what great photography does, which is to get out the way of itself. Proximity doesn’t always mean intimacy.
I wonder if Schönstädt made the decision to get close so that she could remove evidence of the prison environment from her pictures? To give her subjects best chance at presenting as a person first and not as a criminal as default? I understand the urge but it’s not necessarily a solution. Nor is it necessarily a problem. For example, Robert Gumpert has used B&W imagery but drawn back and made the most of sterile pods in the San Francisco jail system to make compelling portraits. In short, I’d like to see more variation in Schönstädt’s portraiture.
‘Oliver, Life Sentence’ © Julia Schönstädt
I’m currently writing an essay “How To Photographs Prisoners Without Shaming Them.’ Most of the essay focuses on pairing photography with other media. In some bodies of prison portraiture it is either stated or obvious that the photographer collaborated with the subject over the composition and presentation. Given that Schönstädt’s portraits are identical in direction, I wonder if this was the case?
I am not saying Schönstädt doesn’t respect her subjects the opposite is clearly the case, but photography is more about the viewer than the practitioner and we must always be aware of existing stereotypes and prejudices when making photographs. The audiences’ reaction trumps the author’s intent. The audience’s reception is what defines a work ultimately.
Take the above image of Oliver as an example. Some might read his face as mischievous. Others, no doubt, will read it as menacing and devilish. I don’t think the appearance of a sinister looking male helps win sympathy. This is tragic for a project which is wholly sympathetic to the prison population.
Oliver speaks frankly and sensibly:
I became violent very early on. First there were money-related crimes starting at 7 or 8 years old. Violence came a bit later, but when I was 7 or 8 years old I stole and so on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was 22 that I was held responsible for the first time.
It really struck me that something wasn’t right with me or with my story when a great deal of my family passed away – my grandfather, grandmother, and father [after being imprisoned]. I was married then and my wife divorced me. She stayed with me for 5 years but then she got to a point where she couldn’t take it anymore. And all that lead me to think something isn’t quite right here. Then I went to see a psychiatrist and got even more reasons to think about everything.
I had relatively little empathy for people, that’s just the way I grew up. I was raised in a violent environment. But that doesn’t mean that I was consciously punished by being beaten, more in a way you would also train a pitbull. […] I didn’t feel like that was something that wasn’t okay. I experienced my childhood as something really nice. Only through a person from the outside, I realised that it wasn’t all that normal, the way I grew up. And through realising that, I was able to reflect much better.
Oliver is in full grasp of his antisocial behaviour and has made steps in therapy to address it. He’s locked down for life but trying to improve himself. He is not devilish. How do I know this? Again because of Schönstädt’s keen efforts. Listen to Oliver speak in the video below and ask if the mood and personality of his still portrait tallies with that of the video portrait. Are we ready to look?
From an early age, Herbert Hoffmann (1919-2010, b. Pommern, Germany) was drawn to people with tattoos. He was educated in Berlin. During the Third Reich, tattooed people were seen as criminals and consequently, the tattoo culture diminished. In 1940, Hoffman signed up for basic military service with the German army. From 1945-49, Hoffmann was held prisoner of war by the Russians. When he returned to Germany he worked as a travelling salesman, and encountered many persons who were tattooed despite the old Nazi ban. While working Hoffmann always took along his camera and photographed the people he met. In 1961, Hoffmann opened his own tattoo studio in Hamburg, Germany.
FIRST TATTOOS, THEN PHOTOGRAPHS
Hoffman distinguishes himself from photographers who look in at the tattoo culture from the outside. He defined the culture and then adopted the lion’s share of documenting it. Hoffman’s DIY method is like that of graffiti artists who return with a camera to make images of the surfaces which they have earlier decorated. (Notably, Hoffman’s tattooing preceded the rise of graffiti and its recognition as art/culture in the 1970s/80s.)
Aged 91, Hoffman passed away on June 30th of this year. Despite the indisputable novelty of his photographs, and his central position to German tattoo culture, Hoffman only received mainstream recognition very late in life. No surprise really; Hoffman was working with the maligned, ‘lowly vernacular’ medium of photography, to record the re-emerging tattoo subculture.
