The Ravens of Berlin (Part I)

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The official symbol of Berlin is the bear, there is a bear on the flag and there are 6ft tall colourfully painted bears all over the city. I love bears, and I think it is incredibly cool that they are the official animal of Berlin. However, for me personally the true animal the represents Berlin is the raven. This is partly because they are ubiquitous, you see them everywhere whereas bears are disappointingly absent, and partly because they reflect the character of the city far more closely.

Corvids, ravens and crows, are fascinating and incredible creatures. Research has revealed that they are capable of tool use, forward planning and problem-solving that far exceeds that of the higher apes and even human children. In addition, they are capable of recognising allies and enemies…and communicating that knowledge to their fellows.

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These findings should not come as a great surprise though, ravens have long been characterised as clever, cunning, and even prophetic. The most famous ravens are probably Huginn (thought) and Muminn (memory) who belonged to Odin and brought him knowledge from other worlds. In some of the myths of the indigenous peoples of North America the raven was a trickster god who is “also a keeper of secrets, and can assist us in determining answers to our own ‘hidden’ thoughts. Areas in our lives that we are unwilling to face, or secrets we keep that harm us – the Raven can help us expose the truth behind these (often distorted) secrets and wing us back to health and harmony”. A similar story is told by traditional Siberian cultures.

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To me ravens symbolise using cunning and cleverness to survive and thrive. I had my raven tattoo done several years before moving to Berlin was even a possibility. He was supposed to be a celebration of success following an academic milestone, but things did not go to plan and I suffered a large setback. I still got the tattoo though and now it represents my perseverance and determination. Ever since I got him I take comfort in seeing ravens, and they do seem to appear consistently when I am feeling unsure about the future…maybe they know more than they let on!

Ravens match the identity of Berlin brilliantly, they are not glamorous or sleek or (unlike bears) majestic. With their grey ‘suit’ jackets they don’t even have the svelte all black look of Western ravens. But they are survivors, they are brave and clever, and they a willing to try anything once. I used this last quality to do my first ‘manipulated’ photography. By this I mean I changed the situation to get the shots I wanted. Up until yesterday I have been a reactive photographer, my eye saw an opportunity for a photo and my camera tried to capture it. This worked pretty well, one of my best shots was of a raven by the sea. But the ravens are mainly present in the morning here in Berlin, and because I was feeling unwell this weekend I left it too late in the day.

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Raven releases the inner raptor!

So how to get some ravens to come near me? Give them an offering of course. So I went out with some slightly out of date veggie salami and it worked great. I found a pair of ravens in the park and got them to hang out with me for a bit. In fact, I rather over played my hand and gave them so much that they flew back to the nest…smaller amounts next time!

My love11259431_10153045777303649_803687878471047758_n-e1518358442959.jpg of ravens mean that I will certainly be doing a second and even third part to this post, but for now I will always have my raven with me.

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The Tale of Two Berlin Women

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Street Photography benefits from context, the fundamental idea being to tell a story about particular people in a specific place caught in a moment in time. This is even more true in Photojournalism, of course. One of my goals as an amateur photographer this year is to become better at Street Photography, Patrick even got me a book on it for Christmas. So I went out last weekend in the cold for 5 hours and photographed the streets of Berlin. One of the photos I took is above.

Apart from the rookie error of having my ISO setting too high and this causing it to be grainy, it is an interesting photo. I successfully captured the emotion on the woman’s face, the blur of her hands give the shot a kinetic energy, and the ‘figure-to-ground’ rule is obeyed i.e. she stands out from the background. It is, however, utterly lacking in any context. There is no indication that this is Berlin, and we have no insight into the reason for her emotional state. I could caption the photo, perhaps make it part of a photo essay …which I was tempted to do before I decided to write this instead! I will reveal the context behind the shot shortly, but first I want to address why the photo with no visual context might be problematic.

I could leave the photo simply as an image from which people can draw their own interpretations, that would be a perfectly legitimate way forward. Nevertheless, as I said at the start, if the point is to tell a story about a moment, and since this blog is about Berlin, then the question is – does that image tell a story about Berlin?

Imagine, instead, that I caption this ‘Angry Muslim Woman on the Streets of Berlin’. That is not inaccurate, but it is political. Both because I am choosing to emphasise her anger, rather than her passion, and because I am drawing attention to her religious identity, rather than simply her gender or even her nationality. Given the issues of populism and far-right extremism that beset Europe currently that would be a decidedly provocative decision.

