by Clare Shearer
“Many tell of the war before their doorstep but also tell of
persecution, injustice, discrimination against women
and no opportunities, training or jobs. Some had experienced
death directly to their relatives or friends.”
— Vitus Saloshanka
A photographer based in Frankfurt, Germany, Vitus Saloshanka is originally from Minsk, Belarus and relocated to Germany in 2002. His photographic work focuses on built landscapes and how their populations, centers and boundaries are reworked due to political or social upheaval. Saloshanka’s 2014 book, High Hopes, a photographic study of Sochi, Russia preceding the Winter Olympics, was shortlisted for the 2014 Rencontres d’Arles Book Awards. His current project, New Citizens, which features intimate portraits of refugees living at a camp near Saloshanka’s home in Frankfurt, is showing as a large-scale public art project throughout Frankfurt.
A photographic study by Vitus Saloshanka, New Citizens focuses on refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea who are living indefinitely in a camp outside of Frankfurt, Germany, waiting for asylum. Saloshanka befriended them, taking close-up portraits that focus intimately on the individuals who lived through the tragic refugee crisis, which swept Europe beginning in 2015. A public art project also entitled New Citizens. [Neue Bürger] features his large-scale portraits hung from buildings across Frankfurt.
This spring in Frankfurt, Germany, large-scale portraits of refugees drape over the faces of multi-story buildings, old and new, as part of a public art project by photographer Vitus Solashanka called New Citizens. His subjects come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea and have fled their countries to seek asylum and a new life in Europe. The show’s title and intimate, close-up photographs are optimistic, boldly welcoming new faces into the fold of German society, but the reality leans toward ironic: Solashanka’s subjects are not yet citizens. Many are still unsure of their fate in Germany or elsewhere. They are currently housed in a camp on the outskirts of Frankfurt in a series of mobile homes, where some have lived in limbo for over a year and a half.
Once meant to be temporary accommodation, the camp has since become a sort of self-contained unit that coexists with the city, though starkly disparate. Solashanka lives in the surrounding neighborhood and began to notice this sharp divide between his daily life and that of those stuck inside indefinitely, hoping for the possibility of asylum. “I regard this fence as a physical as well as a symbolic boundary between societies,” he tells me over email. For many months, Saloshanka watched the camp’s atmosphere fluctuate as refugees, many of whom are families with children, oscillated between hope and anxiety. “There are people with whom I had great empathy,” he says. “I wish their problems could be solved quickly, but it is a very long way, sometimes with very bitter experiences. Some are frustrated, some are satisfied… That inspired me to discuss this subject myself.”
In his project New Citizens, Solashanka approached the terse realities of displacement at a more personal level—he began to visit the camp in his Frankfurt neighborhood and meet the people who lived there. “It was important to be there and talk to people without necessarily keeping a camera at hand,” he says of his process. “After seven months, I could make the first recordings…. Many had simply been afraid.” He began photographing those he met close-up and without context—poised, human and alone. Avoiding the “mass media image,” he says, “I wanted to look at people as human beings, to present them as individuals first.” With close-cropped portraits, he frees his subjects of “generalizations and victimhood.”
“I wanted to look at people as human beings,
to present them as individuals first.”
— Vitus Saloshanka
What Saloshanka describes as the “mass media image” has intermittently commanded headlines since 2015, when Europe began to see its worst refugee crisis since World War II. Refugees were often photographed in the context of crowded, makeshift camps or braving journeys through the Mediterranean on dangerous, overloaded boats. These images and stories shocked the world, with the height of public outcry marked by the tragic, now-indelible photograph of a small boy in a red t-shirt dead on the beach. An outpouring of empathy and aid clashed with fear of terrorism and economic concerns—could Europe handle such a massive, sudden influx of people from different cultures? If so, how?
Many advocated for full assimilation of refugees, who fled a range of situations including civil wars, human rights atrocities by authoritarian leaders like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, or terrorist groups spreading across the Middle East, namely ISIS. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany offered to take in refugees with open arms, and over a million asylum-seekers arrived in the country alone. With this commitment, Germany has shouldered much of the weight of the crisis with humanitarian intent and Merkel’s constant refrain, “Wir schaffen das” or “We can do this.” But since the initial influx, there are thousands who wait indefinitely to know what their future holds, with camps similar to that in Frankfurt still spread across Europe.
Now, nearly two years later, as countries like Germany—among others including France, Greece, the UK, Austria, Hungary, Norway, Sweden and Finland—still struggle to house and integrate refugees, many wait to overcome administrative or policy hurdles. None of it is simple; none of it without huge stakes. But Saloshanka seeks to refocus the image of the immigrants away from the tragic, recasting them as real people and, hopefully, real citizens.
Saloshanka is not a native German himself, but moved from Minsk, Belarus in 2002. As he talked and worked with the refugees, he heard their stories and began to understand the precipice on which they stood—a break between their livelihoods, families and places of worship at home and the lives they hoped to lead in Germany. “Many tell of the war before their doorstep, but also tell of persecution, injustice, discrimination against women and no opportunities, training or jobs. Some had experienced death directly to their relatives or friends.”
The public art project of New Citizens seeks to spread this discourse of understanding and welcoming cultural differences “to the widest possible public and continue to develop it there,” Saloshanka says. His work unfurls like a new kind of flag over the facades of Frankfurt, one without a country’s symbol or designation but that signifies the welcoming of new faces into the city. For Saloshanka, the series is “an attempt to lead this dialogue. I believe that art has an indirect effect on society… My idea is to play with another perception.” The German title of the project, Neue Bürger, Saloshanka says has a “different connotation” than New Citizens. “It also means taking a lot of responsibility for the society, which is not the case for the immigrants. Their status has few possibilities.”
The most interesting and fraught part of the process, according to Saloshanka, was photographing women “because their culture forbids this” or often men “decide whether the woman is allowed to be shown.” These cultural and religious differences often surround the use of a headscarf, which one woman working on the series decided to take off for her portrait. This deeply impacted Saloshanka, who says that “the emancipation of the woman is a big story” and one that he will “continue in this year.”
“It has been an approximation process for myself.
I now really see these people with other eyes.”
— Vitus Saloshanka
New Citizens marks an aesthetic break from Saloshanka’s previous photographic work, which focuses on the edges of built landscapes and those who live there. But thematically there is a through-line of commingling people and place and exploring how the two lend themselves to one another. His recent work includes High Hopes, a three-year photographic study of Sochi, Russia that documents the city and its people as they prepared to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The series highlights the process of transformation that proceeds such a massive, global event, as well as the glimmers of change coming to a younger generation of Russians. An allusion to the grand ambitions and expectations that enraptured Sochi, High Hopes zooms out to capture massive overhauls and construction, juxtaposing colorful scenes of nature against built landscapes, with keen attention to those living in its midst.
Saloshanka’s next project will focus “on the North-Eastern border areas of the EU.” He explains, “Until recently, this area formed a cultural and political entity. I want to explore the border areas of the former Iron Curtain, visualize changes and find out what characterizes today’s EU border.” Examining boundary zones and the intimate human impact when borders are redrawn, Saloshanka will continue to mine changed political and social landscapes to highlight subjects caught in limbo: the displaced, the unrepresented and the resilient. Of New Citizens, he says, “It has been an approximation process for myself. I now really see these people with other eyes.”