TEN HAAF EXHIBIT
Hoffman’s images are on show at Ten Haaf Projects in Amsterdam until December 18th. Ten Haaf Projects, Laurierstraat 248, 1016 PT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Tel: 020-4285885 www.tenhaafprojects.com. And how good is this? At the Ten Haaf opening in October artist Henk Schiffmacher tattooed Hoffman’s designs on exhibition goers.
EXHIBITS / BOOKS
Selected Solo Exhibitions: 2010 ‘Living Pictures’ Ten Haaf Projects Amsterdam; 2010 ‘St Pauli’s Souvenirs’ Galerie Lehmann Berlin. Publications: 2008 ‘Skinscapes, Die Kunst der Körperoberfläche’, text Herald Kimpel, Hrsg: H . Kimpel, Marburger Kunstverein Marburg; 2006 ‘Signs and Surfaces’ by Andreas Fux, Herbert Hoffmann, Ali Kepenek Hrsg Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin; ‘Mensch! Photographien aus Dresdner Sammlungen’, Hrsg: Wolfgang Hesse und Katja Schumann; ‘Kupferstichkabinett’, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
ALL IMAGES © HERBERT HOFFMAN
Friend of Prison Photography, Emiliano Granado, likes football as much as he rocks at photography.
We pooled our knowledge to pair each country competing in South Africa with a photographer of the same nationality.
ALG Algeria – Christian Poveda
ENG England – Stephen Gill
SVN Slovenia – Klavdij Sluban (French of Slovenian origin … I know, I know, but you try to find a Slovenia born photographer!)
USA United States – Bruce Davison
Emiliano has been posting images from each of the photographers and doubled up on a few nations where the talent pool is teeming. You can see them all over on his Tumblr account, A PILE OF GEMS
* Don’t even begin arguing about who should represent the USA. It is a never-ending debate.
* I’ll be honest, finding photographers for the African nations was tricky, even for a web-search-dork like myself. But then we knew about the shortcomings of distribution and promotion within the industry, didn’t we?
* For Chile, we had to look to the past legend Larrain. I’ll be grateful if someone suggest a living practitioner.
* North Korean photographer, by name, anyone? We had to fall back on van Houtryve because he got inside the DPR.
* Rineke Dijkstra was one of approximately 4 thousand-trillion dutch photographers who are everywhere.
* Araki was the easy choice. Ill admit – I know next to nothing about Japanese photography (Marc, help?)
* I wanted a few more political photographers in there, while Emiliano goes for arty stuff. I think we found a nice balance overall.
* And, SERIOUSLY, name me a Paraguayan photographer! PLEASE.
The illicit manufacture of tools by prisoner piqued Marc Steinmetz‘s curiosity. He called around German prisons to inquire if they were still in possession of particularly ingenious contraband tools and escape devices.
Santa Fu, Celle, Wolfenbuttel and Ludwigsburg prisons all welcomed Steinmetz to view their collections. (The historical objects of Stammheim and Hohenasperg prisons were part of the Ludwigsburg collection.)
Steinmetz’s photographs were used in a German magazine editorial, but I have seen similar series of object types displayed as fine art.
When photographers set up objects (food, seeds, dead birds, insects, fish, etc) it is usually to draw extended attention to common characteristics and impose drama upon ‘the ordinary’. Against a white backdrop and removed form the clutter of daily life, it is intended that these objects can (if only briefly) transcend their functional purpose and be appreciated within the discourses of beauty and/or high art.
Steimetz wanted to highlight the ingenuity and intelligent design of these objects, and I’d like to do the same.
I have included some weapons here and omitted others. I deliberately omitted crude weapons for this post as they are hardly novel … anything with any weight becomes a dangerous weapon, right? On the other hand, I included guns and rifles as I never thought they could be manufactured from scratch. I was particularly impressed by the electrical items.
Below are Prison Photography‘s pick of the bunch with Steinmetz’s own captions. Thereafter is a brief Q & A with Steinmetz.
DOUBLE-BARRELED PISTOL This gun was found along with other homemade firearms in the cell of two Celle prison inmates on November 15, 1984. The weapons had been made in the prison’s metal workshop. They were loaded with pieces of steel and match-heads.
TATTOOING NEEDLE made from a toothbrush handle, a ball pen and an electric motor; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Tattooing instruments are a popular and common source of income among inmates but are banned as ‘illegal objects’ due to the danger of infection (Aids, Hepatitis, etc.).
