A conversation between Roger Eberhard, Tobia Bezzola and Danaé Panchaud
On the occasion of the exhibition Human Territoriality at Photoforum Pasquart, artist Roger Eberhard, art historian and director of MASILugano Tobia Bezzola and curator and director of Photoforum Pasquart Danaé Panchaud met to discuss the complex relations between landscape, photography and history. It should have been a public event but due to the pandemic, it was turned into a written conversation.
Human Territoriality is Roger Eberhard’s latest project. For over three years, he researched and photographed former border sites around the world. The apparently perfectly serene images stand in a dialogue with texts recounting the major and minor historical episodes linked to the photographs — often tragic, sometimes innocuous, and sometimes surprisingly peaceful. These places reveal an incessant need for demarcation between oneself and others in successive human societies.
Tobia Bezzola: Roger, do you remember if there was one key moment when you formed the idea for the whole project, when it all came together? Was it one of the sites, or a book you read, which inspired you? I’m also interested to learn how you made it possible, since it’s a complex project. You had to do extensive research, and then you had to travel, which is expensive and requires planning.
Roger Eberhard: I came up with the initial idea in 2015–2016, when the American election campaign was gaining steam and Trump was constantly talking about his border wall. My first idea was to do a project on the former border between America and Mexico, from the time when parts of what is now Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and all of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, were part of Mexico. Ultimately, only one location of this border is featured in the book, the part of the former border that ran along the 100th Meridian between the Red River and the Arkansas River. While doing research for this potential project, I came across fascinating border treaties and border changes, and I realised that the project could have a bigger impact. Only then I expanded it to a worldwide project following ancient borders criss-cross through the history spatialised politics.
TB: Can you tell us more about your interest in this topic? About how you focused on a historical phenomenon, which is no longer observable, and which you attempt to make somehow visible.
RE: This is exactly what I set out to do. I wanted to show the fluidity of borders and decided to photograph places where borders used to be in order to talk about what will eventually happen to the current ones. When you look at the last hundred years alone, the number of nation states increased from 50 to over 200, and today, there are still 200 to 400 nations without a state of their own. The cartographical puzzle will continue to evolve and be altered. I tried to visualise the potential future of our borders by showing what has already changed. This was my strategy: looking back in order to give a forecast.
TB: In some pictures, the image does show us discernible traces of the border as it existed, while in others, nothing at all is visible. How did work around this situation?
RE: I had initially planned to show relics of borders, but it became almost immediately clear that in some instances, I would see no trace at all of the border. I then considered focusing primarily on landscapes that lack any remnants, while still including images of famous former borders, such as the Great Wall in China, or Hadrian’s wall. Ultimately, I wanted to photograph places that have ceased to have the importance that they once had. And when you look at current borders, for the most parts, they run through the countryside; they cross places that don’t really have any significance — except that a border runs through them. And obviously, when the border moves or shifts or disappears completely, these places become once again places of no significance, or at least of no political significance. For the same reason, the photographs in the project are completely devoid of people, while borders primarily influence the lives of people. I thought that this would also emphasise the absurdity of our desire to have fixed borders.
TB: How would you say that, in this project, the political interest and the photographic aesthetic come together? It’s landscape photography, but it isn’t actually defined by parameters that would traditionally measure a landscape, as your approach is a political one. What is the result? Do the photographs concern historical knowledge or are they readable solely as landscape photography?
RE: I think that it might have shifted during the three and a half years that I worked on it. I never considered myself a landscape photographer. I don’t come from landscape photography and in the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve not worked on a single project that I would consider landscape photography. Human Territoriality started off as a political project, with the idea of attempting to visualise the fact that borders will change and disappear, and countries along with them. I chose places to photograph that each had specific episodes attached to them. But the more I photographed, the more I became intrigued with landscape photography, and the more it became a more important aspect of the project. For instance, at the beginning, I only planned a couple of days for each photograph, and in the end, I always planned a few extra days in case the weather or light wasn’t good enough. So there was a transformation in my approach. I was still trying to get the same point across, the concept remained unchanged, but I really started to enjoy photographing again. Photography to me had always been a means to an end. And all of a sudden, I was really appreciating the process of being in these landscapes and photographing them.
TB: Does this also mean that there is not one particular image that was the key where it all started, that served as a matrix to the whole project?
RE: The image of the 100th Meridian is a key image to me. This is where the project began; this is the first former border that I wanted to photograph. It’s not the first image that I made, but it is the first image that I knew I would take.
TB: How did you make the project possible? Did you receive a grant, or was the project paid through the book?
RE: The gallery I work with in Berlin started very early on to sell prints. Just three months after I photographed the first image, we started selling works during Photo London in 2017. In a way, it wasn’t ideal, since some of the photographs were sold out before the book even came out, but it was necessary to raise the funds for this project. Patrick Frey, the publisher, financed the book and he was very supportive of the project.
