Us and Them: Rare images of groups shut off from the world
(Image credit: Eddo Hartmann)
A new exhibition brings together projects that offer glimpses into closed communities. They provide a nuanced perspective on divisive issues – both for the viewer and for the photographers, writes Arwa Haider.
“Community” is a term with a deeply loaded embrace. It suggests a collective strength, and a go-to sanctuary in troubled times; it evokes belonging (and a flurry of motivational quotes) – yet it might also entail a shutting-out: of the unknown, the feared, the unfamiliar. A new group photography exhibition, Us and Them, explores that dynamic, and considers how communities are also created through the forging of boundaries, and the exclusion of others.
Us and Them is part of the “Ideologies”-themed photo triennial RAY 2021, which is taking place across Frankfurt and Germany’s Rhine-Main region. It collates four European artists’ very diverse contemporary projects, and yields an intimate, intriguing perspective on identity and society. Budapest-based photographer and filmmaker Máté Bartha’s series Kontakt depicts Hungary’s military youth summer camps (for children aged 10 to 18 years), designed to instil discipline and foster friendship and patriotism. Hamburg photographer Paula Markert’s study A Journey Through Germany: The NSU Serial Murders portrays the trial of Germany’s so-called National Socialist Underground: a far-right extremist group that committed several xenophobic killings between 2000 and 2007. Palermo-born, Swiss-based Salvatore Vitale’s How to Secure a Country is a steely look at Switzerland’s sophisticated security regime. In Setting the Stage, Dutch photographer Eddo Hartmann presents rare visitor’s insights from North Korea’s “Capital of the Revolution”, Pyongyang.
Trolley Bus, Somun Street, Pyongyang, 2015 by Eddo Hartmann (Credit: Eddo Hartmann)
“All four positions in this exhibition deal with the theme of identity formation, following the principle of demarcation and of exclusion,” says Anne-Marie Beckmann, director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, which conceived the idea for Us and Them. “The mechanisms employed to nurture a sense of belonging, strength and control range from the establishment of comprehensive security systems to the creation of myths and the evocation of enemy images to be fought against.”
“Exclusion – or the distinction from the ‘others’ – is a phenomenon that seems to be an easy way to create identity,” she tells BBC Culture. “Forming an identity this way works so well these days because it is harder to identify with a global and complex world, than setting the familiar and known as the standard and excluding everybody that does not fit in.”
The emotion, and underlying tension, of Us and Them is fuelled by various paradoxes, as Beckmann notes: “It’s pointing out current developments: globalisation, digital networking, the formation of large communities of states and international alliances seem to be bringing the world’s population closer together. At the same time, efforts to establish national boundaries are increasingly coming to light.”
From the series Kontakt, 2018, by Máté Bartha (Credit: Máté Bartha)
In Kontakt, Máté Bartha photographs 21st-Century youth in the seemingly earthy setting of Honvédsuli (Home Defense School) outdoor summer camps, where they don camouflage, participate in team-building, rigorous exercise and war-games (including how to use replica guns). The images – part reportage, part posed portraits – are sometimes unnerving, and often poignant; in one woodland photo, a group of young boys assemble for stretching exercises, looking simultaneously childlike and militarised. It makes us question the “nature or nurture” aspect of human community – and our need for a “counterpart” to oppose.
It also made Bartha, a self-professed pacifist, reflect on his own viewpoints. “War and violence are things that repel me as a human being,” he tells BBC Culture. “Sung Tzu writes in The Art of War that war should only be issued when all other options are exhausted: a situation that, as history has taught us, does seem to occur every now and then. This suggests that regardless of our emotional relation to the concept of war, it shouldn’t be treated as a taboo… the probability of war in the case of Hungary, or the possible political exploitations in the name of defending one’s country are another question. The community I have followed gives children an insight into a career they might have thought about – and in most cases, they’re stepping back from the idea by the end of the camp. But moreover, these seven days are about learning to appreciate very simple things such as nature, or supporting an actually very inclusive community.”
