Hang Out! Damned of the Earth

In the evening, after another day was finally over, they made a campfire in a plastic dumpster. They drank, huffed a bit of something, and when the trash bin burned out, they went looking for another one. Later, a clash with the residents ensued, followed by a minor brawl.

But strictly speaking, that’s information that only the photographer, and not the photography itself, can convey. Although in these images you somehow expect, and they definitely tend to anticipate, that actor Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting will walk into the frame at any moment. Or rather, because they’re from Newport, Wales, the stoner twins from the Welsh underdog epic Twin Town (1997, captioned: “Pretty Shitty City”). That’s because there’s a filmic element in the photographs that invokes a hope for action, a hope for progression, a hope for deliverance from this static state. A hope that, for these teenagers (really just kids), will most likely never be fulfilled in their so-called real life.

You could say that the alleged “Jeff Wall effect” in photography gains an auxiliary social exigency in Tobias Zielony images. Here, art and life diverge in an awkward dimension, parting ways in their lack of prospects. Zielony is showing his most recent work at the Braunschweiger Museum für Photographie under a title that belabors the same point: “Story/No Story.” It will also be the name of the monograph published by Hatje Cantz, which, after several postponements, is now set to come out in August. The book is something like a retrospective for Zielony, whose work is some of the most interesting in Germany because it synthesizes three explosive elements at once: the Internationale of glo balization losers, the public space and feedback-worthiness of the images, and the poses and projections that lay somewhere between movies, MTV, and city outskirts.

At this point it’s perhaps necessary to recount Tobias Zielony’s own story. Born and raised in Wuppertal, Germany, he moved to Newport, Wales in the late 1990s to study documentary photography. Here, there was a strong tradition of social documentation, and he met people like Paul Seawright. When the students were asked to photograph everyday life just outside their front doors, their gaze fell almost entirely on the famous broken backbone of the British working class. And for Zielony one detail in particular lingered: the tracksuits worn by the loitering adolescents at the bus station. These outfits became his theme and the source of everything that would come. Filmmaker Harun Farocki has even said that Zielony produced the theory of the British proletariat slipping into these tracksuits when they become unemployed, the same way athletes slip them on in between matches to keep warm. It’s a somewhat poetic explanation for a prosaic perspective, but it’s also part of the phenomenon – the necessity of letting these images expand into a greater narrative.

Zielony eventually gained access into the group. He hung out with them, chatted a little, and took pictures while letting them call him “Hitler” behind his back and ask questions like whether he has jetlag, or if it’s night in Germany while it’s day in Wales. The kids often just sat in their cars like investigators on a stake out. But in the photographs, like in familiar television images, they look like the people being investigated. The whole thing becomes a self-conscious mirroring.

When Zielony showed his work to the photo editor of The Guardian, he was repeatedly asked: “Where’s the story?” But what’s disturbing is that, as the exhibition title implies, if there were a story, it would be that there is no story. Zielony realized that images with this quality would probably work better in an artistic context rather than in journalism.

He continued his studies at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, eventually seeing similarities between the abandoned housing blocks of Halle-Neustadt and what he had seen in Newport and Bristol. He photographed the kids who met up every night in their low-riding VW polos at the gas stations, which, according to the plausible thesis of the urbanist exhibition “Schrumpfende Städte,” have replaced the market places in small, desolate East German cities. The gas stations constitute a sense of home, but at the same time transcend the local: Bitterfeld begins to neighbor Newport, or Marseille, or Zielona Góra in Poland. Zielony went there, set up, made some conversation, and hung out in the twilight. Everywhere the question is the same: what will you do with yourself ? And the answer almost always involves concrete and dead grass: a life simply catapulted into public space. Sociologists have always been interested in the inert theater of these cliques: a little standing around, a little looking, a little spitting, but mainly waiting to see if something happens, if a story will come around the corner. However, few have so systematically analyzed his images the way Zielony himself has. With the unflinching gaze of a war reporter, Zielony goes into exactly the areas and milieus that tour guides and police strictly advise against.

These are the kids who clash violently at international football games, and are the first to be thrown as cannon fodder in war; Zielony speaks of those who fall through the cracks. They are the Lumpenproletariat from classical Marxist theory. They are unproductive and stagger in their vague subsistence economy between petty crime, odd jobs, and government handouts: a passive decay of the lowest of the lower class. And together they comprise something like an Internationale. “There’s an aspiration to become part of a common world of images,” says Zielony. These images come from hip-hop videos, movies, and even from Zielony himself. At times it’s easier to break the ice by showing them pictures that he’s taken of other youths. Then they say: “I know him.” “I don’t think so,” Zielony replies. “He lives in a totally different country.”

Sometimes a different malaise arises from this kind of cultural globalization. In Poland, tracksuits are called “dresiarze” and have had meaning since the days of communism. But the young Poles explain to him that although they look similar, they aren’t the same. And when Zielony worked in Los Angeles, he saw what happens when there are only images yet hardly anything that one would consider public space.

Of course this aspect always played a role in Zielony’s European work, like the photo series from Great Britain, “Curfew,” named after the curfew the police imposed on the youth there. Or, in northern Marseille Zielony photographed kids in their doorways because of a law created by former Interior Minister Sarkozy, which tried to limit the number of adolescents loitering in doorways.

Zielony’s work has expanded into film. His documentation of the crystal meth stronghold Trona, which has gained entry into the Ingvild Goetz collection, can adequately be categorized as a Western. In the Braunschweiger exhibition, there’s one film from a Canadian prison, and another from a porn cinema in Berlin. And in Naples, astonishingly the only place Zielony has a gallery, he recently photographed the metabolic housing complex Le Vele di Scampia by architect Francesco di Salvo. This complex is now known to the world as the dystopian Mafia quarter from the film Gomorrha.

Peter Richter 2

Peter Richter is the NY correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung.


Photography 46
Tobias Zielony

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Issue #17 — Summer 2009Mike Mills

“All we ever wanted was everything,” MIKE MILLS reveals in our 40-page cover special on ways of getting through the recession / depression.

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the BERLIN REVIEW reflects on nine events, projects, and people from the last six months in Berlin; and so much more on 256 pages …

Contributors: Jodie Barnes, Joachim Bessing, Anne Christensen, Todd Cole, Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, Nick Currie, Chris Dercon, Max Farago, Marcus Gaab, Tim Gutt, Daniel Haaksman, item idem, Jina Khayyer, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Niklas Maak, Joe McKenna, Alasdair McLellan, Markus Miessen, Alex Needham, Anh-Linh Ngo, Peter Richter, Kari Rittenbach, Zac Rose, Alex Rühle, Viviane Sassen, Karl Schlögel, Heji Shin, David Benjamin Sherry, Slavs & Tatars, Tung Walsh, Clay Winston.