TB: But you had to finance the project, to fund the travel and the research.
RE: I applied for some grants, but they fell through, but at this stage I was already too involved into the project to back out.
TB: Did you make the project alone or did you have an assistant?
RE: For some images, a friend came along and once or twice, my partner did. But I mostly worked alone.
TB: Now, as you mentioned, in the course of working on it, it turned into more of a photographic project, in a certain sense. Could you describe the method you use to frame these landscapes? I wouldn’t say that they’re standardised, but it’s clear all these images are part of a single project.
RE: My photographs were actually very determined by the location, which I chose from my studio in Zurich. I started with around 15 locations that I wanted to photograph, and then the list grew longer and longer with each photograph. The research leading up to one photograph gave me two new leads for two new locations. Now when it came to making the images, I didn’t really have a lot of leeway while being on site. I researched the locations extensively prior to travelling via Instagram, FlickR or Google Maps. This helped me get a sense of how things would look like on the ground. Once there, I usually tried being on location before sunrise, being patient, and redoing a photograph if the first images didn’t work out. But, still, I was very limited to the places that I researched. This was actually the hardest part of the whole process: I needed to look through old maps and find locations which I could be absolutely certain were the exact location of a former border. Obviously, some were very easy, such as the inner German border or the Bến Hải River, which marked the border between North and South Vietnam. But trying to find the border and the exact location for something from the 17th century was extremely hard, and I was always very happy when I came across a definite point that I could photograph which was bulletproof in terms of the concept. And then I set out to make them the best image I could there.
Danaé Panchaud: I think that your work has an almost anthropological aspect. It often starts with a story that you can tell in one or two sentences. But then it goes beyond that, in the sense that your project is not strictly an attempt to document it. Human Territoriality, for instance, is not only about border changes. You find an interesting story and then you unravel it and set out to find out how we ended up here and what beliefs and values are behind it. I think that’s a constant in your work.
RE: I totally agree.
DP: You often say you’re not a landscape photographer, but also that you’re not a documentary photographer. Can you tell us more about your position as a photographer?
RE: I’m comfortable saying I’m a landscape photographer, much more so than a documentary photographer, as I am not bound by the rules of documentary photography, if there are any, or at least not those of journalism. Even though this work is very journalistic in some aspects — for instance, I wrote all the texts of the book, which are a very big part of this work, and I had fact-checkers go through all of them — but I chose the anecdotes. I chose the locations and the point of view. It’s an archive of places where borders used to run through but it’s not the total number of border changes. There’s nothing definite about it. It’s my own personal selection.
DP: You work a lot by stripping down elements. There are no people in the photographs. You chose places where you have as few traces of history as possible. Not all of them, but maybe half of them, have no traces of the former border at all. You chose to have a single image for each location — some of them are diptychs or triptychs but together, they form a single image. Could you explain how you developed this strategy? Because I think sometimes there is a tension between the documentary aspect that remains important, and an attempt to not give in too much to the documentary part.
RE: I impose the meaning on the viewer, which is something that documentary or journalistic photography probably shouldn’t do. I completely assume the fact that I’m not objective and I try to entice people to engage with the work. I am trying to find stunning places within that limitation that I gave myself. I reduce, and my work is edited — not heavily but, for example, if I don’t like a tree, I’ll take it out. In that sense, my work is not documentary.
DP: What kind of feeling or thoughts did you want to provoke in the spectators?
RE: I want viewers to understand what I was aiming for, my initial intention for the work. And I want them to engage with the texts in the exhibition. The way in which they are presented on the walls signal that there are important. The visitors can immediately see that it’s not just the title and the dates, and people do take the time to read them. The images are enticing enough for them to engage with the text. The visitors look for traces of what they just read, and they only read the text because they enjoyed looking at the photograph in the first place. The image never gives you everything. So, you see a photograph and you know that you’re not seeing everything.
DP: One element I would really like to hear you about is how can contemporary images shape our perception and our understanding of history. I think there’s always — maybe we can call it a temptation — to give a reading of history, to influence the way we perceive it, the way we feel about it. We’re undeniably going to be influenced by images in our understanding of history.
RE: Obviously, this question hits home. Of course, I look at past situations with a contemporary eye, as they are no longer a reality. I think this is at the very core of my project. Could I make visible what I did without the texts, by showing only the images? Let’s take aside the ones where I photograph the remnants, the ruins. Once you take that out of the equation, it becomes quite a delusional task to photograph the past. But I think at the heart of it is also the idea of what a landscape is, right? How the past tense is visible in the landscape, as it is constantly in progress and never fixed. So, I’m trying to visualise it, all the while being aware that photographing the past is almost bound to be a failure. But still, it’s a photograph, it conveys a narrative. Even if there are no traces, you can talk about the fact that nothing has left traces there. The present of past borders is their disappearance, and the current ones will probably follow suit at some point soon.
