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Photography project

Regina Völz / so January 24, 2013

An opera village in Burkina Faso was the last project of German theater director Christoph Schlingensief. Photography student Marie Köhler is the first western artist to work there.

the opening of the opera village
Image: cc by sa Michael Bogar

Marie Köhler beams when she speaks of Burkina Faso. She visited the opera village in October 2012 to prepare for her photo project. She is the first western artist to work in the village. "It was unbelievably green and really paradisical. Everything is built in a way that there is always shade to match the heat," she enthused. The orange-reddish brick houses lie in a hilly landscape, 20 km (12.4 miles) from the capital Ouagadougou. For the next four months this will be her home.

The 31-year-old artist from the city of Herne in Germany is now travelling back to Africa. Her suitcase is filled with 150 cameras. In Burkina Faso, she plans to conduct a photo project with the school children of the opera village.

Children in the street in Burkina Faso Photo: Marie Köhler
A school and a health center are to be part of the projectImage: Marie Köhler

Schlingensief's final project

The opera village is the brainchild of Christoph Schlingensief, a renowned German theater personality, film-maker and director. The plan involved a sustainable economic strategy as well as improved production and living conditions. Included in this plan are the aspects of education and cultural production.

Schlingensief was able to witness the laying of the foundation stone in April 2010. He died just four months later as a result of lung cancer. Since then, the village has gained a school as well as houses for the teachers, artists and visitors. A health center is due to open in February.    

Make your own picture!

The idea for Marie Köhler's photo project was born ten years earlier. It was inspired by a documentary film about a photography project in Calcutta, India. "[The photographer] conducted a photo project with street children. I was fascinated by the photos and at the time I naively said: one day, I'll do that too." Consequently, Marie Köhler started collecting cameras. When she received a scholarship to complete her masters degree in photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Dortmund, it was clear: This could be really big.

Marie Köhler
Photography student Marie Köhler plans to discover village life through her projectsImage: Heide Prange

"Mach dir ein Bild," or "Make your own picture," is how Köhler has named her project. She plans to display the final result in a photographic catalogue. Her concept runs along the same lines as Christoph Schlingensief's original idea. She quotes Schlingensief: "95 percent of all African images that I have seen since my childhood were taken by white people, all newspaper commentaries were by white people. Almost nothing came from black people. But this is not the real Africa." Responding to this problem, Schlingensief argued: "We will now stop sending the kind of aid from which we have concrete expectations. We will send the money and say: do what you like with it!  Make your own pictures!"

Showing the real Africa

Marie Köhler is aware that the western image of Africa often reflects the stereotypes of war and famine, mixed in with glossy wildlife photos. The 31-year-old hopes to change some of these impressions.

In October 2012, she discussed the project with the village teachers, to find ways of integrating it into the teaching plan. For Christoph Schlingensief's widow, Aino Laberenz, this interactive aspect of the project is extremely important. Laberenz, who has continued the work of her husband, receives many proposals from artists who want to work in the village. 

As the first western artist to work in the opera village, Marie Köhler has a kind of guinea-pig status. "Her idea is very close to the initial concept of the village, that you don't go there as a white person and show the people how to do things correctly from a western perspective," says Aino Laberenz. What also convinced Laberenz was Köhler's wish to let herself be influenced by the location and the people and to observe everyday life through photography.

Christoph Schlingensief and opera village architect Francis Kere Photo: Michael Bogar
Opera village founder Christoph Schlingensief, seen with architect Francis Kere, died shortly after the launchImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Equipped with cameras, films and batteries, Marie Köhler is ready to start her project. A few questions, however, remain open. "I am doing a project in which it is still unclear what the final results will look like." She has no idea what kind of photos the children will take and how her documentation will turn out. "I'm looking forward to the end product," she says. When all is done, Marie Köhler hopes to display the results in exhibitions in Germany.