“Lots of the Syrians would actually like to stay in their country but there is no chance at all. Any Berliner placed in Aleppo for a day would run away,” photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer tells me decisively. And yet, since capturing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – aged just 23 years old - Wiedenhöfer has instead run valiantly towards the fight.
Born in Germany in 1966, and achieving an MA in photography and editorial design from the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Wiedenhöfer has gone on to win a host of awards, including the Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, for his undiluted depiction of war-time devastation.
Self-employed and frequently funded by grants, Wiedenhöfer has successfully published numerous books with Steidl. Perfect Peace (2002) showed stories sculpted by Palestinian conflict; WALL (2007) documented the barrier that Israel built, mostly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; The Book of Destruction (2010) collated together a catalogue of consequences following Israel’s war against Gaza in 2009; Confrontier (2013) was about eight border walls around the globe; and then most recently, Forty Out of One Million about the Syrian war wounded.
Speaking with Wiedenhöfer, one can’t help but feel he would journey anywhere for the story that needed telling. However, when talk of Oxford Street arises, he quickly quips, “I don’t invade that world very much – such an obsession with materialism – that’s still a very real terror for me!”
Elizabeth Neep: You have been photographing conflict for over two decades. What initially drew you to explore such emotive scenes through your work?
Kai Wiedenhöfer: Growing up, my father was very interested in politics and history; he became a soldier when he was 15, brought up completely under the Nazis. I never got the chance to talk to him about this because he died when I was 15, but it must have had a big impact.
When I was at school, in 1982, I read a book about the creation of the State of Israel called Exodus by Leon Uris, which sparked my interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have continued to look at political issues in the Middle East since then.
EN: But your work is not confined to the Middle East alone. With scenes of conflict scattered across the globe, how do you specify the conflict you capture?
KW: Following my graduation in 1987, I initially started to work in Germany –photographing concentration camps and Jewish cemeteries. I then travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel in 1989 and started to study Arabic in 1991 in Syria. The major cost for a photographer is usually transport – but by taking my motorbike and not needing a translator, I was at an advantage; it was one of the reasons I worked there.
EN: You spent time photographing Syria during October 2015. What are your thoughts on the media’s coverage of the Syrian War?
KW: There is hardly any of it from my point of view! People have all these opinions of some place they have never been – but if you cut through the bullshit, how much reporting do we have from the ground? Close to zero!
I admit that it is dangerous to go there. I wouldn’t go to many regions myself right now, but the point is that the Western media doesn’t tell the full picture. It is easy to show a picture of a chopped off head to 5,000 Twitter users, but often we don’t hear of the 15 people who get smashed in an air-raid.
EN: The media was challenged in the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks for their disproportionate coverage of Eastern conflict in contrast to terror closer to home. What did you make of this?
WS: I had a show in London during the week of the attacks that was sponsored by a French investment company and so had lots of French guests there. Speaking to two French women, I expressed my sympathy, but showing them my photos of the Syrian war wounded, I said “In Syria, you know on average everyday 150 people die, everyday, everyday, everyday...”
EN: So are we failing to see the full picture?
KW: It’s very difficult to judge a war on a place when you are not there. For example, there is a lot of lamentation about the airstrikes in Kobane – I was there in March after the fighting and what do you think this place looks like? I had never seen a place so obliterated, destroyed – body parts all over the place – an arm here, a leg there.
EN: It is often this sort of aftermath that you choose to focus on in your work...
KW: If you are shot in the spine, it happens in an instance. A photograph might capture you falling down; but if you are 30, you maybe need to live another 50 years with this injury. In the places I visit, the conflict may last months, but the cities will take decades to build up again.
The aftermath shows more about the conflict – the action may be more ‘photogenic’ but it doesn’t really explain it. There are also so many cameras around nowadays, that if you wanted to see the ‘action', you just need to switch onto the right channel - so for me, as a photographer, it doesn’t make sense to chase the action anymore.
EN: Instead you seek to tell the stories of the people involved, photographing individuals with serious injuries; do you spend much time with your subjects?
KW: Yes, but I keep it short. People who have suffered injustice often want to tell their story but overall it is not a comfortable situation for either of us. I remember talking to a 10-year-old Syrian girl who had lost her family in the war. She fled and was staying with her aunt in a village near the Syrian border. She was beautiful, but had lost her eye in the conflict and her entire family. As soon as I reached into my camera bag, she started to cry. I said to her aunt, “Maybe it’s better that we leave it? She’s too fragile.” But her aunt said it was nothing to do with me; she was traumatised and cried five, six, seven times a day.
But this girl is just one person out of millions of people affected by the war. Journalists typically ask me “What is the worst case you have seen?” Everyone is looking for a protagonist to encapsulate the entire drama of the Syrian war. What I do is provide a series of people and buildings to truly catalogue the result of war.
EN: And now you are planning to present this ‘catalogue’ of conflict on one of the most iconic sites of conflict and freedom in Europe, the Berlin Wall?
KW: Yes, through grants and crowd funding I plan to show portraits of Syrian war victims – two to three metres in size – and panoramic landscapes of three to nine metres across the Berlin Wall during summer 2016. It is one of the most visited places in Berlin, so I’m expecting about half a million people to see the photographs.
The site itself is symbolic for so many reasons. When the Wall came down in 1989, we had this ideal that conflict was finished – we could have a free world. Over the last 20 years, we have seen that this was a mirage – walls and borders have been going up all over the world. The whole concept – the polarisation of one side against the other, and keeping the ‘bad guy’ out – is flawed; the Berlin Wall is the best example of it. Peace starts where walls fall and not where they are built. Tackling conflict is not that simple; you can't just put up a wall.
If you would like to find out more about Kai Wiedenhöfer’s latest exhibition, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Words: Elizabeth Neep
Photography: Kai Wiedenhöfer