Europe’s identity is rapidly changing. Immigrants and refugees from all over the world, most recently from Syria and Africa, are bringing their lifestyle and culture with them, and white Europe, as it has been for many centuries, is gradually evolving into a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural continent. The process of change is not a smooth one. Danish artist Martin Thaulow challenged the concept of European identity with diptychs that show the hard-to-conceive contrast between the safe, urban Danish life and the heart-breaking reality of refugees. His artwork is a part of the Copenhagen Photo Festival, starting from June 18th, in the open air.
Martin Thaulow created the photo series Home is where the heart is for the IDE, Identity Dialogues Europe, A Creative Europe project, where he has been one of Copenhagen Photo Festival’s artists in residence since 2019. The photographers in the project were asked to document Europe and evolving identity. Martin explains this via Skype from his home on the Danish island Bornholm: “I heard the proverb from a Croatian refugee in Germany, where he was expelled. I asked him where he lived, and he answered: ‘Home is where the heart is.’ It made sense to use this as the title for my project.” The first diptych of the project is quite dramatic. On the left, you see a typical home in the evening of a nondescript neighbourhood in Denmark and on the right, you see Maher, a Syrian refugee, lying in the hospital, high on morphine. Thaulow says: “He looks like he is dead. I met him in the hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria. He had been trying to cross the border to Turkey to get back to Istanbul, where his youngest daughter, who has Downs Syndrome, was due to go through urgent heart surgery with a high risk of death. Maher therefore tried to swim the freezing river of Evros, but failed. Miraculously, he survived eighteen days in the wilderness in Bulgaria, but lost one leg, and four toes on his other foot, as a result of frost damages.”
Dignity and respect
Thaulow deliberately combined these two photos, and says he does not want to use photography as a truth-telling medium, but as a story-telling medium. He wants his photography to be truthful, but he merges documentary with the construction of more artificial space, with the telling of people's stories at the centre. He explains: “It is more of an artistic choice and play with time, space and the parallel realities existing. A way of making the contrasts work in correlation, and at the same time enforce each other and the overall message. The safe home, with warm lights and a television running, seen in relation to Maher trying to survive, going through a tremendous struggle in life since the war started in Syria. Seeing him in pain and struggle in relation to the Danish home is a way of triggering and making us reflect on our reality in relation to Maher's. At the same time, the home represents what Maher dreams of and fights for in trying to get to Europe, and the family he is separated from. He had something similar before the war started, and lost it. The home is something the most [here] take for granted. I want to address this, and at a subconscious level question this, and let people know we can't take things for granted. It can change.”
Thaulow continues to explain the differences between the lives of refugees and the safe lives of the Danish people. “Since I started working in relation to people who are displaced and their situation, I have seen the consequences of destruction, war crimes, brutality and human despair…I can't even explain the scale of it. This has broken my heart several times. We in Denmark live in a very secure life. In this political climate, people start to look at refugees as unwanted people. Denmark has sent more Syrian refugees back than all other European countries. They lost the appeal case, and luckily failed. Most people think: we have a safe life here, so why even bother about refugees?”
The diptych series Home is where your heart is represents for Thaulow a way to make people reflect and set life in perspective, in relation to the stories and the contrast in which he presents them. He would like to see it as a wake-up call for the people around him. “The mainstream media never show things in relation to each other. What I have learned doing these projects for the past five years is that we are more connected than we can imagine. I feel this connection when I meet people at the border of Syria. What we do here in Europe, and the decisions we make, has a direct effect on those people there. One of the underlying messages in much of my work actually points out this mutual human connection. If you look at my portraits, you see that I take them at eye level. I did a study on how the media portrays refugees, and mostly it was from above, without dignity and respect.”
I want to tear down barriers and make us look at each other.
Empathy and understanding
Since 2014, his body of work has centred around the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East. Thaulow is deeply involved in documenting the situation and telling the stories of displaced people, both as a photojournalist and art photographer, and as an activist. Globally and in Europe, we have been in the process of closing in around ourselves. Politically, the right-wing is growing, violence in language and society has by and large been legitimised, and separation between citizens has increased. As the Guardian wrote in 2016: “On one side are liberal internationalists, attached to fundamental asylum principles or the dream of a borderless world; on the other are xenophobic fence-builders who see migration as a modern version of barbaric invasions threatening culture and civilisation.”
