INTERVIEW WITH STEFAN HANKE
Mr. Hanke, for your project KZ überlebt (Surviving concentration camp) you’ve depicted 121 survivors of Nazi concentration camps. How did you decide upon this theme?
I was born in 1961 in Regensburg, and in my childhood I occasionally heard threats about a place called “Dachau.” Whenever I asked about what happened in Dachau, people would fall silent. My questions about wartime also remained unanswered, even in school. When I was 17 I hitchhiked for the first time to the Dachau Memorial, looking for answers, and I captured my impressions with my camera. Later, I displayed the pictures at school – my first photo exhibit.
What happened later?
I made the first portraits in 2004 and spent the ensuing years intensively preparing for the KZ überlebt project. I did research and visited former concentration camps. From 2010 to 2014 I traveled to seven European countries and photographed 121 survivors. My path took me from Rome to the Ukranian border. Most of the portraits were taken in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
Which groups of concentration camp survivors did you contact?
It was very important to me that the portraits should represent all of the persecuted groups that were still around. From my perspective, there’s no hierarchy of victims. A large number of my protagonists are of Jewish ancestry, but I also have portraits of Sinti and Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, political prisoners, and prisoners who wore the black triange, to mark them as “asocial.” I was especially concerned with the fates of those who were doubly persecuted. Unfortunately, there are no portraits of homosexual prisoners in my work. Even though I managed to contact one of the last survivors, he died shortly afterward. Often my work is simply a race against time.
What is the concept behind your project?
First of all, I don’t regard KZ überlebt as a documentary project. Rather, I interpret it as an artistic encounter with the survivors, conducted through the means of photography. The choice of composition and location reflects the history of the survivors in a brief moment. Each portrait is paired with a quote taken from the person’s biography, and a caption provides additional information about the creative process. These building blocks result in a narrative cycle out of which symbols and metaphors have developed. For instance, there’s the portrait of the physician Leon Weintraub, whom I photographed in front of the main tribune at the Nazi Rally Grounds. As a survivor of the camp, he didn’t feel like a victim, but a victor. Or the picture of Pavel Stránský, from Prague, who leans against the dock in Court 600 in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where leading representatives of the National Socialist regime had to answer for their crimes. Mr. Stránský still wore his wedding ring, which he had had before being transported to Theresienstadt. His love for his wife and the hope of seeing her again—along with some luck—helped him to survive the camp. Love, as he said to me in this historical courtroom, is the most important thing in life.
You depict 121 survivors with what are, at first glance, the same 121 life stories, going from “before the concentration camp,” to “in the concentration camp,” and “after the concentration camp.” Was it difficult to avoid a kind of automatic reaction in your work?
I don’t squeeze people into prefabricated “victim” molds. Instead, I approach each encounter in a new way, and with empathy. The second step is not to present people as mysterious. There is not just one type of “survivor.” That doesn’t do justice to either the people or the individual suffering they endured. I prepare myself thoroughly for each meeting, by obtaining as much historical information and knowledge about the places and their relation to the survivors as possible. The survivors should be able to tell their stories without having to explain themselves a great deal first. By the way, I never follow a fixed plan for my portraits. Instead, I leave room for spontenaeity and creativity. Afterward, I sort out the results of the interview and photos and in this way each entry in the book takes on its own aspect, its own thoughts.
Besides the book, are there also exhibitions?
From the start KZ überlebt was planned as both a book and an exhibition. The first portraits were shown in 2013 at the German Bundestag, and in 2014 some of the pictures from the series were shown at the Kunstmuseum Solingen and the Bavarian state parliament. In early April 2016 the exhibition in the Czech Republic opened at the Theresienstadt Memorial, and it will open on July 15, 2016 at the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg. It’ll also be shown at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in Poland in January 2017 and will open in Regensburg in March 2017. Other shows are planned for Pilsen and Prague.
What are your expectations for this project?
I’d like to answer this question with the dedication from my book: this book is dedicated to everyone who has been persecuted by totalitarian systems, and to future generations, who I hope will vigilantly continue to oppose any kind of tyranny.