STOVE / GRILL / TOASTER An inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, botched together this multi-purpose tool from wire, a broken heating rod and some tin foil. It was found in his cell and confiscated sometime in the mid-eighties.
HASH PIPE fashioned from an empty horseradish tube; confiscated in ‘Santa Fu’ prison in Hamburg, Germany. Bongs are the most common of all forbidden items in prisons. The range of materials they are made of mirrors the inmates’ great imagination. And their prior needs.
RADIO TRANSMITTER / BUG made of radio recorder parts by an inmate of Wolfenbüttel prison, Germany (battery is missing). Prisoners occasionally manage to install gizmos like this one in guard-rooms to be prepared for upcoming cell searches. Also suitable as a means of cell-to-cell communication among inmates. A standard radio serves as a receiver.
IMMERSION HEATER made from razor blades; found in a cell in ‘Santa Fu’ jail in Hamburg, Germany. Jailbirds use these tools to distil alcoholic beverages forbidden in prisons. Your typical inmate’s moonshine still includes a plastic can containing fermented fruit mash or juice, an immersion coil of some sort, a rubber hose, and a plastic receptacle for the booze.
RADIO RECEIVER Sometime in the seventies an inmate of Ludwigsburg prison, Germany, built this radio on the sly and hid it inside an encyclopedia. It was probably commissioned by another inmate who had no electronic expertise himself.
SHOTGUN made from iron bedposts; charge made of pieces of lead from curtain tape and match-heads, to be ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. On May 21, 1984 two inmates of a prison in Celle, Germany, took a jailer as a hostage, showed off their fire power by letting go at a pane of bullet-proof glass, and escaped by car.
Q & A
When did you complete this project and why did you take on this subject?
I shot the whole project in April and May 1999. I had read a magazine article about a prisoner in Berlin who had whittled a key to his cell from a toilet seat. Unfortunately, prison officials in Berlin weren’t cooperative, so I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of that key for ‘security reasons’. (Can you believe that?).
But it nevertheless provided the key to the story and got me interested. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine editors [provided a catalyst] too – they bought the story.
The objects range in date from the 70s through to the mid 90s and from multiple German prisons. How and where did you source the objects?
Prisons often have a collection of items which were secured from inmates’ cells or after attempts at escape.
I did my research exclusively by phone and located a handful of prisons which seemed worth a visit. I decided then and there which objects to photograph.
Much of your previous photography has been about complex scientific experimentation and grand research. Was this project a departure?
Not at all. I have always been interested in the uncommon or even bizarre.
What about the objects is of interest to you?
Ingenuity of improvisation. Intelligence. Purposefulness.
In my work, not everything depends on meticulous planning, but to a great extent on chance and my ability to improvise. Therefore I can relate to these escape tools. I admire their no-nonsense design, their simplicity. Even if their escape attempts fail, these guys cross boundaries in that they find uses for things other than what they were made for.
What do your photographs of the objects add to the stories objects?
To me, they communicate intelligence and the flexibility of the human mind under adverse conditions. I wanted to share my surprise: ‘What the … ?’
Did this project inform or reflect your understanding of German prisons, prison history and/or current prison politics?
Not really. I wasn’t interested in the political or social aspects of the subject matter. It was an interesting experience, though, to get to peek inside these facilities even though I had no contact with any of the inmates.
To compensate for that and to communicate credibility, I tried to collect as much information about the objects as I could. I felt they should be preserved the same way that archaeological artifacts are.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I am working on an independent project which is called ‘Toter Winkel’. I am still searching for an international title which works both in German and English, even though I focus exclusively on Germany.
I started wondering about what cars have done to our cities. I ended up doing night shots of elevated roads with a 4×5″ field camera. It’s hard to believe what monstrosities have been erected for the sake of misconceived mobility!
But this is more of a long-term fine art project than an editorial piece. Fieldwork is completed, but post-production will take a few more months, I’m afraid.
Thank you, Marc
Marc Steinmetz is a photographer specialising in Science and Technology stories. Prison Photography recommends his work on Plasticination, Karakarum – The Archaeology of Genghis Kahn’s Empire and his series on Drinking Water. An extended interview with Marc, is here.
