Ahead of the announcement of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize on 16 May, BJP-online shares an interview with nominee Arwed Messmer in which he considers his photographic life in context of German history
In RAF – No Evidence, shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, Arwed Messmer examines the rise of the Baader-Meinhof Group, from student protests to the cataclysmic events of the ‘German Autumn’ of 1977, using state archives as his source material.
Employing a similar methodology, previous works have focused on police surveillance (Berlin, 1966-70), a famous kidnap (Cell), and failed escapes from the GDR (Reenactment MfS) – all exploring recent events to “create new ways of reading images” as historical documents.
I was an avid teenage trainspotter. I needed photography to ‘collect’ and document all the locomotives. My entry point was very functional at first, and it was only later that I developed an artistic interest in the medium. But I was producing the same kind of images that I focus on today.
Without that intensive period, I’d probably have a different focus. Travelling through East and West Germany in the 1980s sensitised me to the themes I’m interested in now.
I’ve always been interested in themes from political history. In particular, the more recent German history – especially the difficult issues, the traumas, the historical gaps. It’s helpful to have a certain distance from events in order to develop new ways of looking at an issue. I find it fascinating to add new facets to topics that seem to have been talked out.
Before I started to work as I do today, I was a photographer. For many years I worked commercially – in architecture, the corporate world, even advertising. I found being a service provider, and having to execute other people’s ideas, increasingly unattractive.
My fascination with archive material was a rather protracted process. It began with research into places that interested me, asking, ‘How did they look in the past?’ Out of this came the idea of working with the images I found.
My work has taught me a great deal about repression, both personal and social. I have come to understand that I can only work long-term on thematic constellations that have personal immediacy. Which is why I hesitated for a long time about tackling West German leftwing terrorism [the Red Army Faction], because it’s a trendy subject.
No Evidence contains extraordinarily vivid colour studio portraits of some of the early members of the RAF. They were found in a folder of pictures held by the political police in West Berlin. The subjects were taking part in a happening in 1967, and were arrested and then photographed as I’ve presented them.
The series shows the diversity of the key figures involved at that time. Andreas Baader, who would take his own life in prison 10 years later as Germany’s most famous terrorist, is standing peacefully in amongst them. He hadn’t yet taken the decision to follow a path of violence and go underground.
The police photographs [in Berlin, 1966-70] are fascinating in retrospect. There’s a certain quality of indifference; a lack of ambition in the visual approach. We don’t see the work of a passionate photojournalist who may also have a political bias and is looking for the all- encompassing single image. I would even go so far as to claim that the really important visual records of police deployments during the student protests come from the police themselves.
The images themselves don’t become art. The meaning that is conferred retrospectively – analysing the original function, liberating it from this context – is the artistic process.
Am I an artist, a photographer, or an archivist? That’s a good question. A few years ago, photography historian Florian Ebner called me an image archaeologist. That’s only true now up to a certain point. Discovering a cluster of images is only the beginning of my work. Today, I see what I do as a complex artistic process in which all kinds of different factors play a role.
My view of personal authorship has shifted over the years. For a long time I saw myself as a documentary photographer, but my interest in working with a form of authorless utilitarian photography naturally challenged this way of looking at things.
The sheer quantity of images regularly pushes me to my limits. You have to look at everything in order to make a judgement. That can’t be delegated, and I’m dogged by the worry that something important has been overlooked or, worse still, simply hasn’t been recognised.
I enjoy cooking for the family. It’s so different from the work I do with images, which is often pretty abstract and sometimes takes years before it takes recognisable form. I frequently wonder what I’ve actually been doing the whole day – it’s so difficult to grasp sometimes. Cooking has an outcome; a clear beginning and an end. That is reassuring – and relaxing
The winner of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize will be announced on 16 May 2019.