Uneasy Scenes

In 2015, Germany accepted more than a million people fleeing humanitarian crises into the country, far exceeding the response of other European nations. The Guardian reported that their reception consisted of masses of volunteers but also “daily clashes in refugee centres, a rising far-right, a backlog of registrations and dissent among the ranks of Angela Merkel’s government.” Born in former East Germany and now based in Berlin, Georg Kussmann (b. 1989) set out on foot to capture the zeitgeist of that summer in 2015. He travelled across key cities – from Mannheim and Essen to Hamburg and Munich – picturing scenes of everyday life, work and leisure. Below the surface, there’s an unsettling sense of discontent and the threat of violence rooted in different responses to social, political and economic pressures. Sometimes these feelings are overt, like the harsh graffiti scrawled across building walls. FRG – the abbreviation of Federal Republic of Germany – brings his work together in one thought-provoking photo book.

Juxtaposition is evident throughout this volume. On one page, we see the back of a person sleeping on a bench. The following image presents us with a group of swimmers in a pristine lake. It seems like a happier scene, filled with bright orange arm bands, blue skies and lush greenery. Kussmann presents a stark contrast between those who can choose to be outdoors and those who cannot. Nevertheless, there’s an unsettling edge to even the moments that look completely carefree. For example, a forearm and hand obstruct our view in the swimmers’ shot. It dominates the scene, hanging limp and out of focus in the foreground. Kussmann often disrupts harmonious scenes in this way. Later on, we see basketball players through the blurred, diamond-shaped holes of a wire fence. On the front cover, only the houses in the background are discernible whilst the street and shrubbery in front are shrouded in darkness. 

Elsewhere, unease is far less subtle. Three dog walkers are brought together by their angry pets that face off in the middle of a park. A few pages later, we meet a cyclist holding onto her bicycle. Around eight, heavily armoured police officers occupy the background. We see two men in another striking shot, one faces away from the camera and leans in towards the ear of the other – who looks at us over a bouquet of plastic-wrapped roses. His expression is impossible to determine since the flowers obscure the bottom half of his face. Nevertheless, his tensed eyebrows and bloodshot eyes draw us in and prompt a number of questions. Is this an expression of anger or sadness? And what is the cause? Many of the hardships we see can be linked to various factors: the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the growth of far-right populism and reactions to the open border policy. Kussmann intentionally refuses to provide a clear answer.

These are not the photographs you would see accompanying headlines but a selection of everyday moments and ambiguous emotions that betray an underlying sense of discomfort – one that’s difficult to pin down. Kussmann presents us with glimpses into a country struggling to understand itself during unprecedented times, caught between the weight of the past and the demands of the present.

Georg Kussmann: FRG | MACK


Image Credits:

Georg Kussmann, from FRG (MACK, 2024). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.