Every summer since 2012, Carla Kogelman has visited a small rural village in north-east Austria to photograph the lives of two sisters and their friends. Her new book I am Waldviertel documents their coming-of-age over seven summers
Merkenbrechts is a small, rural village in Waldviertel, Austria, with a population of 200. It has a fire station, a church, and a large stretch of water where the village’s 35 children spend their summers swimming, climbing trees and playing hide and seek.
Carla Kogelman originally visited the area in 2012 while working on a documentary about the region for a commission. During her stay she met Sonja and Roman Liebhart, who invited her to come and photograph their children on their farm in Merkenbreacht.
Visiting the village, Kogelman found its residents were very conscious of how they produced and consumed resources. They powered their homes using solar panels, resisted using chemicals on their crops, and had community gardens in which children could learn to grow their own vegetables and herbs. “People over there, they just care about the soil, about the earth, about each other and the animals,” she says.
Kogelman became transfixed by their way of living and the children’s carefree temperaments. She met Sonja and Roman’s children, two teenage boys and their younger sisters, Hannah and Alena, who became the protagonists of her book. For seven years Kogelman returned in the summer for weeks at a time, arriving with her cameras and a box of presents for the children, anticipating how they might have changed in a year, and whether they would be willing to open up to her again.
The photographs in I am Waldviertel will resonate with anyone who passed the summers of their childhood at home, play-fighting in the garden with their siblings, making games out of whatever was at hand, or sprawling out in front of the TV, waiting for the rainy days to roll by. For a child, summer holidays can be long and boring, but “boredom is often the greatest ground for doing new things,” says Kogelman. “I love it when they forget about me, and they just are who they are. They have created these images by just being themselves.”
Kogelman studied to be a social worker before she moved into the theatre industry, where she worked for 25 years. In 2008, she enrolled in a course at Foto Academie in Amsterdam with the intention of using photography in her theatre work. Then a teacher on the course suggested that she focus on children, because she worked so naturally with them.
Her own childhood was touched with tragedy – when Kogelman was two years old her sister was killed in a car accident that also left her father severely brain-damaged. “From that moment on he acted like a kid,” she says, “I never saw him as my father, I always saw him as aggressive. It wasn’t a childhood that you’d wish for.”
Bad days don’t feature in I am Waldviertel, which shows a dreamy, idyllic kind of life. “Maybe I was focusing on how childhood can be, instead of how it is, or how it was,” says Kogelman. “When you are younger, emotions are tough. Childhood only lasts for 12 or 16 years, but it has such an impact on the rest of your life. Even if you are 50 or 60 or 70.”
The end of the book marks the end of Hannah and Alena’s childhood; the girls are now teenagers, and their eldest brother is getting married. In the epilogue, Kogelman writes about a fire in 2003 that burned down a shed in the Liebharts’ farm. 15 years later, history repeats itself. In August 2018, a child found a lighter, and the same shed went up in flames again.
“Although the news about the fire felt as if my youth had suddenly been obliterated following seven years of photography, it turned out not to be the end after all,” writes Kogelman. “It is just a new beginning, a restart. Youth passes, leaving room for something new”.