Taming Firenze: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

There were two things that I wanted to do in Berlin: eat German food and visit the Berlin Wall. I managed to do both, plus so much more.

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First, the food – and that includes beer. Coming from a Pennsylvania Dutch family, German food has always been the ultimate comfort food. From sauerkraut to sausage to pretzels. In Berlin, the food did not disappoint.

In Berlin we tried everything from currywurst, a type of German fast food, to pretzels, to sausage, to German meatloaf. And so, so, so much beer.

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Beyond the food, we also visited a photography museum. The museum featured two full floors of work from Helmut Newton and his wife, June Browne (otherwise known by her artist name, Alice Springs). To see such an in-depth collection from one of Germany’s most renowned photographers was an incredible experience.

Newton’s eye for fashion, portraiture and the human body in general was unique and striking. He had a creative and innovative eye, establishing compelling and intriguing stories with a series of only a few portraits.

He worked not only with controlled portraiture and studio work, but he also did journalistic work.

Since spending several weeks taking contrasting photography classes at school, I enjoyed seeing a real world example of an artist who works under several umbrellas of photography.

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After wandering through the Helmut Newton rooms, we made our way upstairs to the featured exhibit “Watching You Watching Me: A Photographic Response to Surveillance.” This exhibit explored the constant surveillance occurring in modern society, from google maps, to drones, to surveillance in times of war, the exhibit used different forms of photography to comment on the large and looming “Big Brother” presence in the modern age.

Each and every project in the exhibit was striking and a little bit erie. Tomas van Houtryve’s “Blue Sky Days,” for example, was a response to the grandson of a civilian casualty in a drone strike in Pakistan. The 13-year-old said “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Houtryve flew a drone through the blue skies of America, capturing the scenes of everyday life that play and replay day in and day out. In capturing these peaceful, innocent moments, Houtryve reveals the vulnerability we take for granted: had his drone carried a weapon rather than a camera, the moment would not have been captured, it would have been destroyed.

If I could, I would devote an entire blog post to each photographer and each project on display in the museum. Each artist critically responded to the serious dangers of hyper-surveillance.

We live in a spiderweb of a world, in which everything and everyone is intertwined. This connectedness opens doors for communication and globalization, but it also opens doors for invasiveness and heavy monitoring.

Most of us go through life unaware or apathetic towards the disembodied eyes constantly following us, but the photographers in this exhibit remind us that this complacency is both foolish and dangerous.

I loved the reminder that photography can transmit a message and can activate change. Each piece was though-provoking and shocking. The images stay with me even today, weeks after I visited the museum.

Throughout this semester I have been struggling to find my voice in photography. This exhibit reminded me of the power behind the image. I am more than just a camera, I am an artist and a reporter. And I am capable of affecting change.

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We covered food and an unexpected trip to a photography museum, but that still leaves one thing: The Berlin Wall.

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In Dublin, my roommate met a woman who lived in Berlin. She told us not to go to the wall, that it was boring.

For me, studying abroad is not about beaches and clubs. It is not about shopping and partying. My study abroad experience is about understanding the world we live in. And sometimes that means visiting boring museums or historic sites. Sometimes that means experiencing tragedy, experiencing hardships, experiencing sadness.

Without all of these things – without a certain level of discomfort- history is bound to repeat itself.

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The Berlin Wall stood from 1961 to 1989. For 28 years, families and friends were separated. People were trapped by an oppressive regime. An entire community once united was torn apart by concrete and barbed wire.

At the wall, I read stories of families missing weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. I read about successful escapes and failed escapes. I read about the more than 170 deaths that occurred from people trying to cross the wall. I witnessed the physical remnants of a world divided.

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The history echoed off the remaining pieces of the wall at Bernauer Strabe. The tension hung in the air. Here, people were trapped. People were blockaded. People were locked in concrete prisons. People were isolated.

In the end, there was no reason for the Berlin Wall. It did not stop East Berliners from escaping to West Berlin. In fact, more than 5,000 people managed to cross the wall. The wall was nothing more than an ugly symbol of hate, oppression and control.

As I said before, without a certain level of discomfort, history is bound to repeat itself. I cannot say I had fun reading the names of those who died trying to cross the wall or reading the stories of separated friends and families, but as I walked the path of the wall, I knew I had to be there. I knew I had to see the scar of history still healing over the bloodied land.

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Right now we are at a crossroad. The world is revolving and change is creeping closer and closer. But our fate has not been sealed.

We still have a choice to make: we can choose separation; we can choose to build a wall, or we can choose unity; we can choose to learn from the past and to learn from each other.

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Spray painted on the wall were the words “we never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” We are all from the same land, from the same earth. We do not need walls to “keep” our people anywhere. We need to take a few pages out of our history books and think critically about the steps we are about to take before we make a critical mistake. Before we close ourselves off to progress. Before we close ourselves off to communication. Before we close ourselves off to each other.

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