Review by Wayne Swanson •
Arab Spring. The Mexican-U.S. border crises. Ongoing strife in Africa. And now the exodus from Ukraine to escape the Russian assault. What to do with all these refugees? Germany, in the wake of the wave of emigration caused by Arab Spring uprisings in 2015, emerged as a beacon of hope by welcoming asylum-seekers and embarking on ambitious plans to provide housing for the new arrivals.
German photographer and visual artist Malte Uchtmann examines the promise and the shortcomings of Germany’s response in Ankommen (Arriving). Through his photographs, excerpts from government documents, architectural plans and graphics, he presents a picture of a national response that goes far beyond what other countries have done (hello, “big, beautiful wall”), yet still falls short.
On the one hand, the architects and planners developed housing that is in many cases innovative and technically well-executed, providing a safe place for refugees to begin their journey toward assimilation in a new land. On the other hand, the buildings were purposely placed in greenfield areas on the edge of cities or in industrial areas, separated from existing communities. Additionally, sociologist Philipp Piechura writes in the book’s introductory essay that “refugees often have to spend years of their lives in these buildings. Thus, shelters, paradoxically, become both starting points and barriers on the way to a new life.”
It’s all presented in a book that has earned awards for a clever design that mimics a governmental report. The cover makes it look like it would be at home on a bureaucrat’s desk. There’s even an elastic strap to help that bureaucrat open the book to any key document. Inside, the pages are color coded — yellow for front and end pages, white for photographs, green for government documents and architectural plans. The image pages include cross-references to aerial maps at the end of the book that show the location of each building complex.
It’s a well-designed object, but to me the approach to the imagery is a bit at odds with the message. What we see is photography that would be at home in an architectural journal. Straightforward shots of exterior facades and interior spaces, all devoid of human presence. We see exteriors that may be simple but are enlivened by accents of color. Interior spaces have white walls and blond furniture. It’s all very spare and modern in a Bauhaus sort of way. It’s the type of imagery that invites you to think about how you could make the spaces your own.
Uchtmann says “I chose not to show the refugees themselves in the images, but what is provided to them. In this way, I would like to try to focus the debate about the integration of refugees more on the role of those who host them and the responsibility that they also have, so that living together collectively is possible.” The result is that this important part of the message is left to the text and a few architectural drawings. These explain that the refugees for the most part live in shared spaces, with limited bathroom and kitchen facilities. In other words, these are not homes, but dormitories. By using only images with no people in sight, it’s hard to grasp how crowded living in these communities must feel. In addition, other than a few shots showing how the building complexes are distanced from the surrounding community, it’s difficult to fully grasp the consequences of their isolation.
Uchtmann says he wants “to raise awareness of the impact of architecture for housing refugees and stimulate an exploration of the extent to which structural and institutional racism are embedded in our society and in architecture.” Lofty goals, and perhaps expecting more from the imagery is a lot to ask, given the morass of social and political issues surrounding acceptance, rejection, resentment, prejudice, and stigmatism that unfortunately accompany bringing outsiders into an established culture.
From a vantage point here in the highly dysfunction USA, though, it seems incredible that Germany has been able to accomplish what it has, limited as that may be.
Wayne Swanson is a Contributing Editor and a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
Ankommen, Malte Uchtmann
Photographer: Malte Uchtmann, born Hamburg, Germany, resides Hanover, Germany
Publisher: Kult Books (Stockholm, Sweden, copyright 2022)
Introduction: Philipp Piechura
Text: German, English
Stiffcover book with elastic band closure, Swiss bound, four-color lithography, 252 pages, 7.75 x 10 in., printed in 252 pages, ISBN 978-91-984059-8-9
Photobook designer: Malte Uchtmann and Paul Spehr
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