I Wanted to Photograph You

The works of Aykan Safoğlu forge relationships – even friendships – across cultural, geographic, linguistic, as well as temporal boundaries and make open-ended enquiries into cultural belonging, creativity, and kinship. His latest cinematographic work ziyaret, visit – the second part of a trilogy – is an attempt to sensitively deal with loss and transgression while visiting graves on the Old St. Matthew’s Cemetery in Berlin. The encounters between Safoğlu and Gülşen Aktaş – an activist, feminist, and longtime friend – with personalities (among them May Ayim, Ovo Maltine, and Helga Goetze) and tales buried in the West Berlin cemetery testify to the persistence of their biographies marked by activism and passages into the present time.

In ziyaret, visit, analogue photography reveals the fragile and cellular boundaries of a world oscillating between existence and disappearance, while at the same time rendering visible transitioning processes such as migration, radicalization, and personal development as segments of an entirety. By emphasizing the supposed voids – the hidden stories around the well-known Old St. Matthew’s Cemetery – Safoğlu translates them into metaphors for societal dynamics in Germany. Schlosspost met the artist in his Solitude studio for an encounter in which the artist opened one of his Polaroid archives, and revealed the story why ziyaret, visit is a film about his temporarily lost ability to take photographs.

 

Akademie Schloss Solitude, October 28, 2018

I am currently working on the second part of a trilogy, ziyaret/visit. The first part Untitled (Gülşen and Hüseyin) from 2015 was a work about my uncle, Hüseyin Safoğlu, who came to Germany as a guest worker from Turkey and committed suicide in Heidelberg in 1978. This first piece was a collaboration between me and my friend Gülşen Aktaş, who is a Kurdish feminist. She arrived in Germany by the end of the 1970s, around the time my uncle committed suicide.

The intention was to actually make a film about my attempt to reproduce one photograph of my uncle. Studying film first and then photography has informed me about the ways of looking at moving image through contemplating still images. So, photography has always been a nice entry point for me. For the work, Gülşen and I simply went into a photography studio and tried to reproduce this photograph of my uncle. It was a sort of a drag performance that Gülşen was doing, impersonating my uncle.

»Studying film first and then photography has informed me about the ways of looking at moving image through contemplating still images.«

My initial feeling was to work with a professional actor, then I had to slow down and rewind this thinking. For years I moved across LGBTIQ communities as a queer activist, being interested in the representation, and in gender politics, this idea to work with a professional seemed very conservative after all. Instead, I decided to ask help from a friend, and Gülşen stepped in. As she is coming from a matriarchal family, having been socialized with women, having been working with women, having frequented in feminist circles in Germany, (e.g. Schabbes Kreis, a Jewish feminist group), I thought this was tailored for her. Certainly she as a feminist would have legit things to say about my uncle, than I would – as I also didn’t know him – and to speculate. So, I commissioned her to portray my uncle. She does not come from an acting background, so, she had little understanding of what we were doing. Well, it worked perfectly for us. It became much more intimate and interesting; the ambiguity between her and the person she was trying to re-enact created this really interesting suspension, and it worked well for the sake of the project, as it also deals with film and photography, and the trauma resulting from loss related to migration.

Loss attracts me. The more I think about loss, the more it relates to migration; and the more I get convinced that analogue photography is the medium to talk about these things. Because photography as a medium is about fragmentality. As the photographer, what you see is just something passing, yet a photograph would always have framing and you don’t see outside the frame. It is always limited in its own physicality. It has its own life. Also you need to preserve it well, otherwise it dies. Naturally it is the best medium to reflect on loss and migration. This revelation seems actually stunning to me now at Solitude, the fact I have missed this connection for so long, only to find here.

In fact, photography is, historically speaking, very much connected to migration, because migrant life experiences manifest their legacies, find their forms in leftovers, in other words for this ephemera to be found again elsewhere. For example, this photograph from my uncle is made for my family in Turkey, for a reason: It is proof of something. It is proof that he lived outside Turkey, somewhere else. So it actually resonates only, if you think of an audience. This photograph has an audience; not in Germany, but in Turkey. This is also interesting – that migrants have always been keen on newest user-friendly technologies, like small cameras of the 1970s. A camera was back then an extended eye for their families back in Turkey, operated by the furthest part of the family-body.

»Loss attracts me. The more I think about loss, the more it relates to migration; and the more I get convinced that analogue photography is the medium to talk about these things.«

But the second part of this project is more about the relationship of Gülşen to loss, literally on her reconciliation with death, with one particular cemetery in Berlin: Old St. Matthew Churchyard (Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof Berlin), which is literally an idyllic island. Established for a very progressive community, it was one of the cemeteries for suburbia in Berlin by the turn of the nineteenth century. They first built this church, and later the cemetery. With Berlin growing quickly out of proportion by the early twentieth century, it had then become a district of Berlin, for newly rich yet established urban classes, e.g. lawyers, doctors, journalists started settling there. It quickly became a wealthy neighborhood, different from Kreuzberg, where actually the military elite was living. No need to say that it hadn’t lost anything from its charm during the partition years. It was also the way to go to Wannsee – there is a railroad (S1) just crossing along the cemetery.

