As an image moves: Migrant photography at Museum Ludwig

Matt Hanson

For a new, comprehensive and historic exhibition at the prestigious Museum Ludwig, Cologne’s flagship art museum, a broad collaboration of cultural institutions mounted ‘In Situ: Photo Stores on Migration’

When one of the first guest workers from Turkey arrived in Germany in the mid-1950s, they likely rested their weary head on a single bunk bed. They would have hung their collared black and white shirts on hooks by their side and tacked a couple of photographs on the wall where, while dreaming, they might catch the faint shape of their homeland or a portrait of their beloved in the shared darkness.

One such image opens an exhibition titled “In Situ: Photo Stories on Migration,” a unique, reflexive vista exposing Germany’s postwar socioeconomic reality. However, with the sheer gravity of its direct and unmitigated pertinence as the assimilated but not entirely integrated children of those workers look back and wonder, if apathetically, at a past that is so defining it is as invisible and immediate as a breath of air.

An installation view from Museum Ludwig, Cologne. (Courtesy of Museum Ludwig)
An installation view from Museum Ludwig, Cologne. (Courtesy of Museum Ludwig)

It is part of that utterly common narrative of human experience that has accompanied modernism like its best secret, unkept, since Eastern and Southern Europe spilled over the piers of Ellis Island daily in the tens of thousands, and as millions of Syrians remake their lives amid the crowded and creaking residential infrastructure of Istanbul. Yet, the collection of seven photos that greets the cultured public at Museum Ludwig is hearteningly intimate.

The men and women of Turkey who went to cities like Cologne, fit to work and prepared for an initial long haul of some three years, would have been pictured to propagandist effect by the officialdoms of German promoters hankering for more temporary laborers whose rights hung in the balance of immigration policy. But the show “In Situ” returns the power of representation to the workers, offering more genuine, personalized glimpses of their lives.

Four young men stayed up late one night, now nearly 70 years ago, in a dim room where they would catch up on greatly needed rest after working every day to resuscitate Germany from its cataclysmic, war-torn defeat just a decade past. They became fast friends as they opened sodas and turned off the radio to listen to their fellow bunkmate tickle the frets of a bağlama, a long-necked Anatolian lute generally played in accompaniment to Turkish folk songs.

A shop in Weidengasse, Köln 1975. (Courtesy of Rheinisches Bildarchiv)
A shop in Weidengasse, Köln 1975. (Courtesy of Rheinisches Bildarchiv)

They dressed in suits and painted the town. Germany, battered and shaken, was theirs to enjoy, naively, toward a new dawn for their respective nations. They might have been walking hand in hand on the same road toward a better world. One of the introductory photos centers a woman on a park bench, adorned in a plaid suit jacket and work pants that fan out at her heels. She was beautifying the fashions of the day, in step with her hosts. But she is alone.

Migration in retrospect

The Turkish men who left for Germany in the years following World War II mirrored tales of their ancestors, many of whom fled the Ottoman Empire for America and were lost to its frenzied opportunism. It was usually the wives who stayed behind, awaiting word of their dear departed husbands. Photographs would have served to calm their hearts, even by the slivers of light that they provided, mere hints of another world, which fragmented their young families.

With a close, studied reading, a photograph also points to experiences outside of its frame beyond the visible. In that sense, “In Situ” is a welcome curation surrounded by the formidable collections of art history preserved and exhibited at Museum Ludwig, one of Europe’s proudest museums. While photography today is taken as instantly as it is seen, families of guest workers in Turkey would wait weeks to receive them from Germany.

At the time, the world moved slower, and its distances seemed longer. When a photograph came into the hands of its intended recipient, they might have been looking at the face of a man whose life had already changed, again, unrecognizable. As is evident in exhibited photos, Turkish men did not only go to Germany to work but also to broaden their minds. They traveled to Paris in groups, ecstatic, stylish, posing on the hood of a car, flashing peace signs.

Süheyla (Ruziye) Kocatürk and her daughter Begüm watch an elephant walking through town, probably advertising a circus. (Courtesy of Dengin Kocatürk)
Süheyla (Ruziye) Kocatürk and her daughter Begüm watch an elephant walking through town, probably advertising a circus. (Courtesy of Dengin Kocatürk)

“In Situ” captures a diversity of Turkish life in Germany, including female workers and the children who went along for the ride. Coifed like Hollywood film stars, a lively pair of Turkish women are shown in a candid photo enjoying the prime of their lives, bedecked in flowery dresses, laughing. In stark contrast, tight-knit rows of factory laborers look into the flash of a camera, uniformed. One lady smiles next to a frowning coworker with an aloof gaze.

Aerial shots bring the workers’ dormitories, or barracks as they’re also known, perhaps less invitingly, into full view. These were eyesores of modernist, high-rise architecture. Yet, outside one of them, a man in a suit is happy. It is the day of his wedding. Life just went on for transplants from Turkish society. Ultimately, they were young, and the open border was a boon for their generation, whose factionalized republic was still reeling from the death of its founder.

The scope of “In Situ” is prolific, almost to dizzying effect, as the faded scenes, mostly in black and white, many with aged coloration, exude lives that were as discrete as they are familiar to anyone who has lived in close quarters and known the happiness that comes when living together with kindred souls, bound to a joint struggle, and by the sheer endurance of it appreciating life’s smallest joys absolutely.

Toward the bigger picture

As curated by architectural historian Ela Kaçel and Barbara Engelbach, in collaboration with the Documentation Center and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMID), “In Situ” is not only an exhibition of photographs but of print materials and video archives, featuring extensive interviews and thematic research by which to witness and reflect on the legacy of guest workers in Germany, not only Turkish but from many nations in Southern Europe.

'Italian guest worker children in Walsum', 1962. (Photo courtesy of Ludwig Wegmann)
“Italian guest worker children in Walsum”, 1962. (Photo courtesy of Ludwig Wegmann)

As well as being aesthetic, decorative and artistic, photography has a utility, arguably essential to everyday life, as it secures testimony of family connections. Among guest workers, it was a currency of morale, quantifying perseverance with each moment rendered a little more permanent than that of time’s irrevocable passing in the face of separations that might have seemed irreconcilable to migratory members of Turkey’s more countrified working class.

Interestingly, the curators at Museum Ludwig placed the works of art photographers along with the workers’ amateur pictures. The series “Turks in Germany” (1973-1979) by Candida Höfer is a corollary to that of her concurrent, “Turks in Turkey,” which she produced in Turkey as a kind of guest worker herself. Her documentary photographs have since graced the halls of Istanbul’s galleries, enacting a cyclical vision of reciprocity that remains in motion.

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