The fringe, the outcast and the marginalized members of society are the subjects and characters of German photographer Tobias Zielony, which inherently blurs the lines between fine art and documentary photography as the photographs tell a story with no story arc, no beginning nor ending, while many of them are not aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense.
A by-product that is quite consistent throughout is the theme of boredom, which for some might be hard to conceive, in this age of inter-connectedness, but for the people in these pictures, it seems that this the hand that they have been dealt with in life. Zielony himself thought at first that boredom was a sign of rebellion, a rejection of hall society has to offer, but that has changed as the subjects taught him a thing or two about their lives, and he in turn gained their trust.
One project called Vele (2010) which depicts the ‘failed’ housing estate of Le Vele Di Scampia in Naples, Italy. It documents the people and the place of this once utopian architecural dream to provide a harmonious living environment and ultra-modern sense of community while addressing the post-war housing shortage. But what transpired was that the local mafia moved in just as the building was completed, which sealed its fate of decay and dereliction while Government officials sort of ‘washed their hands of the situation’.
The Brutalist Megastructures
While contemporary commentators decry these ‘brutalist’ mega-structures from its period, the 1960’s, in fact the design of the place was actually quite advanced. With its suspended or ‘flying’ corridors to allow for more light and air to enter the internal courtyards, it could even be considered high-tech.
The absurdity of the story is this notion that architecture design alone can solve social problems, and the result in this case is a futuristic dystopian nightmare, like a scene from the 1982 cult classic, Blade Runner or The Terminator movies (after Skynet initiated the nuclear holocaust).
It might be a bit dark and damp, but actually if you are a drug dealer, this place is like heaven as no record of people staying overnight or anything happening inside. It is a lawless place but not really ‘failed’. ‘Hijacked’ would be more appropriate. Case in point: for a number of years this building was a hub, the center of illegal drugs distribution for the whole of Europe.
With the notoriety came fame, as documentaries and reality cops and robbers TV shows started to be made here which drove the major drug dealing elsewhere. However the poverty and decay stayed and is depicted with people living on the fringes, struggling to get by. This is different from ‘poverty-porn’ shown on TV which seeks to commercialize the poverty experienced by people in poor countries, where basic needs are not met. These urban poor are often invisible to the rest of society, unseen and cannot be heard.
The artistic intent, I gather, is the same reason why Van Gogh decided to paint peasants sitting in a dimly lit dining room table or an old pair of worker’s boots. For even in these un-glorious scenes, one can find parts of it that relate to our lives. Everyone has been bored at one time or another.
What is evident from these portraits is how much they look like stills from movies. The irony however, is that while they are spontaneous and not staged as in a movie set, the subjects know they are being filmed and somehow put forth a version of themselves for the camera to capture that is not quite fictional but not completely truthful either.
The reality of photojournalism is a subject that Zielony contends doesn’t really exist; that all photographs depict reality in a certain light that is not always truthful. Thus he depicts the subjects in these pictures as ‘characters’ and the surroundings ‘the setting’ in this story.
Whats commendable is Zielony’s ability to gain the trust of his subjects to let him take a picture of them, naturally and without fear or inhibition. It lets their moods and expressions do the talking.
Shown in the 2015 Venice Biennale Citizen (2015) is a snapshot of the lives of all the players involved in the narrative of the refugee crisis in Germany. From the lives of the African refugees themselves to the political activists against having them in the country, it represents a shift from the past artistic structures as the subjects, previously invisible from public view are now the center of international debate and attention. These people are both the marginalized and characters at the center of attention at the same time.
While Zielony previously left the story open for public interpretation, here he invited several African newspapers to write articles about it. The end result of which is to gain a better understanding from the African perspective as opposed to the singular voice of the western mainstream media.