Text by Arielle Bier / Photography by Pascal Rohé 

Tobias Zielony’s photography blurs the boundary between documentary, art and fiction. His recent work deals with the personal stories of African refugees who risked their lives to cross borders and have arrived, yet often remain alienated from their destination. In his work, migration becomes a metaphor for tragedy, and a question is raised as to whether there can be real objectivity in journalism.





Following up on his exhibition in the German Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale, I called artist Tobias Zielony for a studio visit to find out more about his most recent work on refugee activists in Hamburg and Berlin. His first message was friendly and succinct, “My studio is near Checkpoint Charlie”. Apropos of a conversation related to contemporary border politics, this seemed like a fitting place to meet. Checkpoint Charlie was the infamous military checkpoint
between the former East and West Berlin. Now, it is a tourist destination surrounded by adventurous groups whizzing past on Segways or pedal powered beer bikes. The border patrol station still stands, above which is a doublesided billboard displaying photographic portraits of handsome clean-cut soldiers in full army regalia.



If it weren’t for their representative medals and badges, the historical significance of these figures nearly melts away into their latent anonymity — like vintage baseball cards picked up at a yard sale whose faces, names and team uniforms are hard to place without a trained eye.

I met Zielony here at an Italian café and quickly retreated to his light filled studio, situated high up in the rear courtyard of a converted industrial building. Zielony is a hulk of a man with Nordic blonde hair and icy blue eyes. He has a gentle
demeanour, exuding a level of sensitivity and care that embraces the circumspect world around him with a desire to know the unseen and lend support towards honest aspirations. Through his photography and video work, Zielony visualizes an alternate history, capturing the everyday life of ostracised, marginalised and undocumented communities claiming, “This is equally important as everything else.”




His latest project, The Citizen (2015), which is currently on show in Venice, adds a new conceptual dimension to his image based work by including collaborations with writers and publishers of various African newspapers. Over the past year, Zielony has been following and photographing a select group of African refugee activists who are key figures in Germany’s refugee rights protest movements. “These are real activists!”, Zielony states , referring to the brave individuals who have risked their own lives to traverse European borders, and are battling to find their rightful place as asylum seekers and citizens. Throughout our conversation, Zielony consistently uses the word we when describing the development of his own work. It is a heartening testament to the collaborative aspects of his working process, and to the photographic subjects, writers and assistants who helped manifest The Citizen.

In an effort to reverse the direction of Western journalism, Zielony sent his images to assorted newspapers and writers in Africa. He then commissioned the chosen authors to write articles about the widely unknown stories of the refugee struggles in Germany, and pitch the articles to their own local newspapers. Only basic information was provided with the images — short texts, articles and links. The authors were encouraged to narrate the stories in their own voice and interpret the information as they saw fit.

Zielony also requested that the articles be published with the newspaper editors’ free
interpretation and selection of his images. “In the beginning I didn’t know what would happen. My goal was to publish one article. That’s how the idea started. Then things developed from there. There are people working within the refugee groups that are interested in the same thing because they also see a lack of information in both directions. For the Biennial, I thought
I could at least bring up something that is really important in Europe and in Germany at the moment. I really tried to focus on the situation of refugees within Germany. While most artists go to Lampedusa for example, I really tried to look at what’s going on here and how badly treated the refugees are here, in Germany. If the governments really wanted to do something, it would be so easy to help the situation for people by makingit easier to study, to work, and live a normal life. But they do the opposite. They try to make it as difficult as possible.”

With around sixty images in the series, recurring characters include activist Napuli Langa, who is known for climbing up into a tree for four days to protest the eviction of the refugee protest camp on Oranienplatz in Berlin; Ahmad al-Nour who participated in the occupation of the Gerhart-
Hauptmann-Schule; and also an active group working out of a left-wing cinema in Hamburg. 


“I tried to avoid the pictures that you would normally see. My work is about people who try to fight to become more self-determined political actors. Which is not saying that all the people are like that. Maybe it’s a minority, but I thought, that’s a very positive story to be told, both in Germany and in Africa. In this way, you avoid victimizing people, and also try to avoid only looking at them as passive people coming here over the borders.”

Having spent a significant amount of time within these communities, Zielony describes himself as an active supporter of the movement, and speaks about the characters with whom he’s been working with a deep respect for the courage they have as proactive agents of their own lives. When asked about how he got in touch with everyone, he said, “It was through friends, and since all of them are activists in a sense, they are easy to approach because they are in the news all the time and they give interviews and think about the picture they want to send to the world – maybe not so much the picture, but the message. It wasn’t difficult to get in touch, but then again, people are very critical. They want to know what your idea is and what you are going to do. For example, we showed some of the newspapers to a group from Sudan and they thought it was pretty amazing to see that. And they also thought it was important. They said, to show pictures of protest is already a political message in Sudan, even though the protest is in Germany. Normally, there is such strong censorship in Sudan that you wouldn’t show pictures of Sudanese people protesting anywhere in the world.”

A total of eleven articles were published across the continent in countries such as Sudan, Senegal, Cameroon, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria, with texts ranging from factual reports to narrative short stories and critical think pieces. Once printed, the final newspapers were sent to either Berlin or Venice to be presented in their entirety within specially designed display cases so that audiences could see the complete context within which the articles and images would appear. “My pictures appear in a context that I cannot control. So we create something not quite readymade, but something real, printed somewhere else. It tells a lot about the place people are coming from.”

Early inspiration for the newspaper format came from seeing artist Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History (1977-2003) series where she would gather daily newspapers from around the world, and selectively delete the text in order to highlight visual associations between the images. However, for Zielony, his approach works with the opposite effect by trying to pack in as much
information as possible, allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions from the ambiguities of the pluralism of mass media.



 “With The Citizen, there is not one story, but many stories, and each one can be told in different ways. There is also not only one truth that can be told. During the project I had this pool of pictures and a lot of pictures ended up in newspapers that were not on the wall, or the other way around. Then these pictures started circulating. The idea I had was that the picture itself doesn’t have a meaning yet, that the meaning has to be produced each time it is used somewhere or printed and put in a certain context. So it’s just a possibility or a potential. I really think there is no truth out there. It always has to be constructed.”




With this project Zielony has found an accessible way to visualize the repetitive functions
of global image culture, and also challenge assumptions about how images can, or should be read by opening up the conversation to all of the voices involved. When prompted on his opinion of finding empathy in his work, he states, “Maybe there are ways empathy is even produced by pictures, or you are meant to feel empathy. I’d rather think it is something you have to be left alone with, to confront a picture or maybe a person in a picture without people telling you what to think or what to do. In a sense, you create a space that is not determined straight away by ideologies, or information.”

After leaving Zielony’s studio and returning to Checkpoint Charlie, I thought back on his words and how his work is a reminder to look and read deeply — to reconsider the wavering voice
of authoritative “Truth”.