When Hitler took over, he had this vision of Berlin as a megalopolis. He dreamt of this large avenue, crossing and dividing the city into two – everything was folding in perspective – this was his idea of the Überstadt (Beyond City). And he immediately commissioned the architect Albert Speer to create some of these structures; Tempelhof airport was realized. They also wanted to build something on the cemetery. They removed some graves. Back and forth. The gravesite of the family Langenscheidt, the publishers’ family. For example, they had this family mausoleum there and it was moved to another cemetery. They were forced to migrate to this other cemetery, but the project stopped, in part because the war had begun! They were originally planning to build a ministry on top of it, because it was very close to these axes Hitler was dreaming of. This is how the mausoleum looks today.

This is the grave of Grimm brothers. They are also interesting; they were pro German unity and they were dismissed by the duke of Hessen. So they arrived in Berlin as political refugees. They were basically contributing to the idea of German unity with their folkloric tales and their linguistic work as well: purification of the German language, collecting the folkloric tales and turning them into a social cement. They were social engineers. And then the fairy tales of course, where the subconsciousness finds another form. Psycho- analytically speaking it just hints at the collective subconsciousness of society back then.

Gülşen has a very special relationship to this cemetery. Her mom Şirin Aktaş rests there. Gülşen lives on the same street as this cemetery. It is also very close to where her feminist friend Dagmar Schulz, and her partner Ika Hügel-Marshall live. Ika and Dagmar were actually the first ones to invite Audre Lorde – an American black poet, lesbian, and mother – to Berlin, where she was also an important figure. And when she came in the 1980s, she wanted to meet with Afro-German women. One of them who contributed to the meetings was May Ayim. May Ayim was one of the most active members of this group, author and co-editor of the book Farbe Bekennen (Showing our colors: Afro-German women speak out). It is the first account of black German women and their history. Their history is often neglected, erased or rewritten by the dominant culture. Farbe Bekennen is a historical book, like a giant group photograph of all these women in the form of a book. Ayim unfortunately committed suicide and rests in this cemetery, very close to Gülşen’s mom. Her departure and suicide was also very destructive and sad account for Gülşen, yet also transformative.

This is May Ayim’s grave. I came to understand this cemetery as a metaphorical place through which to understand German society, because for example activist Hedwig Dohm, or Birgit Rommelspacher, who was a well-known feminist in Berlin … or some interesting figures from West Berlin … are burried here. For example, here, a woman called Helga Goetze had been doing daily Dada performances at Breitscheidplatz. She was holding a sign saying Fucking For Freedom – not for freedom, for peace. Fucking for Peace! This is Gülşen holding a sign Ficken für Frieden!

»This cemetery became a very important place for me, a dialectic ground. It’s neither life nor death. It is like the moment when you wake up. You are not in a dream anymore, but you are not fully awake.«

There is this Armenian person we don’t know anything about. But Gülşen always goes there – this is important – taking care of the grave, doing a little amateur gardening, cutting the trees, trimming them, getting rid of the stray weeds and contributing to the recycling of the cemetery as well. Finding a flower bouquet that is drawn into the organic waste compost. She is making something out of this. She’s basically like a bee. If this is a garden, Gülşen is one of the few – because there are more people like this – just humming there. There is also actually an existing bee colony in this cemetery and its produces its own honey. This is actually where the bee colony lives.

We also shouldn’t forget: there are a lot of gay men who died of AIDS lying here. There is a memorial. A lot of existing community members from those times, including drag queens, are also doing important work there. This association called EFEU e.V.organizes funeral services and takes care of the graves funded by donations. One of the very famous actors of Rosa von Praunheim, Bernd Boßmann (Ichgola Androgyn) runs a café there, the first cemetery café in Germany. Here’s Gülşen in the garden of this café.

And in this café are some sketches of birds sighted in Germany, a zoological bird map. And I’ve once spotted this species, which is called die Türkentaube (Turkish dove) in local vernacular. This is a species of a dove whose population in Europe grew in the late 1960s. The birds migrated from southern to northern Europe with global warming. They were named after the Turks, because they started making the move around the same time the Turkish guest workers arrived. This is very interesting for me. This is one of the key moments, when I thought, I need to do something with this. This cemetery became a very important place for me, a dialectic ground. It’s neither life nor death. It is like the moment when you wake up. You are not in a dream anymore, but you are not fully awake. So you are standing at the door of something, not fully inside, not fully outside. You are on the periphery of something.

