Exhibitions: Hans Madej

WhiteWall has produced an exhibition in the Willy-Brandt Haus, Berlin:
Hans Madej. Pictures from the East.

Not only hobby photographers and professional photographers trust our laboratory - artists, curators and museums are also impressed by and enthusiastic about the quality of our pictures. We are really pleased to be able to support the exceptional exhibition by Hans Madej "Pictures from the East" with our expertise. The pictures will be on show from 19 April to 17 May 2012 in the Willy-Brandt Haus in Berlin.

Find out more about the theme of the exhibition and get a deeper insight into the motivation and experiences of his photographic career in the interview with Hans Madej.

© Hans Madej – Laif

Hans Madej. Pictures from the East.

The photographer Hans Madej followed the political changes of government and the "Wende" (reunification) in the East from 1987 to 1995 in two settings: that of the high-level politics and the setting of earthly existence. The political scene revolved incomparably faster than the scenes of daily life. The systems changed, the parties in power and their leaders changed, wars and revolutions came and went, but people kept on living as they had always lived. Isolated by the totalitarian rule of the developments in the West, unaffected by technological advances and by the moral concepts of consumer society, archaic life forms survived. The Middle Ages start at the end of the street. With his camera, Madej took part in the big Roma festivals and the everyday life of soot workers in Romania. He photographed the street children in Bucharest and the victims of Chernobyl. He presents faces which still tell of a time which the media has long since lost interest in. Pictures from the East - a kaleidoscopic portrait of Eastern Europe's collapse and upswing.

Hans Madej's photographic career started in 1983 with picture series for the magazines Stern, Geo, Merian and for the Zeit magazine. From 1986 to 1995, he worked predominantly on social and political coverage of Central and Eastern Europe which was published in Paris Match, Sunday Times and New York Times to name a few. His coverage was also exhibited at the International Festival for Photography Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan. Hans Madej is winner of the German Photo Prize and the Kodak Photo Book Prize and a member of the Laif photo agency.

© Hans Madej – Laif

Interview with Hans Madej

From 1986 to 1995, you primarily worked on social and political coverage of Central and Eastern Europe, what was it about this area that fascinated you so much?

From 1986 to 1995, I was a witness to what we call "Die Wende" in Eastern Europe. The decisive turning point in this process was the year 1989, which is now considered to be one of the key years of 20th century history. It was a European year to the core, not a national event and not a completed turning point, but a worldwide historic process which is still not completed and which affected the whole of Eastern Europe. The immediate effects of this epochal turning point had a huge range. German reunification, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the largely peaceful revolutions in the Eastern bloc countries and in contrast to the peaceful system change in Eastern Europe, the upheaval in former Yugoslavia, characterised by violence, war and forced emigration.

I observed and documented these events over a long period of time. Pictures are especially important for the culture of remembrance and the collective memory of a society. Western Europeans who want to understand their Eastern neighbours will not be able to avoid dealing with their experiences. Photos which everyone recognises are now a significant part of what societies worry about or what they undertake to think about. These thoughts are often called "remembering". The pictures in this exhibition should contribute to this, they are my contribution. You cannot think about what is happening now without thinking about what happened in the past. It was my conscious participation in an important event which affects us all. Our current assignment for the future, before it arrives, is to keep the lessons from the past current. This fascinated me.

© Hans Madej – Laif

Is there any coverage from this time which particularly stuck in your mind?

Possibly my two reports for stern and for Geo in Ceausescus, Romania in 1987. I had heard from opposition circles in Budapest that the fate of the Hungarian and German minority in Romania had deteriorated dramatically over the past years. In a unprecedented destruction campaign, Ceausescu sent his bulldozers out into the countryside to turn the old villages into rubble. This project, named "systematisation" was issued at a time when the Romanian people were starving because the socialist planned economy had long since collapsed. The rural population was to be relocated to agro-industrial housing blocks. Aside from this, these interventions which were praised as modernisations gave those in power the opportunity to rewrite the cultural messages of the minorities. Or even to extinguish them forever.

I travelled to Romania, disguised as a tourist. I had my camera and films smuggled into the country by friends and initiated GDR citizens who were not searched at the border. During this coverage, which came about under the most difficult conditions, I became witness to a merciless fight for the communist "New People", who were to enter the "Golden Age" in the near future according to Ceausescus' megalomaniac plans and were now destroying the lifestyle and culture of the entire population. It was the chamber of horrors of human spite. Ceausescus' attrition tactic - similar to that of most dictators - concentrated on decomposition. Decomposition as a preliminary stage before destruction, decomposition of life plans, of friendships, of every type of happiness. It was the first story about the systematic demolition of Romanian villages and it was printed in all the big magazines around the world.

These social reports in particular mean that you are confronted with topics and situations that are hard to bear - what was the biggest struggle for you?

