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Venice Biennale

Interview: Ulrike Sommer / egMay 8, 2015

We've all seen pictures of refugee camps in Africa, but few Africans can imagine how refugees are living in Germany. The photographer Tobias Zielony tells DW how his project stirred up new transcontinental stories.

Venice Biennale 2015 Tobias Zielony "The Citizen," 2015. Copyright: Felix Hörhager/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Hörhager

Along with four other artists, the young photographer and filmmaker Tobias Zielony was invited to show his work at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which takes place from May 9 to November 22.

He will be exhibiting a documentary series of photographs he has taken of African refugees living in Berlin and Hamburg.

DW: What is the photography project you are showing in Venice about?

Tobias Zielony: The idea of ​​the project was to photograph and record the stories of refugees in Germany, especially refugee activists. These stories were then published in the newspapers of their respective countries of origin. Very often, people in their homeland knew very little about the situation of the refugees in Germany and their political struggles.

The exhibition shows the whole newspapers or a least the entire page with the article, and not just the article itself, because they reveal a lot about the context of the country, too. It offers something like a random spotlight on different local situations. The other articles and ads in the newspaper provide an almost accidental story about the countries where the refugees come from.

Photographer and filmmaker Tobias Zielony. Copyright: Stephanie Pilick/dpa
Photographer and filmmaker Tobias ZielonyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

How do you define the role of photography in this context? The medium is often accused of voyeurism: How do you avoid it?

I believet the refugees very quickly realized the importance of pictures. They deal with the media in a very self-confident and emancipated way. Now there is even a group of photographers who have an established contact with the refugees and are allowed to make a certain type of pictures. I wouldn't define this as voyeurism or "victim photography." People are aware of how important these pictures are and how important it is to have people working on this process on both sides of the camera. I think I'm part of this process.

It was quite unusual for some of them to have those pictures published in Africa as well. We know the pictures of refugee camps in Sudan, but the other way around, it was a somewhat surprising thing to do for the Africans in Germany and the local newspapers.

How did you develop the idea with ​​the newspaper articles?

We wanted to work with authors living in those countries, such as Lagos, Cameroon, Nigeria and so on. We first found the authors and they got in touch with the local newspapers. The newspapers have extremely different styles of articles. Their approaches and their perspectives are distinct, too.

German artists at the Venice Biennale 2015Copyright: Stephanie Pilick/dpa
The artists at the German Pavilion in Venice. From right to left: Hito Steyerl, Tobias Zielony, curator Florian Ebner, artist duo Philip Rizk and Jasmina Metwaly, and Olaf NicolaiImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

How did the people there react to the articles?

In Cameroon, for example, many people were surprised to find out that refugees were having a hard time here - that they weren't allowed to work, that they couldn't study and were constantly threatened with deportation. It changed the readers' perception of Germany. Many people there think everything is fine for those who've left the country and reached Europe.

Of course, you can understand the perspective of people living in Sudan, for example: Even if we talk about people merely surviving in Germany, they still think they've at least reached the safe side.

Then in Nigeria, the articles were published in a literature magazine, which also included works of fictions on the topic. There's the story of two women working in Venice as prostitutes, for instance. These stories add fictional or semi-fictional dimensions to the pictures. The texts don't explain my photographs, but they mirror a situation that is a lot more complicated than we imagine.

You have been working very closely with the activists. Will they also be participating in the presentations in Venice?

We considered inviting the people we worked with, but they are not allowed to travel. They already get in trouble when they try to travel within Germany. It's not easy for them to say: I'll go to Italy for the opening of the exhibition. It's one of the questions we have: Who gets to see the final results of the work? We'd love to bring this exhibition back or to manage to bring the people it features to the exhibition.

Tobias Zielony was born in 1973 in the German city of Wuppertal. He studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales in Newport in the UK. He then went on to do his masters at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig under the supervision of Timm Rautert. His work ranges from classic documentary photography to conceptual approaches. His pictures and videos often focus on the margins of society.