Does Martin Thaulow want to promote more empathy with the refugees? “It is more than empathy. It is empathy and understanding. Normally we have them and us. I want to tear down barriers and make us look at each other. Asking ourselves what we can see in ourselves when looking at each other. So actually, you reflect on yourself in what you see in the other. From there, you start to ask questions and to work with yourself. I am fortunate that I was born in a rich country and that I am not lying in a hospital with one leg cut off like Maher. Having this awareness, that it could have been me, makes me feel it is an obligation to do the work that I do.”
Art can open the mind
Starting in a darkroom at school at the age of twelve, Thaulow learned in his early twenties the craft of fine art painting as an apprentice in the studio of a conservator and fine arts painter, in the Academy of Arts in Mexico. Later, he went back to photography, after years of making film for the industry and video art installations with media from other fields, such as dance, ceramics and ballet. “Today, I feel I’m painting with the camera, as it is so closely related. During the course of nine years, I learned the old crafts of painting. I could spend half a year on the same composition, and studied painters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt and all of these old masters, and learned to understand the way art works. I was brought up with classical music, and got involved in a range of collaborations with other media and artists. This made me see the visual-form language as a mutual language, talking to other forms of art. If you make architecture, film, painting, music, or photography, you speak basically the same language. It is a matter of learning to master your tools enough to be able to speak freely and with your own personal signature. Using art, one can work with people’s perceptions and reach other and deeper levels. It can make a shortcut, crossing people’s normal barriers and protection against today’s constant bombardment from all sides. Art can open the minds of people, so they can feel and sense what is going on in the world. Art brings the reality, not only to your intellect, but also to your emotion. I see myself more as an artist than a photojournalist or a videographer. In fact, some people refer to me as a Swiss knife, as I am skilled and work in so many professions.” Martin Thaulow’s inspirationdoes not come primarily from photography. “Of course, I look at contemporary and classical photography, and I can be excited and inspired by others’ work, but my inspiration is deeply rooted in the painters I have studied throughout my time as a painter, such as Velasquez, Rembrandt, Bonnard and Cezanne. At the same time, I’m finding great inspiration in a range of different media, such as ballet, modern dance, film, science and music.”
My work is political, but at the same time deeply cultural.
Fear of the unknown
Could you call Thaulow’s work political? “My work is political, but at the same time deeply cultural. After my divorce, I got married to Rawan, who fled the war in Syria, resulting in living in between two cultures. My marriage also affects my professional work. I am reflecting on how western and eastern cultures differ, but also how they resemble each other in many ways. I see my work as a comment on society. I want to make contributions that create reflection and generate understanding. I hope it can, to some extent, break down barriers and create a broader understanding. When I hear of refugees trying to cross the border from Turkey to Bulgaria, I would be willing to go there and wait for as long as it takes to make an encounter. I would walk the same path and sleep the same places. This is to understand the situation, and be able to covey a story like this at a much more profound level.” The ever-asked question concerning documentary photography is whether it could have a voice in the political arena and change people’s minds and, as such, change the course of history. “I believe you can’t change everyone, but if you don’t try, you fail. One of the most important things of today is not to turn your back to the growing right-wing and fear-based policies. There is a global tendency towards fear of the unknown or foreigners. If we ignore this tendency, it will grow, gain strength and establishment, and then history will repeat itself. In this context, you might say that I am not only an artist but also an activist. I am a global citizen, learning from life. I want to learn why the middle-eastern culture is so interesting, and why are there so many clashes between them and us. I ask questions to the world with my camera.” Thaulow does not separate himself from the subject, as he involves his own life experience in his projects. “When I travel to places in Jordan and Lebanon, and portray people that live in misery, it has a relation to my own loneliness and pain from the past. Of course, I also have had my difficulties in life and in childhood. This is my way of healing, and getting something positive out of life.”
 Refugees aren’t the problem. Europe’s identity crisis is, by Natalie Nougayrède
Martin Thaulow(1978) is a Danish based photographer. He lives in the island Bornholm. He is the CEO & founder of Good people, visual Communication bureau with clients such as Amnesty International, Danish Red Cross, DanishRefugee Council, The Danish Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP), DUF (DanishYouth Council), Copenhagen University.
Exhibitions 2020 (coming) MIA Photo Fair(MILANO, IT), Copenhagen Photo Festival (DK), SI FEST (SAVIGNANO, IT), BFoto -Festival de Fotografía Emergente (Zaragoza, ES), New Metropolis Nieuw-West(NOOR IMAGES, NL), ‘Postcards from...’ (TOUR, DK)