Postcards from Europe. An interview with Eva Leitolf

I met the photographer Eva Leitolf at the conference Etica dell’immagine that took place last month at the Goethe Institut in Turin (Italy). Her work, Postcards from Europe (Kehrer, 2013), explores in many ways the complex and constantly changing phenomenon of the migration of thousands people to European borders,  through the approaching of images and texts, written by the photographer. Born in 1966 in Würzburg, he lives and works in Munich and in the Bavarian Forest. Her works have been shown at numerous international institutions including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam, the Sprengel Museum in Hanover and Fondazione Mast in Bologna. The interview begins with asking her,  how the idea of creating "Postcards from Europe", was born.


SM: Your project “Postcards from Europe” designs a new geography of Europe that moves from the center to its borders. Since 2006 your work has taken you to Spain and the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco, to the Hungarian border with Ukraine, to the Channel ports of Calais and Dover, to Italy and to Greece, documenting the desperate situation of migrants. Would you like to tell us about its genesis and evolution?


EL: First of all I would like to refer to what you  call “documenting the desperation of migrants”.  I would say that this is  not really true, I'm  mainly interested in how we as European societies deal with the suffering, how we administrate it, how we try to secure the borders, how we politically and socially deal with the phenomenon of migration. It’s not a mere aim to document the suffering of migrants, because I think that this  has been widely done.

But answering to your question: as I showed today in my talk, I started out to work for quite a long time, on topics connected to German history.  In 2006 I made a trip to Morocco and I ended up in Melilla, by coincidence.  I was confronted with this image of makeshift ladders, made by migrants who want to overcome the border fence around Melilla. I think that this was my starting point and also triggered all my interest in this subject, because as you can read in the postcard text, I met an association called Fondazione Prodein. I met them and the spokesmen of the Fondazione, he said that he believed that the government had intentionally left the ladders on the shore to create the impression that there was an unstoppable avalanche of migrants and justify its use of force. So to me, this was really interesting because the image was not only showing the attempts of people trying to overcome the fence, but also its instrumentalization by the government. So there are many layers of how the meaning is constructed, and this was very interesting to me.


Eva Leitolf, Ladders, Melilla, 2006, Copyright © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. In autumn 2005 the Spanish government announced plans to strengthen the border defences at its North African enclave of Melilla. Every day during the following weeks hundreds of migrants attempted to scale the fence using makeshift ladders. According to eyewitness the Guardia Civil used stun guns, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. At least fourteen migrants lost their lives, fatally injured in the razor-wire of the fence or shot dead by border guards (according to the Spanish gove


SM: “Postcards from Europe” is a complex work that tries to represent a complex situation. It is a “long-term, open-end archive”, where you combine photography with textual elements, researched from a wide range of sources, like in your other works, for example in the last “Matter of Negotiations” (2016-2017) that approaches Switzerland from the margins. Your images find its significance above all in relation to the words. Together they become in turn a comment, a critique or a tacit reply. Photography is not enough?


EL: Good question! There is a history  of producing and contextualizing photography,  but also  of consuming  photographs. If I think of an exibition like “The Family of Man” by Edward Steichen in MOMA in the 1950’s, one of his ideas  was that photography is a tool for communication  that can be understood worldwide. You saw people being born in Germany, in the Nederlands or in South Africa. Then people laughed, danced, married and died in Greece, in Switzerland or in Hong Kong. So there was a construction of global unification, trying to make us believe that we are all one, that we can do the same things: be born, go to school, marry and at the end we die. Complex social, cultural or political differences that often enough prevent us from having the same possibilities and that create inequality are not part of the picture. Photography is a possibility of communication, but it is not a  universal language. So yes, I think that photography is not enough to work on complex phenomena. And I don’t say that text is the only possibility to get out of these problematics, but it’s one possible way, I think. I am trying to explore how far it can go.



SM: I would like to ask you about an aspect of your work: the absence of violence in your images. In “Postcards from Europe” we can see a beach in Tarifa or a nature reserve in Italy. I think about: “Playa de los Lances, Tarifa, Spain, 2009”, “Vendicari Nature Reserve, Italy, 2010” or “Orange Grove, Rosarno, Italy 2010 (the image that appears on the conference poster). You show only “innocent landscapes” or “a moment of silence and absence”. We cannot see real events: migrants that died in the sea or the abuses that they suffer, that you explain in your shoking notes. I'm thinking oft “German Images” in which you turn your attention to racist crimes in Germany. In the early 1990s you photographed crime scenes, victims and perpetrators, and uninvolved bystanders. Returning to the theme in 2006, you reduced the visual content to the places where the crimes had been committed. Why do you  decide to use this strategy?


