Article by Intissare Aamri // Oct. 19, 2020
The first appearance of refugees as a mass phenomenon occurred at the end of World War I and the number of people fleeing war and persecution has never been higher than it is today. According to the UN, over 70 million people are currently fleeing in search of a safer future. Within ten years the situation on the Mediterranean coasts and at sea has deteriorated dramatically, but how is the news media portraying this inescapable Gordian knot?
The dominant journalistic narrative that the spectator has become accustomed to is designed to cultivate apathy. The distressing images that are perpetually circulating through our devices are misleading and cause us to see migration as a passive or desperate act. It is in this context that German photographer Michael Danner investigates present-day migration as a tool to encourage the social debate from a new perspective, that of self-determination and perseverance.
For the first time, C/O Berlin is showing the project ‘Migration as Avant-Garde’, for which Danner received the Dummy Award at the Fotobookfestival in Kassel in 2018. The title of the exhibition acts as a controversial and compelling entry point into a consideration of potential new meanings afforded to the topic of migration and the borders of Europe.
In the exhibition, Danner skilfully plays with different mediums, combining his own photos and historical text and recordings to create a consistent but multi-layered narrative that is repeatedly broken up in terms of design and content. Throughout his nine-year investigation, the photographer explores the conflict regions by documenting every actor and space connected to the active choice of migrating: Mediterranean places of longing are presented next to motifs of borders, coast guards, places of registration follow emergency shelters, refugee’s daily activities.
Trauma is never the direct subject of his work. Instead, he addresses dangers and fears indirectly, using symbols that can be subjectively interpreted. Danner goes to the places we’ve all dreamt of—with sandy beaches and dazzling suns—yet there are real problems in these holiday paradises. The red-colored sea, tents narrowed together, a yellow foil blanket left behind. Fear is outlined subliminally.
In the second room of the exhibition, a two-channel video installation shows, intermittently, pictures of the shelters and their contents: empty rooms, furniture, a pile of brooms, pen and unfinished language books, representing the path and the mark of the newcomers’ arrival in their new homeland. When asked about his decision to feature these visual or artistic angles of the topic, Danner explained: “I give migrants a voice with the portrait section of the work but beyond that, I had a different intention, which was to deconstruct the term migration, to visualize the actors who influence, prevent, channel, or impact a migrant’s humanity.”
Indeed, it is not until the third and final room of the exhibition that individuals are portrayed for the first time. Danner shows refugees in silent stagings: people who have arrived and are seemingly at peace. In conversation with Danner, he remarked that in his work he focuses, among other aspects, on the positive sides of migration. Migration as a chance for both people leaving and the host countries. This is reflected in the title ‘Migration as Avant-Garde.’ For Danner, escape means hope for a better life: people take their lives into their hands, an act that is inseparable from human nature.
The 1943 essay ‘We Refugees’ by political philosopher Hannah Arendt serves as a critical starting point for Danner’s work. In the essay, Arendt overturns the status of refugee and stateless people in order to propose this condition as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness. The philosopher was herself a refugee, a young Jewish woman who managed to escape Hitler’s regime and move to the United States. Arendt deals with the problems of identity and imposed identity, and defines in her essay what it means to be called a refugee, writing that “refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity.” They have already experienced and recognized what to others has only become obvious today, in the era of globalization: the violence, fragility, and historical obsolescence of a territorial understanding of citizenship.
What does migration really mean in the 21st century? How do European political institutions admit and resolve their human rights violations? These are all questions raised in Danner’s project. Although he is admittedly not a migrant himself, the German photographer reinterprets and reflects on how to cover the pressing living conditions and journey of the newcomers. His challenge was to take pictures that question or deconstruct the common stereotypes. His artistic work adopts a political and anthropological approach, in which he investigates contested sites and histories. His aim is not to change the world but to create a step in the right direction, in changing how we speak about and represent migration.