It seems like you are back on track with the Anthropocene, in line with Particulate Matter and It’s Never Enough. Is this going to be your major focus from now on?
I am not sure, but at the moment I am still very interested in creating work related to the term “Anthropocene“. The relationship between man and nature has become dysfunctional because we live in an economic paradigm and it seems important to me to think about ways to discuss this through my work.
By the way, the soundtrack Symphony of Sorrowful Songs used in your video piece It’s Never Enough, was also played the opening night of documenta 14 in Athens, in a concert dedicated to the refugees and their important presence in Greece. So unconsciously, your two main lines of work are connected through this music. As we will see now, apart from the Anthropocene issues, you have worked in a kind of visionary mode with the very crucial refugee European crisis for more than two years now. Your project Dreams of Europe (2015) started at the moment that the refugee crisis was hitting Europe and became very critical for the old Continent. In 2015, 137.000 people fled across the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life in Europe. Not all of them managed to escape. As said, you did it before almost anyone else –nowadays it is also overused by the media. Why did you decide in the first instance to work on this project?
It’ s a project I’ve wanted to work on at least two years before I did start, 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 by Jeremy Cronin, published in the 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 but 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?
Before the waves of people provoked by the war in Syria where there are many children and women. Lampedusa and Sicily always have had a flow of Maghrebi and sub-Saharan, it is not something new. Based on my experience in these places, about 70% 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. But the situation has changed dramatically, because of the war in Syria many families with women and children are fleeing the country.
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.
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 portraits of the refugees for the price the refugees paid the smugglers?
The portrait images of the refugees are only released as an edition of 1 (+1 Artist Proof). The price of the print matches 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 go back to the refugees or if that is not possible, the money is donated to an aid organization.
For the second part of the project, you went to Kos (Greece), portraying again refugees. We have seen through the media that there are many women and kids there however you avoided them again. The images are very impressive and far from sensationalist and on many of them you are not even showing people. I am asking because it is populist matter and you would get a lot of attention with it –just thinking about the photo of the drowned baby, which has been seen around the world…
I am not interested in creating sensationalist imagery. I have decided not to photograph children for various reasons. 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 was trying to portray refugees and migrants in a respectful and dignified manner. I mainly encountered male refugees and it was easy for me to approach them. Families are much more protective and I didn’t really feel like invading their space.
Are you still in touch with the refugees from Tunisia, Lampedusa, Sicily and Kos?
I conducted short interviews with every person I photographed and I also collected their contact information so I can contact them if I sell their portrait. I am also planning to contact every person I photographed after a couple of years to see where they are and to find out how their “dreams” have developed.
Therefore haven’t you finished the refugee’s project? I bet this project is a personal “wear and tear”
Well yes, I have finished the Dreams of Europe project for now, but I might come back to it at a later stage. I wouldn’t say it was a wear and tear but I have put a lot of time and energy into this project and had hoped it would find more support and a bigger audience. Like I have mentioned before, the idea was to raise money through print sales and to support refugees, but I didn’t find enough places to show and sell the works. The MACRO, Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome was the only Institution where the work was shown. At least we managed to sell one image as a special edition with Monopol Magazin and raised about 8000 Euros. The edition was sold out and the money was then donated to Sea Watch.
What do you think should the politicians do with the increasing refugee crisis 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 humane and respectful manner.
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.
And now as a farewell to this interesting and committed conversation, what projects are you working on at the moment and the near future?
There are a few things I would like to work on, but I will have to find ways to finance those projects. In the meantime, I am working on images that explore the relationship between technology, science, and climate change. I might also have the possibility to make a book about my work Particulate Matter. So I am thinking about traveling to China again to photograph the final chapter, which will look at air pollution from a different perspective.
More information about the artist available on his web page www.benedikt-partenheimer.com
Text: María Muñoz
Images courtesy of the artist. Front featured photograph: Portrait Benedikt Partenheimer (c) Grischa Schmitz