Viewing the lives of (Turkish) migrants in Germany

The issue of refugees in Europe has fallen off Australia’s radar somewhat, but for a while there it was the news of the day. In particular, Germany’s immediate response to the refugee crisis was incredible, especially when compared to Australia’s. If I was ever going to use the term “game-changer”, Angela Merkel’s announcement of the country taking in one million refugees from Syria was certainly that. I heard a great program from the BBC yesterday called Great Expectations: Migrants in Germany. It was all about the latest ‘migrants’ in Germany which was quite thought provoking because it highlights the reality of how opportunistic people are when they are in such a situation — they’ll change their age and insist they’re a minor, they’ll do whatever they can do game the system. It’s important to acknowledge the different sides to the refugee narrative.

Whenever I recall that I lived in Europe last year, it blows my mind to think of the radical changes that have occurred in the short time since. I recently emailed someone I know in Nijmegen to describe the Dutch response and he came back with the following:

The Dutch response to the refugees that are at our doorstep (I think we’re talking about a couple of hundred per day) is one with quite some hospitality I believe. Yes, there are opponents (Geert Wilders types) who are afraid that ‘asylum seekers’ will cause trouble (assault our women, take houses and jobs) but the majority of the nation supports the providing of asylum. In Nijmegen, south of the city in the woods of Heumensoord, the largest refugee camp of the Netherlands is built right now. It will offer temporary housing to a maximum of 3000 refugees, most of them from Syria and Afghanistan, but also from Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia. On Monday the first 800 refugees will arrive. 

Having a large group migrate en masse to a country completely changes the internal dynamics of already complicated multicultural societies. This was certainly the case with the large influx of Vietnamese into nations like Australia. I recently met a German girl with Vietnamese heritage named Diem Nguyen to write a blog post about her time in Australia as a student on placement. What didn’t make it into the post was how fascinating it was for me to hear about her life in Berlin as the child of Vietnamese migrants.

I visited Germany on two trips towards the end of 2013: the first time for a friend’s wedding, and the second time to Cologne and Bonn which I wanted to recall here. The latter wasn’t too far from where I was living in Belgium, so I took the opportunity to visit a friend who had recently relocated to Bonn with his family. I had a great weekend catching up and seeing more of Germany, a huge country I’ve seen so little of. That trip happened exactly two years ago actually, which I realised just now as I was going through my photos. I’m also looking back on that time for a magazine piece I’m currently writing.

For Cologne, my friend highly recommended a visit to Museum Ludwig, a major contemporary art gallery. It’s not far from the main train station and has a distinctive outline which I’d seen from the nearby KölnTriangle earlier in the day. It was a great tip: I ended up spending a few hours there and was especially moved by an artwork about Turkish migrants in Germany.

The view of Museum Ludwig from KölnTriangle
The view of Museum Ludwig from KölnTriangle

In Museum Ludwig I wandered from room to room and eventually found myself in a darkened room with a photo projector nostalgically whirring, flicking from one colour photo to the next…and I viewed every single photo appear like the slow passage of time.

Looking at the photos of Turkish migrants from the 1970s made me feel quite teary, overwhelmed by a sense of empathy. I thought about my own parents’ experiences of migration, and how they were — and often still are — at odds with the dominant culture of the broader society they moved to. I wondered how those Turkish children got on growing up in Germany feeling so different. I thought about my month travelling across Turkey and everything that trip taught me. Those photos involuntarily dragged up layers of my own memories which had been buried over time.

Türken in Deutschland by Candida Höfer
Türken in Deutschland by Candida Höfer

These photos, Türken in Deutschland, is the work of Cologne photographer Candida Höfer. Over a period of six years during the 1970s she documented the lives of the Turkish, a very visible minority in Germany, and was particularly interested in the visual changes in German society brought about by these migrant workers. In looking it up now to learn more, I found a recently published essay that provides further insight into these photos:

Höfer not only photographed outdoors, but was also particularly interested in the interior spaces in which immigrant Turks spend their time, live and work. In a serial and typographical approach, she captured her subjects’ grocery stores and apartments from a distanced, rather documentary perspective: the decorated rooms, full of Oriental pictures and furnishings, are depicted as a surrounding space for the subjects. For the most part, these subjects pose in these rooms for the photographer and, in this way, are captured as self-reflective individuals.

…In these rooms, the past, present and future intertwine, and the cultural character of the country of origin and the experiences in the destination cannot be clearly differentiated. In these interiors designed my migrants, time and space converge.

– From ‘My home away from home: Artistic reflections on immigration to Germany’ by Burcu Dogramaci

Decades later, Höfer’s work provides a valuable record of the lives of the Turkish during that period — and with everything going on in Germany now, history will undoubtedly repeat itself with the way migrants both adapt to and change their surroundings. However, as much as I love documentary photography, thinking about the ethical aspects of this type of work does make me feel uncomfortable because of the way it captures real people’s lives in particular way for the sake of art (and/or documentary). Ultimately this did feel like a respectful series of portraits, a little voyeuristic but not particularly exploitative. Such work certainly reinforces what a great privilege it is to be granted access to other people’s lives — especially if that access helps you build a career.

Türken in Deutschland by Candida Höfer
Türken in Deutschland by Candida Höfer
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