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'Picturing Berlin: Reporting my City' - Newcomers and locals come together to explore and ph

We recently attended 'Picturing Berlin: Reporting my City', an exhibition of photographs by a group of budding young photographers, comprised of refugees, migrants and Berlin locals. By exploring their home city in a mixed group, the project offered the participants a chance to explore and express their own perceptions of Berlin and its inhabitants.

The photos were taken over a period of six months as part of the wider integration project, “Heimat Berlin - Eine kulturelle Integrationsmaßnahme mit geflüchteten Jugendliche", in partnership with the 'Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth' (BMFSFJ), and organised by the 'Society for Humanistic Photography' (Gesellschaft für Humanistische Fotografie), a creative initiative which invites people to engage with current social and political issues through the medium of photography.

The project aims to inspire and offer artistic guidance to young newcomers and local residents by giving them a chance to explore Berlin. The project challenges the participants to engage not just with the physical subject matter but with the vibrant living-breathing Berlin by giving each participant a lens with which to capture and communicate their reality. The photographs themselves are a wonderfully eclectic mixture of architecture, nature, people, faces and themes, all of them taken in different locations around Berlin.

Each participant was personally helped along their artistic journey by Beatrice Schachenmayr, our PTC friend and photographer, who founded, 'Frame Your Story', a social photography project for refugees (which we spoke to her about in a recent interview!) Beatrice invited us to attend 'Picturing Berlin: Reporting my City' and introduced us to Dimitra Maragkaki, who works at GfHF and organised the project. We spoke about the photographs on display and agreed to meet the following week for a longer conversation about this inspiring project!

Women behind pots, Mauer park - by Ali (27), Iraq

Beatrice: I came into this project one day while I was searching for an exhibition space for my project, ‘Frame Your Story’. I met Katharina in the gallery, asked if I could exhibit my work, and she said they were looking for a photography instructor for this project! Dimitra interviewed me for the program, Picturing Berlin: Reporting My City II.

Dimitra: I met Beatrice in the interview and I was quite impressed because she had experience working with this type of group, on a very similar project (Frame Your Story). This year (the project is in its second year), we decided that it was better to have a smaller group of one photographer and one social pedagogue. We also had one volunteer, Eric, who has experience in photography and helped in the workshops and the final exhibition. Apart from Eric, there were participants from last year´s workshops who were interested in taking part and helping out the newcomers. After a long discussion, we decided to do one workshop every month that lasted two days, on a weekend. Each workshop lasted 5 hours. So that’s enough time for people to go out in the street, take photos but also chat with each other and really immerse themselves. I was responsible for organising the workshops, finding participants, and communicating with everyone.

We had participants from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Greece, from Syria, so a very diverse group of people. Sometimes at the beginning, the dynamic of the group was challenging, and shifting a lot, but at the end, after consistent time spent together, this created a bond between us all.

"Both the Mauerpark and the demonstration workshops were really good places to engage with people and I think the participants took great photographs too because they felt they were part of the community in Berlin."

- Beatrice

Beatrice: This was really challenging for Dimitra. We had so many participants over the months, and it always changed as the project developed. When we began the first project on March 17th, we met for two days. Dimitra has to always make sure we get the correct permissions, signatures etc. and to properly orientate the participants, as well as a bunch of other behind the scenes stuff. Luzia (the social pedagogue) and I had fun organising the workshops step by step. Eric, Luzia and I collaborated really well for this project – Luzia and Eric both have photography experience, and I also have teaching experience, particularly with youth, so we worked very well. We are also very different, and that introduced a nice element to the project because we could really bounce off one other.

Dimitra: It was interesting because every time we met, we thought of new places to visit that would be interesting for the participants – for example, one of the workshops took place in Mauerpark and the participants loved it! They were so excited to be outside, photograph people and places, find specific parts of the city that they like, and express their idea of what is “home” through photography. Another exciting trip was during a public demonstration on the housing problem in Berlin. On this occasion, the participants took some, in my opinion, really very good street photographs.

Bear pit, Mauer Park - by Ali (27), Iraq

Beatrice: Both the Mauerpark and the demonstration workshops were really good places to engage with people and I think the participants took great photographs too because they felt they were part of the community in Berlin. Many participants are typically hesitant about approaching people to ask to take their photograph, and that’s very hard when you are just beginning (I actually still struggle with this myself!), but both of these places were great opportunities to learn this, especially Mauerpark. Also, because our trip to Mauerpark was more recent, I feel like they were more confident to go on their own – Ali, for example, he’s 27 and from Iraq, went on his own adventure, chatted with people, and was very proud of the photos he took that day. He chose to exhibit several of those images from Mauerpark in the final exhibition.