Before coming to Germany from a Kurdish region, Gülşen’s mom Şirin was subject to persecution, to the supra politics of the state. She had experienced so many deportations, systemic annulation of the state and in the backdrop of a war scenery. Gülşen’s mother died in Germany and was buried there, so for the Aktaş sisters the history and ancestry is buried in Germany. It is a second homeland for Gülşen and her siblings. The site is important because Gülşen has a special connection to it, like different strips of time are buried there. What is time? Time in my eyes is what is being dealt with in the medium of cinema and film. We are dealing with time as filmmakers. So the duration that one needs to spend in the movie theater is our material. Through the cemetery I came to understand that people buried there represent different time segments and strips, like film strips that have been brought there to be buried. So imagine the cemetery is an editing room with so many film strips. It is raw material; we’ll try to cut our own experimental film from it. This is what I am interested in this second essay film, now.

»Through the cemetery I came to understand that people buried there represent different time segments and strips, like film strips that have been brought there to be buried.«

So this is where I come back to photography and moving images. I filmed Gülşen everywhere. Her daily activities in the cemetery. I have her every move in HD, but it is at the end showing her in motion. And I think this makes the project lose a bit of meaning. Because in photography, like in migration, your itinerary might be clear, yet you can’t really foresee things. For example, you shoot analogue photography, not really knowing how it will turn out when it’s developed. What it will look like, because it is a very short glimpse of time. You don’t know what you have shot. Like when you don’t know what will happen with your life, when you migrate somewhere. Another important thing in analogue photography is that chance and error play a crucial part. Everything can go wrong, even during development. So this is more interesting to me than showing a controlled itinerary of Gülşen visiting the cemetery; then it becomes too performative and aware of an audience. I always thought this is going to be a two-channel piece. I always thought of me and Gülşen, taking inspiration from the Grimm Brothers, as fairy-tale characters, maybe Hansel and Gretel. Us moving in this cemetery trying to find bits and pieces and things that can help us understand the archeology of feeling. So, the cemetery became a site for us not to dig in, but to try and collect bits and pieces through a visual kind of archeology. What we are doing here is excavating the symbolic.

In 2013, I found myself in the midst of the Gezi uprising. I had five days in Istanbul and I spent it on Gezi Park. This is quite important to me, because on the way from Berlin to there, I brought a lot of film material thinking I would use it at Bard College in New York for my final semester. But experiencing Gezi – seeing what happened there, and then on top of this, maybe the exposure that I received from Oberhausen for a film in which I’m dealing with already existing photography – I was overwhelmed with any kind of image production and I had to seize photography. Vividness of life and resistance – how beautiful it was. I never intended to take photographs in Istanbul. Not even the idea having a camera between me and myself and the outer world crossed my mind, because it was so beautiful and mesmerizing. So I stopped shooting images there. Imagine myself like a python, and I just had swallowed a sheep. It is a lot of this flux, of feelings, and information. And emotions just somehow blocked me. So, I couldn’t touch this film material for along while. It was a lot of 35mm film rolls, both in black and white and color, and mid-format. I didn’t use the mid-formal rolls in Istanbul, I used them in Berlin. I shot Gülşen on these expired film rolls. These film rolls that I gathered had been sitting and stored in a storage space in Berlin. Like my life had been sitting in boxes for too long since 2013. A box is meant for moving, it requires flux, or brings movement to mind. But my boxes were sitting somewhere. And these films are also boxes. They contain light-sensitive material and they are supposed to be exposed to light to create imagery.

The unexposed film material can be a metaphor of me as the artist of this project. I was equipped and trained as a photographer to shoot film, but I have chosen not to make use of those roll from 2013 on – it needed me to go somewhere else and to come back to be exposed and unfolded – like this, it can be understood … that I needed to be somewhere else than Turkey to come back to them to understand the time that had already past. Now it is reborn in this film. The material is reborn into a now.

We deal with death in life. This film is not only about death. It is about how we deal with death in life. And maybe secondary topics would be loss and migration: how we deal with this? And when I come back to this material: what form will this work have in the end? In the first work, which is completely different than this, I was showing the making of a photograph. But this one is going to be about preservation, like scanning…. Making the preservation visible. I came to understand here at Solitude that a scanner is nothing but a gravesite. The lens of a scanner can only register an opaque surface, through the light and its reflection. but if you place a transparent thing there – like a body gradually decomposting – it will slightly register it; and when there is nothing on it, it will cue in total blackness. So it is like death, it is the unknown. This is actually the form of my second work, the scanning, the preserving, altering images. Like an attempt to keep a diary. A continuous attempt to record something that I will come back to, to make the film out of it. It feels like rereading my diaries. Funny that the Turkish word ziyaret /visit comes from mezar/grave; so one could say that Gülşen and I are visiting a cemetery, only to revisit some diaries: last but not least, our own.

 

The transcript of the original audio recording was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi