By Maria Muñoz (IG: @maria_munoz_m; Twitter: @Maria_MunozM)
Artist Benedikt Partenheimer (Munich, 1977) pursues a philosophy of awareness through mediums such as photography or video. His works often deal with aspects of perception, visibility and invisibility, and they extend beyond their own subjective limits. The poetic representation of serious and important issues related to the effects of excessive global economic growth, challenge the inherited binomials of modernity – such as development/civilisation/wellness versus underdevelopment/lack of education/poverty. The artistic depiction of these serious and important topics is meditative and disturbingly beautiful, and manages to involve the viewer into a moment of contemplation. We talked to Ben and this is what he told us.
To warm up, let’ s talk a bit about you. You are educated in Philosophy, History and Art History. In 2001 you moved to Melbourne and then to New York to study Photography. How did you decide to become a photographer?
I don’ t think it really was a conscious decision. Photography has been a part of my life for a very long time. Looking at photographs has always fascinated me, and I have always enjoyed creating pictures. But for some reason it had never crossed my mind to become a photographer or an artist until in some way I became a self–taught photographer. Acquiring a degree in photography was just a logical step and maybe also an excuse to explore the world.
In 2002 you were working as intern and assistant for Richard Avedon in New York. At that time, two years before his death, was he still passing by the studio? How was the experience of working with one of the biggest names in photography?
I was very lucky. During my time with Richard Avedon he was very active, shooting a lot of commercial and editorial work. He lived right above his studio on the Upper East Side and would be at the studio almost every day. Obviously it was a great experience for a young photographer like me to see how Avedon worked. He was a very energetic, intelligent and inspiring man. I learned a lot about studio photography during that time, but I also realised that this was a world I was not interested in as a photographer.
Let’ s move to your more recent project: Dreams of Europe. Last year, 137.000 people fled across the Mediterranean in the hope for a better life in Europe. Not all of them managed to escape. You started this project before the big refugee crisis, overwhelmed nowadays by the media. Why did you decide in first instance to work on this project?
It’ s a project I’ ve wanted to work on for the last two years, but I never really had the time or the money to pursue it. The situation became more and more dramatic and unbearable, and the urge to work on this project became stronger and stronger. I was ashamed to see how Europe was, and still is, dealing with the situation. Migration has always been part of our societies but I am very concerned to see how Europe’ s strategies of deterrence and expulsion are forcing the migrants to take extremely dangerous routes in order to reach Europe.
The project presentation starts with the text: “We were all once people, it was only our names that differed, but those called human transgressed, and the world exploded into species.” Can you tell me where it comes from? It’ s a quote from a poem from Jeremy Cronin’ s book “More than a casual contact”. A bookseller in Johannesburg recommended the book to me and I read the poems when I was traveling through South Africa to work on a project about borders a few years ago.
The photo series, as we said before, is called Dreams of Europe. What dreams of Europe do the refugees have?
The migrants and refugees are leaving their countries and homes for different reasons. People are fleeing war, suppression, injustice, hunger and unemployment. But what they all have in common is a dream for a better life in Europe. They are hoping for a safe environment where they can start a new life, find a job, and earn money to support their families.
Would most of them remain in the new country or is their hope someday to return to their homeland?
I don’ t know, I think this is different from person to person.
Your photographs from Tunisia, Lampedusa and Sicily (the first phase of your project) show only men. Have you encountered exclusively men or have you taken this decision -I mean photographing just men?
As far as I know, about 70 per cent of the migrants and refugees are young men. I guess this is the case because the journeys are very dangerous and also physically very demanding. So no, it is not a choice I have made, I simply only encountered men on my first trips.
For the second part of the project you went to Kos (Greece), portraying again refugees. We have seen through the media many women and kids there. Did you portrait children?
I am asking because it’ s populist and you get a lot attention with it...To be honest I have decided not to photograph children for various reasons, but this might change in the future. I do believe that every life matters and I don’ t make the distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee from a war torn country, and I also don’ t make a distinction between young and old or male and female. I am trying to portray refugees and migrants in a respectful and dignified manner and I should probably also include children, no matter how this might be perceived.
How open were the portrayed to work with you?
It really depends, of course there are people who do not want to be photographed and I totally understand and respect that decision. Overall I have to say that the people I met were extremely friendly and open. The refugees have to pay a lot of money to the smugglers for their travels. How can they afford it? Refugees are not necessarily poor people; there are many different kinds of refugees and migrants. There are people and families from the lower class as well as people from the upper and middle class fleeing the war in Syria. A lot of the refugees and migrants from Africa collect the money in their families or sell their property to afford the journey. In other cases, people travel as far as they can and then stay at one place to work and earn money for the rest of the journey. I have met people who have been traveling and working for many years on their way to Europe.
In your project, you sell the images of the refugees for the price the refugees paid the smugglers?
The portrait images of the refugees will only be released as an edition of 1 (+ 1AP). The price of the print will match the amount of money the individual person had to pay to smugglers in order to reach their current location. This way, the size and price of the print is not determined by me, but represents the exploitation of the depicted person. The earnings of the print sales will go back to the refugees or if that is not possible, the money will be donated to an aid organization. Sales from the other images will be used for the continuation of the project.
Are you still in touch with the refugees from Tunisia, Lampedusa, Sicily and Kos?
I am conducting a short interview with every person I photograph and I also write down their contact information so I can contact them if I sell their portrait. I am also planning to contact every person I photographed after about one year has passed to see where they are and to find out how their “dreams” have developed.
What do you think should the politicians do with this situation?
Europe must rethink its immigration policies and must start to think about alternatives to the Dublin regulation. We have to offer refugees legal ways to travel and we have to accept that migration is a reality. Migration is part of an unequally distributed and globalised world, and will only be stopped if the living conditions in the countries of origin are improved. But most important is that we stay human and that we treat people in a human and respectful manner.
I would also like to talk a little bit about your previous project Particulate Matter, where you also point to a very politically controversial issue: the eco-system and the pollution in China. Again, how and why did you decide to do this work? Must have been expensive to travel to Shanghai to film and to take photographs...
I was particularly interested in developing work related to the Anthropocene, a proposed term for an epoch that begins when human activities have had significant global impact on the Earth’ s ecosystems. The Anthropocene has no agreed start date, but some scientists propose that, based on atmospheric evidence, it may be considered to start with the Industrial Revolution. The Anthropocene is a situation that calls for re–examination, asking us to take a closer, more sensitive look at the way humans have chosen to live. The work “Particulate Matter” reflects upon the consequences that come along with excessive economic growth in China and the burning of fossil fuels. The work addresses the problems of air pollution and deals with the relationship between revival and decline.
The foggy clouds consist of heavy smog that has settled over the city. Is the ecological balance of the city is in danger? And is the human habitat becoming more and more unsuitable and inhospitable?
Yes, scientific studies have shown that many cities in China are becoming unsuitable for human habitation – the air pollution has become too strong and too dangerous.
This really makes me wonder. What use is economic growth if people have to live in cities where they cannot breathe and where children cannot play outside?
There is a web page where government agencies publish the air quality index (AQI) in real time and it is used to communicate the degree of air pollution to the public. Is that a reliable source?
I think it is reliable. I have compared the ratings from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, who has their own air quality monitor, with the ones from the Chinese government and they have been identical.
Your series of photographs are named after the AQI, how is the index classified from no heath implications to hazardous?
There are six different degrees of air pollution. AQI 0-50 is classified as good air with no heath implications. AQI 51-100 is classified as moderate with few health implications. AQI 101-150 is classified as unhealthy for sensitive groups and AQI 151-200 is classified as unhealthy with increased aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. AQI 201-300 is classified as very unhealthy and AQI 301-500 is classified as hazardous. Everyone should avoid all physical outdoor activities and should remain indoors.
While you were there, did you check the index before going to the street? Yes, I would always check the AQI Index in the morning before leaving the house.
The video work and the photographs reflect in a very aesthetic way upon the consequences that come along with excessive economic growth, quick industrialisation and modernisation. Again, people are suffering the consequences of the ‘ system’ . In your opinion, what should the governments and politicians do?
I think we have reached a point in history where we seriously have to think about how we want to proceed as a species and how we want to treat the world we inhabit. Air pollution is just one example of how humans affect and destroy the environment. We live in an extremely profit orientated world. Profit and economic growth have become more important than the environment and the wellbeing of other people. But money will not help us, once we have destroyed our environment. The only way to reduce Air Pollution is to switch to clean energy sources and move away from fossil fuels.
So, in summary, the planet is full of wars, we tend to destroy the eco system, etc. in favour of economic interests. Is there any solution at all? There is a solution, but I think that many people are not aware of the urgency of the situation. We have only been on this planet for a very short time but the impact we have made on our ecosystem is immense. The world will continue to exist without us, so it is up to us to treat the environment more wisely and respectful. Otherwise this planet will become more and more unsuitable for humans and many other living beings. We need to switch to clean and sustainable solutions, which already exist, but unfortunately our capitalist societies are praying to the wrong god – Mammon. We need to evolve into new economic models and new ways of sharing this planet.
More information about the Artist available on www.benedikt-partenheimer.com