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Bringing awareness about war: an interview with Berlin photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on May 25, 2016

Bringing awareness about war: an interview with Berlin photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer

By Olivia Snaije


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One of Kai Wiedenhöfer’s most recent exhibitions was called FORTY out of ONE MILLION, which focused on 40 individual stories of Syrian refugees who fled the ongoing conflict in Syria. The Berlin-based photographer confirmed his own estimations by using the 2014 World Health Organization report stating that one million people had been injured since the beginning of the war, in order to show the devastating number of casualties. Syrians bearing the terrible scars of war, at the time living in Lebanon and Jordan, posed for Wiedenhöfer in 2014 and 2015. The same photographs will be included in an exhibition that Wiedenhöfer is planning that will coincide with World Refugee Day. The exhibit WARonWALL will include panoramic images of war zones in Syria—places from where the refugees he met have fled; it will be mounted on what remains of the Berlin wall.

Syria is close to Wiedenhöfer’s heart; he lived in Damascus for several years and studied Arabic there. Born in Germany in 1966, he completed a Masters in photography and editorial design at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. After photographing the fall of the Berlin wall, the focus of much of his work has been on the Middle East. He has received numerous awards, including the Leica Medal of Excellence, the Alexia Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, World Press Photo Awards, the Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award. Wiedenhöfer’s work has been published in a number of books.

War has been a constant theme in your work. What do you hope to accomplish with your most recent projects?

Kai Wiedenhöfer: War was still present during my childhood, it was something you recognized back in the 1970s, the amputees. These people have now vanished for the most part. But in Germany at the time it was a homogeneous group because it was mostly young soldiers who were injured. The Palestinians from Gaza and the Syrians I photographed were mainly civilians.

It’s shocking to see the number of people who get injured. My intention was to personalize the war in this work. It’s paradoxical—if I show you a single person and describe them and you can look at his or her face and you can put a name to the face and the story, it probably makes a bigger impression on you. The greater number of injured you see makes you less involved and the impact is smaller. I would like to bring awareness about the war. We are going back to the root cause about why people become refugees.

Where were the first refugees you photographed?

KW: The very first were the Palestinians in 1989. I was in Israel and I had traveled to Ben Gurion’s grave in the Negev desert. On my way back an Israeli brought me to the edge of the occupied West Bank and told me I could get a bus from there to Jerusalem. There were lots of Palestinian workers taking the bus. I didn’t want to get into politics but I met a teacher on the bus who was also a construction worker. He invited me to his refugee camp where he lived that had been there since 1948. Since then, refugees have been part of my work.

Have the refugees you’ve photographed always been displaced because of war? How are their situations similar or dissimilar?

KW: People get displaced internally and externally during wars. I was in Afghanistan in 2002; the war had been going on since 1980. The refugees were displaced internally and were in Kabul. Some were there because of the Russian army and others because of the mujahedin and the Taliban.

In 2007 I was on a two-week assignment photographing Iraqi refugees in Syria. It was mostly in [the Damascus suburb] Jaramana. They had fled because of infighting between Sunnis and Shias and heavy fighting in the Ramadi and Fallujah area between Americans and Sunnis. It was a mix of people but for the most part there were entire families because there wasn’t work for the men in Iraq. They weren’t officially allowed to work in Syria. The situation is similar now with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It’s always the same scenario: refugees arrive, rents go up, refugees work illegally for less and get into competition for work with the local population.

What is your opinion about the media storm that ensued following the publication of the tragic photograph of the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi?

KW: It was a dramatic picture. But I think it’s better to show why people are leaving. The reality in Syria is that people are getting killed every day. You are in constant danger. This every day terror in Syria is not as photogenic as people arriving on a boat in Lesbos or Kos. It’s cheap and easy for photographers to get to Greece but getting to Syria takes a huge effort and it’s very difficult to get images. Some newspapers even use photographs taken by the Islamic state.

People have forgotten what war means for a population.

You were in Idomeni refugee camp in Greece this year; can you describe what you saw?

KW: I was in Idomeni last March when it was more or less temporary, people were just sitting and waiting, about 80 % of the people were living in tents. I focused on the [Macedonian] border. If we don’t find political solutions in Europe we will get more and more borders and fences. Besides the war in former Yugoslavia we have now had 70 years of peace in Europe but before that, every six years since the year 800 there had been a war in Europe. My great grandfather witnessed three wars and was involved in two wars. So things have improved a lot. But we don’t appreciate peace any more. People have forgotten what war means for a population. We think we know because we read the news but we don’t personally experience anything. In Jordan in 2013 Syrians were still hoping to go back home but when you have been inside Syria you know it will drag on for a very, very long time. At some point the refugees will say I cannot go on, I have no future there. So from a European perspective, if you want to avoid that, you have to get politically involved in the war and try to bring it to a standstill

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All images by Kai Wiedenhöfer

Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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