EL: As you said, in the early part of  “German Images”, there are still people on the photographs. But  I realized that having these people involved in the images, allows the viewer to identify them, or to mark them, as either victim or perpetrator, and this enables the viewer to lean back  and have the impression that it has nothing to do with him or her as a viewer. As a viewer I’m not involved, because I can always point with my fingers at somebody else and say: look this poor guy or these violent people. These thoughts made me stop taking images of people. And then you were asking also about the absence of violence in my images: there are no people, no action, no active violence being shown, most of the time, even no traces of violent events. We all already have explicit images in mind, we all have a common memory of news pictures, for example images of tiny boats filled with migrants trying to get off a boat at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We all carry these images around with us. The work also refers to those latent images.


Eva Leitolf, Vendicari Nature Reserve, Italy, 2010, Copyright © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. On 27 October 2007 two walkers came across several shoes washed up on a beach in the nature reserve of Vendicari. During the following days seventeen corpses were found there. On their own initiative the couple obtained a list of the names of the dead from the authorities, contacted the relatives in Egypt and Palestine and arranged for a Muslim funeral to be held. About one hundred people attended the cerem


SM: In “Ferry Crossing, Melilla-Almeria, Mediterranean 2009” you describe with few words your personal return trip from Morocco to Spain. You put yourself in the same position of the migrants: in a boat. I quote: “On 10 January 2009 I took the Juan J. Sister from Spanish Melilla on the Moroccan coast to Almería in Spain. The seven hour crossing cost me € 19.20. At least 14,714 migrants died attempting to enter Europe between 1988 and 2007, with 10,740 reported to have drowned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic on their way to Spain. Journal, 10 january 2009, Almería; Der Spiegel, 7 May 2008; Fortress Europe, press release, 10 February 2010”. Which is your intention: to stimulate a critic vision, to encourage people to look for the events not represented in your images and better understand, or give rise to empathy in the person that see your  photo?


EL:  First of all I would like to  refer to what you´re saying: “you put yourself in the same position of migrants in a boat”. Maybe it seems to be like that at the first glance, but I think that through  the similarities also the differences become very apparent: it’s a very empy boat, it’s not crowded, it’sa safe and solid boat. It’s a situation you can compare, but the difference shows in this comparison and  the text eludes that I’m paying for the trip and I am safe there , and I can go back and forth and I don’t need to take any risk  to make this crossing. But to get back to what you are asking about my intention, first of all,  I set out to understand better to what this phenomenon is about and how we deal with it. So it’s more like a field trip to discover and to learn about situations at a specific place. I mean, I do this by myself but at the same time with my images and text, I offer tools for the viewer as well. And I think it’s quite clear that I am not primarily trying to trigger emotional reactions, in the viewer, because I think we are over fed with possibilities to get very excited, to get very mad, or to get very emotional in. That’s not what I am aiming because a lot of media coverage does that. It’s an easy way of getting emoziona reactions. But then at the same time, you can quickly turn away, because you think: “I can’t do anything about it”. Anyway, it´s about consuming news and getting emotionally entertainned, if you want. This is nothing I want to contribute to.


Eva Leitolf, Ferry Crossing, Melilla-Almería, Mediterranean 2009, Copyright © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. On 10 January 2009 I took the Juan J. Sister from Spanish Melilla on the Moroccan coast to Almería in Spain. The sevenhour crossing cost me € 19.20. At least 14,714 migrants died attempting to enter Europe between 1988 and 2007, with 10,740 reported to have drowned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic on their way to Spain. “Journal, 10 January 2009, Almería; Der Spiegel, 7 May 2008; Fortress Europe, press release, 10 February 2010”


SM: During the conference Adriano Fabris speaks of your image “Orange Grove”. In his opinion it is a metaphor that represents  the pictures in the contemporary world. We can see the relation between “apparition” and “appearence”, between images that appear (oranges on the tree) and disappear (on the ground oranges). What do you think about it?


