A catch up Feature with Christina Stohn

Tell us how this body of work came to the surface. When did it begin and what were your inspirations? Höllental und Himmelreich, which translates as ‘Valley of Death and Kingdom of Heaven’, is about tradition, folklore and religious beliefs in the Black Forest, a region in south west Germany. I grew up there, but then moved away for a decade to study photography in London and Bremen. I began the project under the working title Paradise Lost during my studies at the University of Westminster around 2012. When I returned to my home country, I had the urge to document these once familiar surroundings based on a feeling of distance and displacement. I used a minimalist approach in which landscapes void of people, and captured in foggy conditions, created a sense of mystery. At that time I drew my main inspiration from Hiroshi Sugimoto and Nadav Kander. As part of later research, I was inspired by a number of photo books relating to the Black Forest, especially Interieurs by Thomas Ruff, Einmal im Jahr by Axel Hoedt and Cuckoo Clock and Cherry Cake by Anne-Sophie Stolz. However, I did not set out to create a body of work in the style of any specific photographer.

From the series  Paradise Lost

From the series Paradise Lost

Did Höllental und Himmelreich further your decision to study in Bremen? I remember seeing the exhibition Landmark: the Fields of Photography at London’s Somerset House in 2013. This impressive show provided an overview of 21st century landscape photography featuring more than 70 international artists. However, one specific piece of work resonated deeply with me: Heimat_31, Schwarzwald by Peter Bialobrzeski (2004). It showed a vast snow-covered scenery in the Black Forest with tiny human figures populating the foreground. I instantly felt a personal affiliation with it, bringing back memories of winter trips in my childhood. This imagery made me strive further to make a real project in the Black Forest, my native soil. I distanced myself from empty landscapes and became interested in the relationship between people and place, a new venture for me. Then I found out that Peter Bialobrzeski, a professor of photography, ran the Master’s studio ‘Culture and Identity’ together with the graphic design professor, Andrea Rauschenbusch. This studio combined both my interests: photography and design and so I decided to leave London to study at the University of the Arts in Bremen.

ChristinaStohn_HöllentalUndHimmelreich.jpg
 
ChristinaStohn_Thesis.jpg

Tell us about the Black Forest. Why is this location important to you? The project results from my personal experience of growing up and living in the Black Forest. When I came to live in London I began to see things I had not previously been aware of. The Black Forest is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Germany. Tourist clichés and ‘Heimat’ films carry associations of an idyllic life in unspoilt landscapes and nature. I have always been annoyed about this idea of an ‘all-encompassing idyll’ and never connected to it. So my series is a bit of a challenge to everyone expecting these kinds of stereotypes. Even though high-tech companies are located in the area, village life is steeped in tradition across the generations. Seasonal festivals and religious processions are celebrated and centuries-old customs show no signs of being forgotten. These customs have also become commercialised and established for tourism and I find it interesting to pose questions concerning their significance within our more plural society.

From the series  Höllental und Himmelreich

From the series Höllental und Himmelreich

What have you learnt from making this work? To be honest, the journey has not always been comfortable. I have had quite a few arguments about both content and aesthetics of my work. Over the years my image making process has developed. I now follow specific methods and I am really happy that I found a visual vocabulary to express my views. I have started to trust my instincts, no matter what others say. It is impossible to please everyone anyway! Producing this work has also taught me to be patient, as it has already taken a few years of going back and forth. When it comes to editing, this process is quite challenging. I have to be ruthless to edit my images and it takes time for the narrative to start fitting together. Seeing the work progress and strengthen is very rewarding.

Installation shot of  Höllental und Himmelreich

Installation shot of Höllental und Himmelreich

Tell us about your written thesis which accompanies this body of work. What was your main focus and why? In my thesis I critically analyse the German term ‘Heimat’. It is a complicated construct, which can translate into English as 'home', 'homeland' or 'native region'. The notion of ‘Heimat’ combines the ideas of a place of origin, a sense of belonging and identity. However, the concept carries both positive as well as negative connotations.

I took one semester off in Bremen to attend classes at the University of Freiburg given by the cultural anthropologist Werner Mezger, a specialist in south-western German regional culture. The university library offered extensive research material on the term, which is centuries old. My goal was to reach a historical understanding and examine its varied cultural manifestations. Nevertheless, after a year of researching the idea of ‘Heimat’, the negative aspects of the term still troubled me.

In my thesis I refer to academic sources by writers, scholars and politicians and juxtapose their definitions, contrasting one quotation with another. The introductory quotation is by author Martin Walser (1968). It reads: “Heimat, das ist sicher der schönste Name für Zurückgebliebenheit.”, which translates as: “Heimat is certainly the most beautiful name for having stayed behind.” But I enquire whether the term is still relevant in an increasingly globalised world. The plural form ‘Heimaten’ is rarely used. Given the increase in mobility and migration, I query if the term still refers to one specific location.

From the series  Höllental und Himmelreich

From the series Höllental und Himmelreich

'Heimat' sounds really interesting and you've mentioned it can't fully be translated into English. Can you describe to us what connotations this word has and how it relates to your work? ‘Heimat’ has spatial, political, social, cultural and emotional connotations. Etymologically, the term is based on the Germanic term ‘haima’, meaning village or home. However, over time it has acquired multiple and problematic associations. In the 18th century, ‘Heimat’ was conceptualised as a space of identity and origin. Throughout the Romantic period ‘Heimat’ echoed a sentimental longing for homeland. The ‘blood-and-soil’ propaganda by the Nazis brought ‘Heimat’ into dispute. Most recently, the term has experienced a renaissance in the political field: the Home Office has been renamed the ‘Heimatministerium’.

In my work I have always questioned how to approach regional customs. Structures, which help to create community, like tradition and local practices seem to contribute to the stabilisation of a sense of home. Factors like language and religion form collective ties. These are symbols of togetherness but also delineation. On the one hand, repetitive customs serve to preserve tradition and culture, but on the other hand they are from a past era. ‘Heimat’ is supposed to be familiar to us. Because of my experiences abroad, my perspective on the Black Forest region has become one of alienation from these once familiar surroundings. Now ‘Heimat’ becomes something artificial, like a stage set in a theatre.

From the series  Höllental und Himmelreich

From the series Höllental und Himmelreich

What are your plans for the near future? Short term, in April I will join my former fellow students and professors from the University of the Arts in Bremen on a field trip to Sarajevo. As every year, each of us will work on a different concept on the city and we will then publish an artist book from all our work.

I cannot see myself finishing Höllental und Himmelreich in the near future. There are still more locations and events to go to. However, I have got a lot of material already so it is my goal to make a second edition of the book. The first edition as part of my graduate work was quite expensive to produce so I would like to make a different version, which can be made available to a wider audience.

I exhibited a selection of images during our degree show. Given the opportunity, I would like to show the series in its entirety, so I am hoping to have a solo exhibition.

I have currently started developing a new long-term body of work in the region of Freiburg.

Other than that, I am looking into grants and artist residencies. I would love to have the opportunity to make more work abroad.

I am splitting my time between personal projects and commissioned work and am currently working towards getting more editorial stories as a freelance photographer.