DUMMY PISTOL from blackened cardboard; found on June 23, 1988, in an inmate’s cell in Stammheim prison, Germany, after a fellow prisoner tipped off the jailers. The dummy was hidden in an empty milk pack and was most probably intended to be used for taking hostages in an escape attempt.
All images © Marc Steinmetz.
I originally came across Steinmetz’s work at Accidental Mysteries – a blog I highly recommend for its polished curatorial eye of surprising, inventive and humourous human interventions.
Reading the Goethe-Institut Fashion Scene article about Haeftling designers in Berlin, I thought it was an Onion style send up. “Prisoner chic” sounds like something straight out of satire, but I guess I was snoozing when this hit the news wires in 2003.
Haeftling (translated as ‘Prisoner’) employs inmates across Europe to manufacture clothing and housewares inspired (they say) by prison life, “The garments are highly functional and have a classic and timeless cut. Only high-grade, rugged fabrics are used in manufacturing.”
Well, whatever you say. I actually don’t mind how they market it, I am just pleased they support prison reform, the abolition of the death penalty, political prisoners rights and a philosophy of rehabilitative justice.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This project was borne of commercial interests. “It began in the JVA (Justizvollzugsanstalt/prison) Tegel and developed into an international undertaking. More and more prisons have joined and today production is even taking place elsewhere in Europe. One Bavarian prison supplies honey from its own two colonies of bees; a prison in Switzerland even has its own vineyard and exports its own red (Pinot Noir) and white wine (Müller Turgau).” (source)
Karola Schoewe, Haeftling’s PR & communications manager says, “On the whole, the prisons are all very helpful,” says “There are some prisons that have very good production capacities for making homeware.”
Schoewe then marries the business speak to social responsibility speak, “Through its production, Haeftling is creating measures that help to support rehabilitation processes.”
Without seeing Haeftling’s account-books or sitting in on a board meeting, I have no way to tell if resources and profits are divvied up in a way that benefits prisoners more then in the state run prison industries. This was the situation in July 2003
With 40% of Tegel’s prisoners unemployed, the Haeftling project has come as a welcome boost to the jail. The prisoners get an allowance of €26 a month, but ones working on the clothing line can earn up to €12.50 a day. The cash from the sales is divided among the bankrupt city of Berlin, the prison and the inmates.
(Author’s Note: €12.50 is substantial pay compared to American prisons.)
Prison industries are a divisive issue. For some they are the perfect use of prisoners’ time and energies developing job skills, work community & self-esteem. To others prison industries are a modern slave labor exploiting societies’ self-created incarcerated class.
Both viewpoints have legitimacy, but the first makes a prior assumption that could be misleading – that work programs are the only means to provide skills, community or self-worth. Education does this too.
But educating someone instead of putting them to work is going to cost a prison authority rather than generate it wealth.
Generally, I am unnerved by the disconnect between the reality of incarceration and its representation to consumers,
Shoppers at the Haeftling store can have Polaroid mug shots of themselves made, holding a plaque with their names spelled out in white block letters. The stereo system plays the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ prison film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And customers browse through racks of striped jackets and shirts.
Then again, Klaus-Dieter Blank, of Berlin’s Tegel Prison states the success of the label’s online store has meant that people are beginning to understand “what goes on behind the walls”. Haeftling features on the Tegel Prison website.
Is there too much space here for consumers to create their own version of prison life? What is included and/or played down in the minds of consumers? Are they being coerced and sold a disingenuous view along with that ‘rugged’ product?
We can assess this a number of ways – rehabilitative worth, public awareness worth, benefits to state finances, tax-payer savings, external benefits of development in social entrepreneurship.
But essentially, we must ask, “Does this enterprise help reduce prison populations by reducing recidivism? It MUST be compared to other rehabilitative programs. The purpose of prisons the world over should be to create societies where prisons are no longer necessary.
How do you judge this type of enterprise?
In 2007, Jürgen Chill‘s Zellen series won him the European Architectural Photography Prize in the “Favorite Places” category. Awarded every two years since 1995, the international prize is now organized by the nonprofit architekturbild.eV (since 2005). The 2007 jury – chaired by Hans Eberhard Hess, chief editor of Photo International magazine – was impressed by Chill’s strict central overhead perspective and chose four images.
Today, the 2009 prize winners are announced, so it seems like a good time to recall Chill’s intriguing images.