Incidentally, while the AfD (Alternative for Germany) made gains in the recent German national elections (Sept 2017) by playing on fears of an influx of Muslim immigrants, I have found Berlin to be a very ‘white’ city. Coming from Leicester which is incredibly diverse and has a huge Indian, Pakistani, and other South East Asian population, the contrast is very marked. There is a large Turkish population in Berlin, deriving from a deliberate invitational immigration strategy by West Berlin in the 70s; but nonetheless most people you see each day are caucasian Europeans, though by no means German (so many Americans here!).

The trouble with this photo is that it can be used to represent a wider concept of ‘Angry Muslims in Berlin’ when in fact it is only representing a specific woman on a specific day. The real story is that she was one of the organisers at a protest march for regime change in Iran, presumably hoping to put pressure on the German government to influence this in some way. They weren’t primarily angry with anything in Germany.

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In this photo (left) we can see the context, and thus understand far more about the human in the first photo. We need to understand her because humanising people is the antithesis to fascism, cruelty, and prejudice. And Berlin’s history should serve as a reminder of the importance of doing so.

So does that mean a photo should never be devoid of context? That the subject of a photo cannot stand alone? Of course not! For a start that would erase all Portraiture Photography and a huge swathe of close-up style Street Photography. In addition, sometimes a person does not need context because they so singularly communicate a sense of themselves or the world around them.

I saw this woman on the U Bahn and to me she embodied an aspect of Berlin.

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In fact, she bares a passing resemblance to Anita Berber, a famously decadent cabaret dancer in 1920s Berlin. To me the woman in this photo can stand alone, because rather than it dehumanising her, I think she humanises Berlin. Photographs do not exist in a vacuum, and as such it is important to ask what story they tell. To answer the question posed earlier, yes both these women are part of the stories of Berlin. It is a city in which women have been at the forefront of political protest and of sexual freedom, decadence, and style. They both help tell the story of Berlin, but I think it has to be told in a way that connects us with each other, rather than alienates us – and that is the responsibility of the storyteller.

 

Fear and Joy: New Year’s Eve 2017

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Since moving to Berlin with Patrick in October there have been some anxious moments; cycling in traffic on the opposite side of the road in an unfamiliar city, going to do our Anmeldung (registration) and hoping we had enough German to manage, or locking ourselves out of our apartment 2 hours before I had an operation on my foot! However, last night it did get just a bit more scary because New Year’s Eve is genuinely dangerous in Germany, and particularly in Berlin.

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One of the New Year’s Eve traditions in Germany is to make loud noises to scare away demons and bad spirits. This has evolved into a chaotic free-for-all involving huge amounts of fireworks and firecrackers (think Purge Night but for pyromaniacs!). Fireworks are very hard to get hold of for most of the year in Germany, but between the 28th-20th they are very widely, cheaply, and easily available. And everyone takes advantage and buys them in bulk. On New Year’s Eve there is roughly 10 hours of fireworks, between approx. 6pm and 4am, with the majority being around midnight of course. The festivities include rockets fired from bins, or off balconies, or lobbed horizontally, as well as Roman Candles on every street corner, and firecracker ‘wars’. Several people get badly hurt or killed each year.

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We knew all this beforehand, but nonetheless it sounded like it had to be experienced at least once. So we headed off into the night, heading for a bridge near the Reichstag where you could see the official fireworks (the ones on the news). A lot of people had the same idea, but we found a spot. I had real struggle getting the shots I wanted, really the best way to get fireworks is with a tripod and some space – not handheld while dodging random fireworks going past your head!  The official fireworks were indeed very beautiful and majestic. The walk home took a while since every 20 feet we had to cross the road to avoid random groups who were lighting rockets on the pavement. We tried to avoid the park near us since someone was literally making a bonfire of fireworks, only to be confronted with a huge rocket exploding at eye level on the Rosenthaler Platz junction…spectacular but terrifying.

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Strangely though, there couldn’t have been a more fitting end to 2017 for us. We pushed through our fears and took a risk in order to do something exciting and joyful. The move here was scary yet brilliant, but you have to be bit braver if you want to be in Berlin.

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