Rather than being a stand-alone concept, the NGO Honvédsuli (co-run by a former French Legion soldier) apparently took inspiration from British Army Cadet programmes (currently marketed online to 12 to 18-year-olds, with the promise of “Friendship, Adventure and Fun!”).
From the series Kontakt, 2018, by Máté Bartha (Credit: Máté Bartha)
“There’s an ambivalence in my project that has been one of the main motivating ideas about it,” says Bartha. “The military, and the armies of national states, by definition create a border between us and them; it seems that the notion itself cannot exist without this distinction. But in the context of the group of people I’ve observed (children mainly from villages of a particular, relatively small area of Hungary) there is a very serious atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance, in terms of ethnicity, religion or social status. ‘Camaraderie’ is one of the main guiding principles they follow. I think that it is always worth re-evaluating or refining our stereotypes, and in the selection of Us and Them, my project is able to fit in a larger puzzle of artistic approaches to the topic.”
There seems to be a stark contrast between the tone and topic of Bartha’s Kontakt and Paula Markert’s A Journey Through Germany, yet both works prompt reflection on identity and affiliation, from viewers and the artists themselves. Markert’s intensive study came about following the 2011 naming of the NSU terrorist suspects, and the murder trial that began in 2013; the victims included nine civilians of Turkish and Greek heritage (most of whom ran small neighbourhood businesses, though the Bavarian State Police insisted for years that they were involved with immigrant crime gangs), and a German policewoman. Many German media reports used crass terms (“doner-morde” or “kebab killings”) that belittled the victims as “them”, not “us” (news magazine Der Spiegel critiqued this “discriminatory designation” in a 2012 article).
From Paula Markert’s A Journey through Germany: The NSU series of murders (Credit: Paula Markert)
“More and more in-depth research on the case, and the realisation that racist structures in society must have actually made it possible in the first place for the trio remaining undiscovered for so long, aroused the interest of an in-depth investigation of the country in which I was at home, and which through that had become so alien to me,” explains Markert. “Between autumn 2014 and spring 2017, I travelled through Germany on the trails of the NSU trio to photograph people and places connected to the case. The resulting montage of photographs and text fragments – taken from official documents such as the committee of inquiry, final reports, legal texts, interviews and process protocols – formulates unresolved questions about the entanglement of German authorities in the NSU complex.”
Lifting the veil
Markert’s work has often captured moments or insights that would normally be “unseen” or concealed from public view. She describes her relatively aloof visual approach here as “less of a concrete decision but more influenced by the inaccessibility of the various subject areas of the NSU complex”. Many of the landscapes are expressively unpopulated, though one memorably moving image features the mother of murder victim Süleyman Taşköprü; love, and grief, are surely universal emotions.
Hatice Taşköprü, mother of Süleyman Taşköprü, the third NSU murder victim, 2014, Tasköprüstraße, Hamburg by Paula Markert (Credit: Paula Markert)
“The photographic concept in this case was influenced both by a kind of speechlessness towards the knowledge gained about my homeland, as well as by a certain perplexity towards the subjects of landscape and architecture photography,” Markert tells BBC Culture. “My work is the attempt to formulate questions about the state of a country, structural racism and the failure of the authorities and to guide the viewer through the many levels of the NSU complex… I think that hardened, radical ideologies can, in the worst case, lead to extremism and terrorism.”
Salvatore Vitale moved to Switzerland aged 18, and he describes his own “outsider” point of view as key to shaping the “insider”/comparative perspective of How to Secure a Country. “I was able to develop an understanding of the Swiss security system free of any preconceived notions and prejudices,” Vitale tells BBC Culture. “I also noticed cultural and social constructs, trends, and behaviours that are difficult for Swiss citizens to grasp simply because they are culturally embedded.”
