Catherine Hyland creates an eclectic series of portraits along the banks of Linz’s central waterway for an exclusive British Journal of Photography commission
Austria. The Art of Discovery, a competition organised by Studio 1854 in collaboration with the Austrian National Tourist Office, gave one photographer the opportunity to explore Austria on an exclusive commission. Catherine Hyland was selected as the winner and travelled across the country to create a body of work responding to the people and places she encountered.
Arriving in Linz, Catherine Hyland is immediately drawn to the Danube River. Its sparkling waters weave through the city’s centre and today, a Sunday, they are awash with people relaxing in the early evening sun. Hyland soon spots a small stretch of beach that is particularly crowded. On venturing down to the shoreline she encounters Andres, a resident of a historic fisherman’s town in the nearby Alt-Urfahr district. Schober – a masseur, who moved to Linz from Hamburg 28 years ago – is, at first, taken aback. “I hate pictures,” he exclaims, as Hyland gestures to her camera. Eventually, Schober relaxes. Drinking a beer, and taking slow drags on his cigarette, he likens the area to his living room: “Everybody looks after each other like they are a big family.”
“He was really interesting to photograph, with his distinct features and tattoos,” says Hyland, referencing the two artfully positioned scorpions on Andres’s upper chest. “I much prefer photographing people when you can see more of their character.” Hyland is renowned for her celestial images of vast landscapes, which explore humanity’s complex relationship to the environment. She has a talent for framing these striking vistas in a manner that encourages viewers to look beyond their beauty. Hyland adopts a similar approach when taking portraits: “I look for people who appear misplaced in their environment,” she explains. Similar to the photographs taken in the Bregenzerwald, in which the photographer sought out points of contrast in the overwhelmingly picturesque scenery, here, Hyland scans the lazing crowds for the unusual and unexpected.
A little further along the beach, reclining in the shade of a tree, Hyland encounters Elena. Elena, a barmaid, has travelled from her home in the suburbs to relax by the Danube River for the day. With her trailing blue dreads and piercing indigo eyes, Elena is visually intriguing. But, it is her appearance, in contrast to that of the rest of her family, which Hyland finds most compelling. Elena, along with her husband, young daughter, and puppy, agree to pose for a picture. “She had quite an unusual look,” reflects Hyland, “but the rest of her family appeared so much more conventional; it was really interesting to photograph them together”.
Soon after, the juxtaposition of two groups of beach-goers captures Hyland’s attention. In the foreground, a pair of friends lie sunbathing. With their matching wavy blonde hair and short, grey dresses, they offer a visual counterpoint to the three men reclining on beach towels behind. Topless, smoking cigarettes, and drinking beers, this group epitomises a certain stereotype of masculinity. Again, Hyland is drawn to the perfect contrast between them. “It adds a certain edge to your photographs,” she explains, “you literally cannot make this stuff up”.
However, it is not just the points of contrast within, and between, individual groups that Hyland is drawn too. She is fascinated too by the overall diversity of people found along the Danube River’s shoreline. We cross the Nibelungen Bridge and arrive at the bustling Donaupark on its southern side. Here, people of myriad nationalities and ethnicities can be found relaxing on the grassy banks. A former European Capital of Culture, and UNESCO City of Media Arts, Linz is renowned for its openness and inclusivity. The city’s progressive ethos extends from its cultural programme through to its public policies. Presently, people from over 153 different countries reside in Linz, which has a dynamic social program devoted to promoting integration.
Donaupark is located at the city’s centre, next to Lentos – Linz’s renowned museum of modern and contemporary art – and opposite the Ars Electronica – an internationally unique platform for digital art and media culture. As we explore, Hyland spots four men crowded around a shisha pipe. Behind, another group recline against a backdrop of blossom trees. They tell Hyland that they are Afghani refugees waiting to be granted asylum. Intrigued by the project, they each stand for a portrait. The language barrier prevents us finding out more about them or their journey to the city, but, they provide an email address for us to send the images once they have been developed. “A portrait should always be some kind of collaboration between me and the subject,” explains Hyland, “I never want to objectify anyone.”
“The people along these banks have all come from different places,” says Hyland, as we continue to explore the park, “to see them together, at leisure, is what immediately became of interest here.” Separately, Hyland’s photographs exist as compelling portraits of a diverse range of individuals; together, they stand as a reflection of Linz’s social diversity. But, the people collected along the banks of the Danube River also represent something else. They are emblematic of the universal human desire to escape the monotony of everyday life. “That is why I enjoy documenting tourism and leisure more generally,” Hyland explains, “it is a unique time when people come together to relax, enjoy themselves and find a moment of release.”
The following day we return to the same spot and the crowds are gone. It is a Monday and people have returned to work. Moving on, we venture out of the city’s centre to experience the Danube River from a different perspective.
A few miles outside of Linz lies the Schlögener Schlinge. Regarded by many as the River Danube’s most pristine and beautiful section, here, the vast waterway loops around, making a dramatic, almost 360-degree turn. In Linz, the river guided us through the city; the people along its banks offering an insight into this unique metropolis. Now, Europe’s second longest waterway is visible in all its majesty. “After photographing individuals along the Danube River, it seems fitting to finish by capturing it from an elevated perspective,” says Hyland. And so, the trip ends as it began: from above. “You can be really easily navigated into seeing what you’re just told to see,” she continues, “and then miss out on the things that you’re not supposed to see.”
Austria. The Art of Discovery is a Studio 1854 commission made possible with the generous support of the Austrian National Tourist Office. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.