Dimitra: We also tried to integrate the theoretical aspect with the practical aspect in every workshop. Each workshop had a certain theme – for example, how to talk about political issues through photography. I think the participants liked this type of format because they could get an idea of the different issues they can express through photography.

Beatrice: Yes, considering what kind of photography they would like to take, and what kind of photographer they would like to be.

Some of things that were really successful – the meeting points, the spacious office space and the professional gallery space – were good resources to welcome them all in, and to facilitate a safe space to learn and express themselves. We had the chance to meet at the office each workshop, on the first of the two days that we would generally meet, to present the photo themes and itinerary. Then on the second day, we’d go out and utilize what we had learned and learn more about how to use the camera - the aperture, functions, etc. Most of the participants had the chance to use their own camera because we have seven DSLR Canon cameras. Some participants also have their own individual cameras that they brought.

Let’s take a look at the photographs...

Man with cameras - by Muntaha, Iraq

Beatrice: The photograph with the man and the cameras (pictured above), was taken by Muntaha. She is from Iraq. The picture of the bear pit (pictured further up), that was by Ali. One of my favourites is a photo taken by Ali of three women at Mauerpark (pictured at top). In this photograph it looks as if the ceramic mugs replace the women’s heads. Ali cropped the women to make room for the ceramics behind, and you can see the flowers and the people in the distance. It is just a wonderfully composed photographthat kind of mimics, Martin Parr’s photographic style - we actually looked at Martin Parr in one of our workshops. I also think a lot of the exhibition-goers really enjoyed the photography by Rabee (pictured below), from Syria, because he paired his photographs with a caption and people really liked that. All of the participants became better photographers and are developing different styles.

"Dieses Bild hat für mich eine große Bedeutung, weil dieser behinderte Mann kein Fahrrad fahren kann. Warscheinlich wäre sein Traum Fahrrad zu fahren, aber das Fahrrad bleibt immernoch leer.“ (This picture, for me, has a lot of meaning because the disabled man cannot ride the bike. Perhaps it is his dream to ride it, but the bike remains empty.) - by Rabee, Syria

Dimitra: Rabee also participated in writing a book, “Hässlich Wilkommen”, about his feelings of coming to Germany. He told me that he wants to write another book. I think many people have a lot of creative skills in them and they want to combine photography and literature. They are very talented people. They have ambitions. I think the photography workshops help them to be more confident about their skills, their strengths, and also help them feel a little bit more integrated. Of course, we cannot achieve total integration during a six-month program, but at least we can bring them together and give them the tools to express themselves. I think this was achieved during the exhibition and I think all the participants enjoyed it.

Beatrice: Something I also learned from Ruhollah, is what he said about why he enjoyed the project and what he learned (and Rabee also echoed this). He’s been here for a few years and has gotten to know the physical Berlin - the streets, the areas he likes, the diversity, the creativity, etc. but what he learned through the project was about other people’s perspectives. This might be because we were such a diverse group and we became quite intimate over the six months, and we went to so many different places together. For example, one weekend we went to a temporary shelter and worked with young children there, and for them that was a great experience to understand a different perspective. So many people are living in Berlin in a different way and I think that’s something they valued throughout this project. It really opened their eyes to how other people live and maybe that’s also something that gave them more confidence, because many of them are newcomers in Berlin and they’re not alone with these challenges.

"So many people are living in Berlin in a different way and I think that’s something they valued throughout this project. It really opened their eyes to how other people live and maybe that’s also something that gave them more confidence, because many of them are newcomers in Berlin and they’re not alone with these challenges."


So, were the participants mostly newcomers?

Dimitra: We had a mixture of people who migrated to Germany for financial or other reasons; people who fled their countries and also local people who were born or live in Berlin. The workshops took place both in English and German. Some people were not very confident to speak German, so they preferred to speak in English. But we would also encourage them to speak more German, as many of them hadn’t gained the confidence yet and they could actually speak good German!

Beatrice: It was a really good opportunity to be bi-lingual, with instructors who were also learning another language. That was also another challenge. It maybe felt isolating for them at times. For example, Muntaha, from Iraq, speaks German and a little English. I’m not sure if she is very confident in speaking, but I know she was always wanting to speak German, so there may have been moments when she was feeling a little lost when the group was communicating in English.

Dimitra: I think the fact that we were migrants too made them feel closer to us. I had this impression. They felt that we were part of the group in some way.