DP: I think we discussed it already during the preparation of the exhibition, but French philosopher Sophie Lacroix wrote in her book about ruins throughout art history, Ce que nous disent les ruines, how, in some particular moments of art history, the ruin is not about the past at all, how it is a prefiguration of the crisis and the disasters yet to come. I think that your images are working in a similar way.
RE: At least it was my intention, and if they do, then they succeed.
TB: It’s not far-fetched. In visual history, in Europe particularly but also maybe in China, a landscape, like history, is always being made, but usually it’s on the same image. The contemporary landscape is basically a context for any history painting. Maybe the first directly comparable approach that we might find where landscape and history get put into this relationship is in the 18th and 19th centuries, where we find paintings of battlegrounds, or large history paintings, which do not show us particular mountains or lakes, it’s a rather non-distinct one, but it gets his meaning by the fact of that history. I think it’s this tension that is opened by the two concepts. To what extent is the landscape historical? Is it also subject to historicity or, to an extent, it is not? I think that’s why it’s maybe so fascinating, because we see, on the one hand, that landscape is not affected in the end. Nature will not be affected by history, but to a certain extent, in certain ways to look at it, how do landscape and history touch and how get into conflict and into tension and into interactions, for instance in this image in India.
RE: I’ve been fascinated by this topic for quite a long time. I did a project where I photographed a former concentration camp in Western Ukraine, in Lemberg (or Lviv as it’s called today), where 150,000 people were murdered. Today, that very house that used to be a concentration camp is now a five-star hotel. I photographed the views from the rooms. Behind this project is the idea that the function of this building has changed, its whole meaning has changed, but the view out of those windows has remained the same. The view onto the landscape has remained the same. I lived in Berlin for a very long time, and obviously if you live in Germany, every building has a history that affects the understanding of this place. On the other hand You can argue that the building itself is just a vessel and whatever reading is being put into it can also be taken out of it. In Berlin you have a fancy hipster hotel that used to be the main house of Hitler Youth, the Nazi organisation. There are so many places in Germany that have this sort of loaded history, but society, just like nature sort of moves on but these vessels remain. And how do you look at those? I’ve been fascinated by these issues for quite some time now, and it pops up in my work every now and then. Sometimes knowingly, and sometimes because I’m simply drawn to it.
DP: There’s one thing that I tell my photography students when we talk about narrative in photography. If you go to the cinema and watch a Hollywoodian action movie, the plot is very easy to follow. But if you stop and start really looking at it, the plot falls apart and you realise all the parts are actually not all that well connected. And there is something a bit similar going on with Human Territoriality. I have a clear idea of the story, or what I’m looking at, but when I get a closer look at the stories, I realise that they are all very different. They are different in nature, in the timespan, far apart geographically. But unlike in an American blockbuster, here the story holds. And I’m interested to know what makes it still a coherent narrative from all these bits and pieces that come from very different histories.
RE: I think that it’s our understanding of the subject matter that fills the gaps. I think that we, as viewers, have experienced borders and are aware of the narratives surrounding borders, so that we can fill those gaps. There are probably more gaps than anything in my project. It doesn’t attempt to be complete. It’s my personal selection. I tried very hard to show the absurdity of borders and their effect on societies by choosing sometimes really random places, such as this ski lift that used to be in Italy and which is now in Switzerland. This project has a tremendous number of holes and gaps and I think maybe it works actually because it has so many gaps. I allow people to fill those gaps with their own ideas and experiences.
TB: One important element that we have not discussed so far but which helps us understand the project are the maps [in the book]. Can you maybe tell us more about them, because maps are between image, word and symbol? They’re an important element of the narrative in the book. Could you tell us where you situate the map, between caption, text and image?
RE: I think that the first effect of the maps is to make the story more real. They put it back into the realm of reality. I designed all the maps, as indicators of a timeframe and to increase the readability of the work. They weren’t initially my idea. Very early on, I showed the project to Patrick Frey, who would end up publishing the book. I had maybe 10 photographs at that point. He asked straight away: “But you also have the maps, right? They are extremely important. I want to see the maps, see where the borders are now, but also to see the former borders drawn on the maps.” I told him I couldn’t draw the borders, because I could not do it with a satisfying degree of precision. I was reluctant initially, because of this but also because I thought it would make it too concrete. But Patrick was very insistent, and I started embracing the idea. And now, looking back, it seems obvious that they are a crucial part of the project.
The exhibition Human Territoriality, curated by Danaé Panchaud, opened at Photoforum Pasquart on 19 September 2020.
The catalogue is available from its publisher, Edition Patrick Frey.