An assault rifle customised for sports purposes, from the series How to Secure a Country, 2014-2018, by Salvatore Vitale (Credit: Salvatore Vitale)
Vitale’s cool, abstract images and “transmedia narrative” have a strange allure given they’re seemingly devoid of human life; we see the glaring lights of a security control room; a patrol guard’s body leaning deep into a vehicle; the almost fetishistic detail of an assault rifle. They also contrast Switzerland’s projected reputation for safety and clockwork efficiency, with the defensive stance of a heavily armed nation.
“We live in a time when promoting values such as inclusion and acceptance of the other is essential,” says Vitale. “My research started out of personal motivations and in response to the federal popular initiative ‘against mass immigration’ launched by the Swiss People’s Party, a referendum that aimed to limit immigration to quotas… National security plays a big role in this logic, as security discourses are often strongly related to directly promoting insecurity – touching on sensitive social topics such as migration, labour and identity – in order to promote ‘solutions’. Security is as much about feeling secure as it is about security itself. Us and Them attempts to bring a broader reflection about the specific times we live in, and, by bringing different but connected narratives, to offer a view that is global.”
Canine unit’s dog looking for drugs, from the series How to Secure a Country, 2014-2018, by Salvatore Vitale (Credit: Salvatore Vitale)
The emphatic title Us and Them also seems to summon the disconnect between the Western world and the North Korean location of Eddo Hartmann’s project, Setting the Scene. Hartmann explains that it took him up to a year each time to secure permission for four separate 10-day trips to Pyongyang, where his movements and photographs were scrutinised by officials. He explains that this timeframe encouraged reflection, and an alternative take on community. “The main thing I had to learn was to communicate with my ‘guides’ who monitored every step I made,” Hartmann tells BBC Culture. “Slowly I was able to connect with their culture and ways they experienced my visits and foreigners in general. I also was honest about my plans and ideas. You realise that the people you meet are just like you and me, although they approach you in a very formal way. In the end they also fall in love, have kids, are concerned about their wellbeing and want to have a normal life as far as possible. After a few years, I was able to develop a visual language to show this through the images.”
Setting The Scene captures Pyongyang’s grandiose structures (what Hartmann’s website describes as “an architectural hymn to the Leaders”), severe landscapes, and eerie soundtracks (a synth track from the opera A True Daughter of the Revolution, apparently composed by the late DPRK leader Kim Jong Il, is piped into the city’s streets each midnight). Its VR component also places the viewer onto the platform at the Pyongyang Metro (which Western conspiracy theories long claimed was fake, and populated by actors). There is a hyperreal dissonance, yet also an unexpected human connection.
Factory Workers, from the series Setting the Stage, Pyongyang, North Korea, 2014-2017, by Eddo Hartmann (Credit: Eddo Hartmann)
“It took me several visits to get over some myths and become open to the situation,” says Hartmann. In the beginning you are really ‘a tourist’ because everything is new and strange or different. After a while, you are able to filter out some of it. As a visitor, you are really not so important; so, setting up a whole scene just for you during a visit at the subway would be very vain. Maybe this has happened in the past. You never know but not when I was there! Pyongyang feels like a stage, but mainly for the people living there.”
“The individual picture is less in the foreground [in Us and Them] than the carefully compiled motifs,” adds Beckmann. “Nevertheless, there are of course certain photographs that stand out particularly within these series and ‘grab’ the viewer; these include the night shot with a bus by Eddo Hartmann, the group of children with hoods by Máté Bartha or the empty courtroom by Paula Markert.
“Altogether these artistic positions create an awareness that this kind of demarcation happens in many places, not only in the ones where it is more obvious, like North Korea. They remind us that strong communities are the ones who embrace diversity and inclusion. Hopefully, they inspire every visitor to think about how their own identification might be shaped by the exclusion of ‘the others’ – or by being part of a group that is excluded.”
Us and Them is at Deutsche Börse AG, The Cube, Eschborn, Germany until 19 September 2021.
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