Jörg Colberg – Vaterland

Review by Gerhard Clausing

In some respects, Germans believe in equal opportunity – they give credit to their parents for country and language: Vaterland is ‘fatherland’ and Muttersprache means ‘mother tongue.’ As history has shown, however, the term Vaterland carries a heavy burden, as it is associated with the sins and atrocities of the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps it can also be said that the use of violence as a problem-solver is primarily a male enterprise, hence the idea of the ‘father’ passing a simple-minded methodology to his ‘children’ (= future generations): Sterben fürs Vaterland (‘To die for the fatherland’) was one of the slogans that created misdirected fervor in millions of German soldiers who followed or were forced to tolerate a malevolent pied piper to their demise, along with the incarceration and extermination of millions of others.

I will not attempt to negotiate the issues of collective guilt versus individual responsibility here. The resurgence of political influence of the far right in our twenty-first century, not only in Germany, but in the US and other countries as well, is plenty to think about in this connection: the old method of negativity directed at identified other subgroups – usually minorities – in connection with made-up stories and fake attributions repeats itself in our very own current time. Populist and autocratic politicians tend to gather support by projecting hostile sentiments onto another group or several groups in simplified but magnified form – in this way ethnic minorities become scapegoats. 

Recent occurrences in the United States come to mind, such as new definitions of ‘patriotism’ and people marching and chanting that other groups will not replace them. Indeed, the seizing of the US Capitol in January of 2021 at the invitation and urging of some politicians and the disturbances in the Bundestag parliament building in Berlin in November of 2020 at the invitation of the German right-wing populist and nationalist AfD party (Alternative for Germany) were just two such parallel developments.

Jörg Colberg, creator and author of the important Conscientious Photography Magazine, is not only keenly aware of all that history, but is also a creative and talented artist and thinker, and is able to put it all into perspective in this fascinating photobook, a metaphor for changes and possibilities in the shadow of yet another uncertain time. He has been living in the US for some twenty years, and his connection to his country of origin has been marred by the observations on developments regarding extreme violence on the right, exerted against current minorities and migrants, resulting, among other things, in the seating of that extreme AfD party in the German parliament; he photographed a changing Central Europe to convey  that time of trepidation in light of past and present events and potential dangers.

Colberg’s photographic observations presented in this photobook are not an in-your-face documentation of events. Rather, they are in the nature of more subtle reminders and thought-provoking visual cues, presented in a somber mood. It helps to have a bit of an idea about the history of Central Europe to appreciate the images and juxtapositions, but even as such they are stimuli that can’t be ignored. The photographs were taken in Germany and Poland between 2016 and 2019. We see historic public buildings that seem almost unattainable in a weird Kafkaesque way. We see some crumbling walls and crooked tables that may be hints that all is not well. Slick apartment houses are surrounded by graffiti and debris. Cobblestones are silent witnesses to all that has happened in the past century and in our time, and will still be around for what will yet come to pass. Barbed wire in the midst of greenery is a way of warding off others. Monuments and statues no longer display their full ‘pristine’ former glory… What seems most disturbing is the uncertainty, possibly even anxiety shown in the faces of the young people portrayed; this could be mirroring some of the uncertainty and dismay felt by the photographer and by this writer as well. The images are all printed without color or high contrast, well-spaced, mostly one to a double page, to allow effective browsing and contemplation.

Many questions come to mind: How is it possible that a right-wing party is sitting in German parliament now, 75 years later, after what happened in the previous century? How is it possible that public sentiment can be stirred up to generate violent excesses against minority groups once again, this time primarily against those of migratory background seeking a better, safer existence? What has happened to rational assessment based on past history to channel all this into constructive avenues?

Jörg Colberg completes this book with brief sets of statistics that show the extent of right-wing influence and violence exerted especially in Germany in the 20th and 21st centuries. The parallels are indeed disturbing. This book is an important contribution as it also serves as a reminder to examine such developments, to use past events to gauge possible future outcomes and to not let emotions driven to excessive levels stand in the way of rational evaluation. Highly recommended.

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Jörg Colberg – Vaterland 

Photographer:  Jörg Colberg (born in Germany; lives in Massachusetts, USA)

Publisher:  Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld, Germany; © 2020.

Texts:  Jörg Colberg

Languages:  German, English,  Polish

Paperback with illustrated gatefold cover; 96 pages, unpaginated, with 44 images; 16.5 x 24 cm (6.5 x 9.5 inches); printed in Germany; ISBN: 978-3-7356-0709-6   

Photobook Design:  Karen Tozzi

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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