Jürgen Chill’s Zellen photographs are a unique perspective upon prison space. Of all the positions in the cell, this floating light-fixture-eye-view should be the least claustrophobic, and yet, the central (physically impossible) high vantage point is dizzying. How does the camera (let alone cameraman) take up such a position? From here, what is there left to do but fall?
Has Chill has pioneered a new photographic typology? I was fascinated by the order of each work; the order of each cell. I must presume this order is the inmates doing and not the photographers. Chill’s work is labour intensive. The reason he nor the camera falls is because each image is a stitch of over one hundred photographs, captured by a digital SLR mounted on a boom, pressed – facing downward – against the ceiling surface.
Chill is aware that entering his work in the category ‘Favourite Places’ may seem careless or even cynical, especially as the inmates are not pictured. On the other hand, as he notes on his website, “the barren rooms of the inmates are highly individualized and at least temporary qualify as de facto ‘Favorite Places’.” In 2006 he stated:
A person’s favourite place is a place which can be chosen at will. The person’s freedom is presupposed. Freedom, however, is not granted to all. Those that do not have it must adjust to whatever opportunities exist and strive to create their own place. A cell is perhaps the smallest possible space for habitation that a person can have. Personal and functional items are all accommodated in the tightest space. The spaces are represented as they are found. The Spaces are represented as they are found. The proportions of the photographs mach those of the rooms. All details in the rooms are shown orthogonally from above, nothing has been altered.
I contacted Jürgen via email to ask about the practicalities of making Zellen, and to secure his comments on the series concept.
Jürgen, please introduce your work.
My photographs are most like a map of the prison cells; like a Google Earth view of a landscape. I try to communicate information about the individuals that have to live in perhaps the smallest possible space for habitation that a person can have – without showing this person himself. Personal and functional items are all accommodated in the tightest space.
I’m interested in how a person arranges personal and functional items in their small cell. And what kind of person can it be [based upon the visible evidence]? Is it possible to get a “picture” of a person by having a view of his private space? It’s a view and perspective that you normally would never get of these cells. So it is not really “real”, more a scenery set or something similar.
Where are the cells?
The are all in Germany in big cities in the area of Nordrhein Westfalen.
Are the photographs made in the same institution?
I made 16 photographs in 6 different prisons in the cities of Bochum, Hagen, Duisburg, Gelsenkirchen, Essen and Geldern
Where were the prisoners when you took the photographs?
I had a short conversation with the prisoners in their cells; explained my project, my concept and my motivation. Some of them were really interested in my work and my kind of photography. The prisoners allowed me to spend about 45 minutes alone in their cells, while they are waited outside, in the alleyway, guarded by one or two persons from the prison.
After my work, for their permission to photograph and publish their private things and space, I gave them a small gift; a packet of coffee or cigarettes. Later I sent them all the photograph of their rooms. Some of them asked for it to have as a kind of souvenir for when they are released from prison.
How long did set up take and what equipment did you use?
Just to photograph takes about 30 minutes. With the test shoots and everything it takes about 75 minutes in one cell. The main work, the montage to one photo takes about one week. So it took a long time to make the photo series. You can see how the images were made in the youtube clip of this German television show from October, 2007.
Does the collection and order of all worldly possessions in a single space fascinate you?
It’s the combination of personal and functional items in a small space. First, the cell must contain all the functions of a house in one room: bedroom, toilet, living-room, store-room and sometimes a kitchen. Then the prisoner combines it with his personal possessions and create his private space in about 8 square metres. How does a person arrange such a small space with personal items so that it [also] keeps its basic functions ? And that arrangement exists for years. So my photographs try to draw a picture of an individual person.
Americans, in particular, are starting to realise that they must use/waste less petrol, possessions, energy, space and give up personal largess for the benefit of community. Does the modesty of the prison cell appeal to you? Do future modes of living relate to the cell?
For me, as the artist and maker of these photographs, my intention is not to call out [to people] to give up personal largess for the benefit of community or for other kinds of social and political attitudes or activities. I just want to show the state of things in the visual of photography and try to show these things in an unusual perspective or context. Just to ask questions about it and not to give answers. That’s the viewers job.
Would you put your images into a history of visual culture that represents humans under duress and finding humanity in the smallest places/between the cracks? Or, is the Zellen series a totally modern piece, completely divided from historical context?
