What people look like when a stranger whispers in their ear | Arts | DW | 13.03.2017
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What people look like when a stranger whispers in their ear

Inspired by the exchange process which occurs in the telephone game, photographer Herlinde Koelbl's new series depicts intimate listening and understanding.

DW: Ms. Koelbl, your latest series of photos portrays people whispering to each other. Tell us more about it.

Herlinde Koelbl: Altogether, 28 people from 16 countries participated: Germans, asylum-seekers, people from Ireland, Australia, Mauritius, Togo, and many other countires. There are even someone from Bavaria (laughs).

The intention was to show how proximity occurs. How does one allow it to happen and what does it lead to?

I based it on the German expression, "to give someone an ear," through which you allow someone else to come up close to you. In the process, you give something to the other person, but they also give something back. Revealing something is giving. And that allows something new to happen.

Did you want to find out what the people you were photographing were talking about?

Whatever they were talking about remained their secret. I told them I didn't even want to know. And through the fact that it was their secret, it remained something special that bound them together.

People laughing while one is whispering (Herlinde Koelbl )

We'll never know what he said

You said that people from 16 countries participated in the project. Why did you decide to add an intercultural element to this series?

My goal was to show how close we all are as human beings. On the other hand, we also ask ourselves: Who and what is foreign to us? Are East and West Germans foreign to each other? Are people from different social classes foreign to each other? In my photos, it's difficult to recognize whether people previously knew each other or not. And that was the point. The idea is that the viewer should open up to these people and not take on a defensive perspective to determine who the foreigner is.

What inspired you about the telephone game [Eds. called "Stille Post" in German, or silent mail], with its whispering and listening?

As a child, I often played the telephone game and I was always curious to find out what would come out at the end.

For this project, I was curious too, not about the words, but about the relationship that emerged from the moment. I found it worked well for the photos because we always need to get close to each other in that game. The ear is a very sensitive, intimate organ. People needed to allow a stranger to approach them. It required an effort from both sides.

In one picture I see a young Indian woman who appears to keep her distance more than others. Did your models react differently to proximity or did you also stage this a bit to add variety?

TV host and author Amelie Fried whispering to a man (H. Koebl)

TV host and author Amelie Fried was one of the participants

For some people, it took more time than others to establish this proximity. You need patience. And obviously there are cultural differences. The Indian girl is probably more cautious. Her expression is not skeptical, but simply alert. Others enjoyed the whispers and even laughed.

You also currently have an exhibition on the situation of refugees at the German Foreign Office. Overcoming borders between people and cultures seems to be an issue that drives your art…

My first book was "The German Living Room," where I photographed people from all walks of life in their living rooms. With that project I was already interested in relations, and in how a person lives. This isn't any different.

In your exhibition at the German Foreign Office, you portrayed the harsh conditions of refugee camps, whereas this series offers a positive view on intercultural relations. Isn't it a sugarcoated, politically correct view of Germany's reality? 

No, it's not a sugarcoated perspective. It is a positive one, showing a possibility that many might not have even considered possible. It demonstrates that if we see people as people and not as a mass, something positive can happen.

Someone whispering with Herlinde Koelbl at the presentation of her exhibition (DW/G. Schließ)

Whispering with the photographer: Herlinde Koelbl at the presentation of her exhibition

You probably didn't have any members of the far-right AfD party among your models?

I don't think a member of the AfD would allow a man from Togo to whisper something in their ear. Yet I wanted to show that such a proximity is possible and that this exchange is a gift.

Herlinde Koelbl has been working as a photographer and documentary filmmaker for 40 years. Her best-known project is "Spuren der Macht" (Traces of Power), in which she  portrayed politicians such as Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel over years.

The exhibition "Stille Post. Hören und Verstehen" (The telephone game. Listening and understanding) is on show until June 11 at the Museum for Communication in Berlin.


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