EL: I am fully aware that if you look at my images, and if you are not aware of the texts that accompanie them, they are pretty open to any sort of interpretation. First of all it’s an orange tree with rotten oranges underneath, that I encountered in Rosarno, in a very specific social and political environment, which I shared with the text on the postcards. But at the same time I don’t want to force the viewer to have one vision or to render one interpretation, to give one meaning.


Eva Leitolf, Orange Grove, Rosarno, Italy 2010, Copyright © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. In January 2010 the price obtained by Calabrian citrus growers for their Moro and Navel oranges was five euro cents per kilogram. They paid their mostly illegally employed and undocumented African and Eastern European seasonal workers between €20 and €25 for a day’s work. Depending on the variety and the state of the trees a worker can pick between four and seven hundred kilograms of oranges in a day. The business was no longer profitable and many farmers left the fruit to rot. During the 2009–2010 harvest there were between four and five thousand migrants living in and around Rosarno, most of them in abandoned buildings or plastic shelters, without running water or toilets. On 7 January 2010 local youths fired an air-gun at African orange-pickers returning from work and injured two of them. The ensuing demonstration by migrant workers ended in severe clashes with parts of the local population, during which cars were set on fire and shop windows broken. Accommodation used by seasonal workers was burned and hundreds fled, fearing the local citizens or deportation by the authorities. On 9 January, under police protection from jeering onlookers, about eight hundred Africans were bussed out to emergency accommodation in Crotone and Bari. “A Season in Hell: MSF Report on the Conditions of Migrants Employed in the Agricultural Sector in Southern Italy, January 2008;, 10 January 2010; interviews with orange farmers and seasonal labourers, Rosarno, 27–29 January 2010”


SM: Your work has often been described as a “combination of  documentary and conceptual strategies”. Which is your intention? To explore the tension between what can be seen and what is left to the imagination? To verify the possibilities and limits of visual representation? 


EL: I am interested in the tension between what can be seen and what can be left to the immagination, what is also triggered by the text. In the exibition you can enter, you can look at the photographs and you position yourself in a certain way towards the images. Your view may change with the texts that accompany the images. In an ideal setting you take the postcards home and maybe three weeks later you start rereading the postcards and reposition yourself again because you don’t have the image that goes initially with the text. So it’s separate again and I think that I am very interested in those processes. It’s not so much about verifying the possibilities and limits of visual representation, but of working with them, of exploring them, of questioning them, maybe.



SM: You affirm that you create “images that look like an empty theatre where the viewer is able to project his own thoughts and emotions”. Can you explain these words?


EL: This has something to do with what you asked me before about the disappearance of the people, the protagonist of the images. I started to realize that having no people in the images, I have quite large empty spaces, empty parts whithin the picture. And I started to think of these images almost as you said, like empty stages, or empty spaces, where something had happened or something is happening or something will happen. It’s a possibility to  engage deeper with the viewer.


Eva Leitolf, Rostrogordo Picnic Park, Spanish-Moroccan Border, Melilla 2009, Copyright © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. The North African city of Melilla has been a Spanish possession since 1497. Morocco declared its claim to Melilla and the second Spanish exclave, Ceuta, as soon as it became independent from Spain in 1956. With the support of the European Union, the eleven kilometres of border defences have been repeatedly upgraded to repel unauthorised immigration. Three parallel fences up to six metres high are topped with rolls of razor wire and monitored by movements sensors, infrared cameras and watchtowers. “Tagesschau, 28 August 2000; Der Tagesspiegel, 24 June 2008”


SM: Your work is titled Postcards from Europe 03/13 work from the ongoing archive. Is it made from an archive that continues to grow? What is your relationship with memory? Can we consider your work, and the combination of images and words, as an attempt to contribute to the construction of a collective memory?


EL: The title of the publication is Postcards from Europe 03/13. The “03/13” refers to the month and the year that this selection out of the archive was published. It offers a possibility to look into events that normaly aren’t so much reported, aren’t talked about, sometimes it’s only tiny events that doesn’t make it into our conciousness. So maybe it’s a contribution to a collective memory, but also attempt to an alternative account, or many different narratives, that may not be part of the mainstream discourse.


SM: How do you work? Do you spend time in the places that you photograph? What kind of relationship you establish with the people you meet?


