photographing the sadness and camaraderie of teenage refugees in germany
In her series 'Toleration,' Stefanie Zofia Schulz captures the daily life of families stuck in the asylum-seeker housing system.
For the photographic project "Duldung" (Toleration) — currently on view in Paris as part of the young photography festival Circulations — Berlin-based photographer Stefanie Zofia Schulz visited Germany's largest housing center for refugees and asylum-seekers for week-long stretches every month for a year.
The 'Lager,' as its residents call it, is situated on the edge of Lebach-Jabach, a small town in Saarland in southwestern Germany. "On the one hand the term 'Lager' can mean 'holiday camp,' on the other hand, it can remind us of the German term 'Konzentrationslager,' which means 'concentration camp,'" Schulz explains. Officially, refugees are supposed to remain there for up to one year before being re-assigned to a more long-term location. Yet Schulz met people who had been living in this "preliminary" center for over 15 years. For many children, it has been their place of residence for their entire lives.
Schulz's images focus on the kids and adolescents growing up in this liminal space: born into broken families, with deeply melancholic pasts and wildly uncertain futures. Although integrated into German schools, home for them, and their families, is a nebulous designation. Exploring notions of motherland, tedium, and insecurity that characterize the asylum-seeker experience, Schulz tenderly depicts both the sadness and camaraderie of this community: a 13-year-old Serbian Roma girl who lets her sister literally iron her hair for an outing to the skating rink, a 12-year-old girl from Afghanistan with scars from a rocket attack, a young boy standing before a whole pig ready to be roasted for an orthodox Easter ceremony. We spoke with Schulz about her personal proximity to the refugee experience.
How did you become involved in this project?
There used to be German camps for asylum seekers from Russia and Poland — same as the Lager. My parents are from Poland, and my mother flew over the border when she was pregnant with me. I was born in a camp. It's a funny circle. Just after school, I worked as a waitress; my ex-boyfriend was the cook. And I wondered why he would disappear when police came in for tea or coffee. It turned out he was "undocumented," or an illegal immigrant. He lived in a grey zone. He had his own apartment, but no rights. He couldn't vote or anything. If he was caught, he would have been sent back to his home country. I spent three years with him, trying to get asylum for him.
What was your interaction like with the people at Lebach? Were you actively engaged with them, or were you more of a quiet observer?
From the first time I entered the camp, I was alone and white and young: it was obvious who I was. I immediately got, "Oh, the photographer." I couldn't be "unseen." But it wasn't a phase, or a quick reportage; it was about really going inside their flats and into their daily lives, to understand what's going on. The photos focus on children, in part because they're multilingual; they picked up German really quickly. Some actually speak English very well — they couldn't understand my English! With older subjects, communicating was more problematic.
What was your approach to integrating? Did you have a routine?
At first I was shy, and photographed at night. Once people were used to me, I started photographing in the daytime. I got comfortable with a few families, and they with me. I always brought a little gift for the kids, candy without gelatin. When further progress wasn't possible, I changed my focus towards another family. I spent weeks just listening to stories. But I was taking photos from the beginning. At first I thought I'd need the stories for pictures, but that's bullshit. It's important to be open with your eyes, not to have [pre-conceived] images in your mind.
Given that, how do you balance aesthetics and emotional reality?
I'm still learning; it was very hard. I had this vision of refugees, and I was very close to it with my ex-boyfriend. I had so much in my mind, which doesn't work with reality. I only figured out what I wanted afterwards. Half the work was taking the pictures, the other half was confronting them, months later. Nothing is staged; I was just there. I learned to be open, to be quiet, to observe. And it was hard — the kids wanted you talking, but I wanted to be invisible.
The reality of refugees in Europe is only getting more complicated. Does today's situation make you feel anything different about the work you carried out in 2012 and 2013?No. The series is about waiting. I wasn't focused on people who have just come. It's worse there now, though, it's even more crowded. When I started the project, there wasn't a big interest. If I'd started it later, people would have thought I was doing it because of the news, but it wasn't that at all.
The only thing I have reconsidered since is the picture with the ocean. I didn't know about refugees coming by boat. But already back then, this was strange… a dreamy shore, yet in a cage, with mattresses on a cold and rough floor. Now, it has this other layer.
Text Sarah Moroz
Photography Stefanie Zofia Schulz