The motto of the exhibition is an unpublished quote from Herta Müller, which she provided me with. It says that poverty and insufficiency are instruments of power in dictatorships, that poverty is a part of and a planned consequence of the ideology. I was confronted by this again and again during my travels. By people who were fighting for bread and dignity. I later experienced war, political persecution and ethnic expulsion. To communicate this insistently is and remains the most difficult of all. To inform someone who is not affected by it using a picture in a story, that was the hardest thing for me. Many photographers report in order to pursue us, using their pictures as aids. To destroy the peace that we hold so dear. They force visual journeys on us, which we would never have made of our own free will. But to see that the poor people are still the majority on our planet, that poor people everywhere are in a time of global uprooting, that makes you think, it confirms our permanent doubts about whether journalistic missions change anything at all about the situation in our world.

How do you keep the required distance from your job, from the people in front of your camera?

In general, the camera works well as a protective shield between what you are depicting and yourself. Its like being a doctor, who doesn't identify himself with the sick. He keeps his distance, otherwise he can't help. This protection has become more and more frail over the course of the years. Through compassion, identification, emotional realisation, sympathy. For me, this in the end led to me giving up photography at the age of 41.

© Hans Madej – Laif

It was 1995 when it happened. I believed my photography to be at a boundary, I had the feeling that there was still something behind the pictures that a photographer can never communicate. Up to this point in time, I had almost always been travelling, mostly in countries where other photojournalists didn't want to go any more. These very complex issues then led to my first film "Paradise on Earth" a short while later. This is also shown in the exhibition. It was only with this film that I reconciled with a lot of what I had seen and experienced as a photographer. The film is based on real events in eastern Poland, against the background of a few villagers who had experienced war, fear, hunger, expulsion and death and who, as a hopeless alternative draft, wanted to build a town where these things were no longer to be feared: "Paradise on Earth". In a beautiful poem entitled "Alle Tage" (Every Day), Ingeborg Bachmann wrote: "The hero is absent from the battle". The only decoration that this hero of refusal receives is the "wretched star of hope over the heart". After shooting this film, I felt I had completed my work and what I wanted to say about it.

Due to your work, did you often end up in the crossfire of the respective governments and their state authorities who were trying to thwart you?

Frequently. Sometimes I think that I have never seen my best pictures. Then I remember individual scenes as if they were etched into my brain. The demonstrators, for example, who were surrounded by police in October 1988 in Prague: how they stood in the Old Town Square in the jet of the water canons and ripped open their shirts. How they used this simple gesture to create a sign of their non-violent resistance and of the change which was about to sweep away the old rulers. I took photographs until I was pushed to the edge by a couple of inconspicuous men. Seconds later the camera was empty, there was not a single film left.

In Sierra Leone when I was working on a story about child soldiers and was supposed to be court-martialed for high treason. I was only set free thanks to intervention by the German ambassador at the time. The games of hide-and-seek and pursuit with the Romanian Securitate when the local priests in a church betrayed me to the secret police because I had taken photographs.

I much prefer to remember the examples of amazing moral courage and signs of true friendship which many have proven to me by supporting me on my travels despite the possible far-reaching consequences. There were human virtues and qualities which flourished as a result of the political unpleasantness. I often wonder whether these qualities have survived the liberation.

When you look back over your career as a photographer and journalist, what are you particularly proud of?

In retrospect, my work now takes on the form of a circle. From my early work as a photographer up until my film, the circle has obtained many rings. But all of these are around the same centre, which can always be found in my pictures. This centre is one of the basic fears of the modern world, the fear of disappearing. That's why I was drawn to disappearing societies and the archaic form of life again and again. I always wanted to conserve this, snatch it away from oblivion. Through the progressive uprooting and destruction of these structures by blind progress, I wanted to contribute my part to bearing these disappearing life forms in remembrance. Simone Weil once wrote: "The present is what connects us. The future is what we create in reality. Only the past is purely the truth." I have dealt with this past, with its roots.

© Hans Madej – Laif

Which of your skills helps you most in photography?


Which motif or theme would you like to tackle again?

The pictures that are shown are almost 25 years old. Apart from Croatia, I have not been back to any of the countries where I travelled back then. One of the best moments for me were the events of 1989, which were unforeseeable, just like the future that followed it was. People's faces then were filled with pure happiness, the kind that happens when people surrender their entire selves to the moment they are living in, when being and becoming are the same thing. I would be interested to find out what has become of this happiness about the liberation.

Finally, we would like you to tell us one more thing - what makes a good photo?

A good photo is the expression of the sensation of the inadequacy of the existing. It gives transient things a value and a reason and sometimes it describes the desire for a reality in which humanity is given more respect.

© Hans Madej – Laif