Being Human – Menschsein
What we all share – what is unique about me
“To photograph” – an intransitive verb
The French philosopher Roland Barthes once said that all artists share a special devotion to their art – and photographer Yvonne Salzmann is no exception. Barthes referred to any form of art as ‘an intransitive effort’, citing verbs such as ‘to write, to paint or to photograph’. Not that these activities don’t lead to productive results – quite the opposite, as this catalogue quite clearly and successfully shows. The remarkable thing about this devotion is that it has no other purpose other than itself. This absolute self-reference – not navel-gazing, but pure intrinsic motivation – is what sets art apart. This self-taught photographer is the best proof of wanting nothing more than to devote herself to photography, and to subordinate everything to this devotion, for which she is prepared to go to great lengths.
This year’s prizewinner requires us to take a stand, to not simply look at her work, but deal with it openly and candidly. Being Human – Menschsein seeks to provide fresh impetus. One of the reasons the theme was so broadly chosen is so that, from the beginning, no one can choose to have a point of view outside this perspective. As humans, we have to deal with our human-ness. We cannot evade it, because even to say nothing is an opinion. The question of who and what we are, can’t not be answered, since what we do, what we allow to be done with us, and what not, always expresses our understanding of our self and of the world. By behaving and acting, we say who we are and want to be.
What we all share
The artist chooses two ways to approach us. At first glance, and this is a sign of good art, these two approaches don’t have much to do with each other. We see a suite of pictures in which people literally ‘monkey about’, ‘pig it’ and expose themselves, defenceless, to the starkness of life. On the other side we see pictures from all over the world. Yvonne Salzmann mailed cameras to every corner of the Earth and asked people to photograph themselves with what is important to them. What looks like a kaleidoscope at first glance goes deeper when we open ourselves to the second glance, i.e. by looking for the connection, the commonalities that the artist has in mind.
Yvonne Salzmann wants (us) to think about people from two directions: there are the images that show us as naked as we were born (except for the masks). These images are intended to build awareness and challenge us. The German title “Schwein gehabt” is a play on words. Transliterated, it means “had some pig” – but in its idiomatic sense, it means ‘got lucky’. The latter is very apropos because really there is no reason for the superiority we assume. Far from being the ‘pinnacle of evolution’, man is no more than a separate offshoot of natural evolution, one that shares a large part of his gene pool with many other animals…so ‘had some pig’ in fact applies as well.
Yvonne Salzmann appeals to us to acknowledge that the relationship between humans and their non-human or extra-human nature is vulnerable.
We use our plant and animal world to our advantage – and lose sight of the big picture. Where does it stem from, our conviction that we have the right to shape this world according to our wants and our will? In her response, Salzmann doesn’t stand still but has the monkeys inspect the cultural achievements, as well civilizational legacies of human beings. We see them in places or with symbols of our culture: in libraries, at the theatre, in church or as a creation myth, but also simply crossing the road (with an askance glance at politics) and at the junkyard.
What is unique about me
And this is the second approach that Yvonne Salzmann has chosen. Each one of us is worth taking a closer look at. What do we as individual humans make of our options? Life in all its emotional wealth is spread out in front of us? This dance of humanity gives everyone who wants to an opportunity to show what is important to them. Yvonne Salzmann wants to provide inspiration and impetus and asked as many people as possible to provide a visual answer to the question: “Who are we and what moves us?” It is our feelings – how we experience them, deal with them, talk about them and tell of them – that set us apart from the animals.
What do we do with our humanity? What makes each life so special? At first glance the photos seem familiar. Newspapers and magazines run images like these when they want to stage ‘people like you and me’. Here, too, the difference is revealed at second glance. In periodicals, these pictures often look like decoration. They serve the media as a cliché, to stage a picture that ultimately only caters to your own opinion. Yvonne Salzmann’s images reach us where words don’t make it through. These are images that people took of themselves, they didn’t ‘offer’ themselves to be taken, but ‘staged’ themselves. So the pictures also tell stories of their own that can be listened to and looked at. Stories of moments of great happiness, everyday encounters, family pride and things that are – quite obviously – worth showing.
As Ute Maasberg wrote about ‘Zwischenwelten’ (In Between Worlds) a photo series about traveling circus artistes, part of which is reproduced in this catalogue: „It is a project that is close to the people, to the questions of how these people live, what their wishes are, how they handle their daily and work routines, and how they treat each other, as a family and as a team.”
Telling a meaningful tale of self
And then there are the pictures of the highest intimacy, that show Yvonne Salzmann in a position of supreme vulnerability, the kind that only good, devoted artists are capable of. To so ruthlessly bare oneself to the image as form demands tremendous courage and deserves the greatest respect. Many of us would have disappeared into ourselves at such moments and would have revealed nothing. But the artist wants to tell us of this sombre moment and creates ‘static images’. Impressions that refuse to let go, but instead stick fast. She lets us participate in a sensitivity that is hardly to be surpassed in its intensity.
Which leaves, at the end, a series of pictures that deal playfully with the expectations placed in a woman’s role. Here, again, it quickly becomes clear that the search for identity – how can I make sense of myself – is the heart of the matter. What at first looks like just another cliché opens our eyes to the real world of women. In addition to the biological roots we all share, there is also a social generality in us, which we must deal with if we wish to find and assert what is unique about us.
The purpose of a mask is to hide oneself – but sometimes we also hide behind a façade. The word person comes from the Latin ‘per sonare’, to ‘sound through’ something – in this case the individual emerging from – coming through – the mask of generality. The individuality of each person, the hidden core of their personality, what is special about them – that is what Yvonne Salzmann stages with such forcefulness and respect in her pictures. To genuinely interact with them is to learn a lot about oneself and about how we humans tell a meaningful tale of our selves and our dignity.
Dr. Stefan Wolf
Gastprofessor an der HBK Braunschweig
Soziologe und Philosoph