About historical context: I think every art work (the good ones) can not be divided from cultural and historical contexts. The Zellen series, and the new photographic series of whorehouse rooms, which I’m now working on, tells us about situations and the state of things now.
But the contemporary associations of now ( the “Zeitgeist” ) result from the past. The series Zellen was shown in a large exposition about prisons, CUSTODY/SPACES OF SURVEILLANCE in the Summer of 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany. The photographs were shown there in the historical context of humanity under surveillance; within imprisonment and [in the context of] prison architectures.
Thanks to Jürgen for his kind help and time in piecing this article together.
All Images © Jürgen Chill.
Spurred by the wonderful news over at The Impossible Project that Polaroid Film is getting a second chance, I delved (via its “friends” links) into Polanoid.net. Whereupon, I found this small and particular photo-series by Lars.blumen.
The Hohenschönhausen Memorial in Berlin is an active community/museum organization that fosters education and understanding with regards political imprisonment. The refreshingly transparent website even concedes crucial gaps in knowledge. “The history of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison site has not yet been researched in sufficient detail. There is, as yet, no general overview detailing the social background of the prisoners, nor the reasons for their imprisonment, nor their length of stay. In fact, we do not even know exactly how many prisoners were kept here over the years.”
I am given the impression a precious sense of purpose & justice drives this shared project. Elsewhere on the site, their call for research is inspiring.
The reason this set fascinated me so much was that it seemed so immediately incongruous. It is wonderful incongruity. With Polaroid one expects sanctified family portraits (60s, 70s) or blurred disco memories (80s, 90s). Polaroid of the 21st century has been largely an indulgent affair. Lars.blumen has given us a rare treat. He ‘captured’ the most infamous site of Soviet Secret Police interrogation and detention within 10 single polaroid frames.
Lars.blumen’s project, done without fanfare nor nostalgia, uses the visual vocabulary of the past. Just to make things interesting, the prison (at he time of Polaroid) would never have been observed, nor documented, in this same manner.
The polaroids are remarkable for what they aren’t. They aren’t actual images from the era of the Stasi. And this era is that to which now all energy – as a Memorial – is focussed. The photos are a requiem for the stories and faces of the prisoners never recorded. I think this is why the Hohenschönhausen Memorial has such an emphasis on documenting oral testimony and experiences of prisoners.
No people, no prisoners, no players in these scenes. The hardware of the site and the illusion of time passed. Understated.
The texture reminds me of old family portraits in front of the brick of Yorkshire and Merseyside. In front of churches and on door steps.
Outside are cameras, inside is bureaucracy. Still lured by Polaroid nostalgia, the sinister reality of the images creeps up slowly. The minimalist composition of the Frankfurt school is at use here, but Lars.blumen uses a medium that predates the movement. It’s all very disconcerting.
Why do I respect these images? Because they are unique and, even to some degree, challenging. I cannot celebrate these images because of their history – they have no history. I cannot celebrate a familiar style – they are recuperations of contemporary German photography. They are idiosyncratic one-offs.
Is it really this intentional? I wonder now if Lars.blumen just had a reel of Polaroid film to burn and that day he happened to be at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial?
If anyone cane help me with Lars.blumen’s identity I’d be grateful!
Official Blurb: The site of the main remand prison for people detained by the former East German Ministry of State Security (MfS), or ‘Stasi’, has been a Memorial since 1994 and, from 2000 on, has been an independent Foundation under public law. The Berlin state government has assigned the Foundation, without charge. The Foundation’s work is supported by an annual contribution from the Federal Government and the Berlin state government.
The Memorial’s charter specifically entrusts it with the task of researching the history of the Hohenschönhausen prison between 1945 and 1989, supplying information via exhibitions, events and publications, and encouraging a critical awareness of the methods and consequences of political persecution and suppression in the communist dictatorship. The former Stasi remand prison is also intended to provide an insight into the workings of the GDR’s political justice system.
Since the vast majority of the buildings, equipment and furniture and fittings have survived intact, the Memorial provides a very authentic picture of prison conditions in the GDR. The Memorial’s location in Germany’s capital city makes it the key site in Germany for victims of communist tyranny.
One last thing. May I recommend you spend time with the lovingly assembled staff portrait gallery at the Impossible Project.