EL: Before I leave, I do a lot of research on the places that I want to go, to have a quite good idea, which places I want to visit during a trip. I usually travel in a sort of camper-van. When my son hasn’t been to school, we travelled together, but now he needs to be home for school. It really depends, sometimes I come to a place and I find an image right there, and I spend maybe one hour,  but sometimes I spend several days starting to meet people, to get involved in their accounts. So I can’t generalize the length of time I spend in the places. Sometimes I have to wait for special weather or light. I try to get in contact with the people who live there and who are involved in the situations I encounter.


SM:  In his essay After Photography Fred Ritchin suggests that photography can change the world. I would like to finish with the title of your work: Postcards from Europe. At first sight it evokes happy moments and beautiful places, as with postcards, even if it reveals a different situation.  What is your purpose? To evoke the tragic condition of the migrants in Europe, or to suggest the possibility of hope? In your opinion what is the future of Europe, and of the people who live there, and those who reach its borders?


EL: We can have a large discussion on what Ritchin meant with “to change the world”. You’re asking me if  I want to evoke the tragic condition of the people who comes to Europe, or to suggest a possibility of hope. I am interested in more  structural questions like the interdependancy of social-political-historical developments, rather than looking at migrants as victims or threats. I am more interested on how do we, as European societies, deal with this phenomenon, how do we administer people who try to come to  us, how do we try to secure our borders, and this leads to your last question: what is the future of Europe for the people who live and who come  there. I really think it’s important now to deal with migration with more  transparency, with clearer parameters and really more clearly defined political agendas. Germany for example for a long time, denied to be an immigration country. I don’t think that my work suggest a possibility of hope, it’s rather an attempt to look closely on how we deal with the situation, also to look into mistakes that have been made.


Eva Leitolf, Igoumenista Ferry Port, Greece 2011, copyright © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. As I waited for the Igoumenista to Ancona ferry, a crowd of several hundred angry residents blockaded the access road to the port, demanding “a town worth living in” and an end to the “siege of the illegals” living on the hillside overlooking the port. Over a period of several hours while the demonstration was taking place the Greek police fired tear gas at the migrants and their makeshifts shelters. At times the air was so thick with gas that travellers queueing for the ferry were unable to leave their vehicles. “Journal, 3 May 2011, Igoumenista”.


SM: I think about the last Hungarian law on migration. That is more strict then the other places in Europe. What do you think about, you went there…


EL: I’ve been to Hungary but it was quite some years ago, and I am about to set off for a next trip, where I want to look into countries like Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and into the events that happened after fall 2015. I also read that Hungary installed camps at the border to Serbia, to put people into the camps to prevent them to enter Hungary.


SM: At Fondazione Mast in Bologna we saw your work “Company Town. Ein Konzern, eine Stadt (2015-2016)”. It consists of a 12-minute loop of 24 images and 30 texts projected in shifting sequences on 5 screens. You discuss the relationship of the factory, of industry with the town around it using the example of Volkswagen in Wolfsburg. Do you want to tell us about it?


EL: In 2005 I’ve been invited by the new director of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, he invited several artist to produce a work on, or with, or within, or about Wolfsburg for his first show at the museum called “Wolfsburg unlimited”. He invited artist like John Bock and Julian Rosefeldt, artist coming from very differents backgrounds. We all had a kind of “carte blanche”. I decided to look into this relationship between the town and the company. In my works it’s never called Wolfsburg and Volkswagen,  although you know it’s pretty clear, it’s not a secret, but in my text I talk about the town and the company. To me, it was really interesting to learn, to find out how the city and the company  are interconnected and how they have this difficult past.  Wolfsburg was founded by Hitler. He put the ground stone of the factory in 1938. It’s still a difficult past that the local newspapers, for example, don’t really want to talk about. The Volkswagen scandal has highlighted the undercurrent problematic that was always there: how the town is dependent  on the company´s taxes. After the scandal suddenly schools couldn’t be rennovated, or new pubblic spaces couldn’t be installed. It was the first time that I worked with screens and the loops you mentioned. It was a new experience. It was still image/text work but there isn’t always one specific text that accompanies one specific image. There is a flow of  images and texts coming together on these five changing screens.


SM: What are you working on at the moment?


After the engagement I had in Wolfsburg and last year in Switzerland, I am very happy that I can now reserve some time to get back to “Postcards from Europe”. I want to travel to Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and back to Germany  to deal with the time after 2015.


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08 May 2017