Bearice: We really did work together I think. The project was about making friends, exploring the city and photography. For most of them I think it was primarily about photography because they really wanted to learn about the camera and get better as photographers. Ali had done a project before in Berlin, so he really wanted to exhibit, and so had Katerina. Actually, when I was on the phone with Ruhollah the other day, he was saying that he was organising a trip with his friends to go and take photos around Berlin! They’re going to explore and take photographs together – how cool is that!

Woman in a hat (Vasso's mother-in-law), Princessinnengarten - by Vasso

Dimitra: And Ali told me that he wants to do his own cultural project at some point. He would like people to see him as a photographer and a creative person, and not as a newcomer. We also had Vasso who was pregnant when the project started. At the beginning, she sent me an email and then she found me on Facebook and she said please let me know if I can participate – she really wanted to find a creative activity to do during her pregnancy. And at the very end of the project she came with the baby! She made very unique photos of the city. This is my favourite photo - she took a portrait of a woman wearing a hat (pictured above), you can see her face, but for me it is a very distinguished portrait. Beatrice: That’s actually a picture of her mother in law, who she took with her on one of the outings. I believe that’s a photograph of her mother-in-law in Prinzessinnengarten.

Dimitra: If you see the photos that each person took, you can see that some people focus on the colours, others focus on the style or the concept and so on.

"Ali told me that he wants to do his own cultural project at some point. He would like people to see him as a photographer and a creative person, and not as a newcomer."


Beatrice: That reminds me of Katerina, who really developed her own style. She has a unique style and theme to her photographs, and that’s something very hard to achieve when you’re a photographer and it takes a lot of time and practice. This picture (pictured below) was in Prenzlauer Berg on the last day when we went to Mauerpark.

We went to other places like Prinzessinnengarten, the shelter, and the Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen) in Dahlem - there was this fantastic portrait exhibition of migrant and refugee women from many different countries, called “Ich habe mich nicht verabschiedet | Frauen in Exil” with photographs by Heike Steinweg. What I loved about this exhibition was that every photograph was similar- the women were all different but they were all standing against the same background. They were blown up really big and it was extremely powerful. Alone they would have been great, but what was exceptional was that they were paired with a big chunky paragraph about their journey to Berlin. Some of the descriptions were really personal. That was a very nice experience for us, plus, the train ride back and forth gave us time to get to know one another. We even did a group game using a camera, a bit like word association. For example, Dimitra would take the first photos of, maybe, grass, and then I would look at it and that might inspire me to take a photo of a tree, and so on.

Balcony in Prenzlauer Berg - by Katerina

Now the project's finished, do you still keep in contact with the participants and are some of them pursuing photography on their own?

Dimitra: This project will continue for at least one more year, and people are already asking when they can come back! From the feedback that we got from them, most of them said that they want to do it as a hobby. This is very encouraging for us. It shows there is real interest and they will keep taking photos!

Beatrice: I don’t think it is necessarily about becoming a professional photographer either. Photography can be a hobby for anyone and it’s a really good way to motivate them to be outside, on their own, to navigate a new space and to get to know new people. Maybe they’ll surprise themselves and take some great photographs and exhibit them somehow! But I think what Dimitra said is right; I think a lot of them are excited to pursue the next workshops. Ruhollah even created a group to go and take photographs, like I mentioned earlier, and I know that Kate and Ali especially, and Ruhollah and Rabee, would like to come together and plan outings.

Dimitra: Before the workshops begin again, we plan to meet up with each other. We want to stay in contact.

Beatrice: I think we didn’t talk so much about the challenges, which are an important piece, because they speak to the rhythm of the social projects and I’ve noticed, in my experience, that many social projects have some of the same obstacles to overcome. – some of them include: the logistical issues with leading these workshops and the technical aspects such as the frequency and length of the courses, etc. Overall, I think we were a good team, Dimitra, Luzia, Eric and I and we managed to pull through!

Dimitra: The first thing we will change is the frequency of the workshops because the participants want to meet each other more frequently. So, I think we’d have workshops every two weeks, and we will try to invite young professional photographers to talk about their work, bringing the youth of photography and people who are interested in it together. The other thing will be to have a clearer structure from the beginning and communicate it to the participants, so they can know the plan from the beginning and become more engaged. When you have an idea about the process you can visualize the benefits of it. Whereas if you come to a workshop and you only know the theme of that specific workshop, you might not feel motivated to come to the next one because you don’t see the end goal.

We are very thankful to all the creative young people who participated in our workshops and shared both with us and the wider public their view of this multicultural and diverse city that constitutes Berlin.

*** The exhibition, 'Picturing Berlin - Reporting my City II' ran from 7-9th September 2018. It will return for its third installment in 2019. For more details and registration, head to the Gesellschaft für Humanistische Fotografie website. ***


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