In the middle of Berlin, people build temporary homes out of their own ruin, spontaneously putting up a facade and then warming the rooms with their stories.
I’ve been going to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz once a week since the end of April 2010. It is here that those whose lives have gone off the rails gather to meet: Those who have become different, often without even meaning to, and who are unable to cope with society’s established patterns or accept its rules. Some are punks, and some have adopted a different protective identity. Others would draw no particular attention in a normal street scene except that they appear to have a lot of spare time. Many are homeless, or even without shelter. Time and again a few are taken into custody. Some take drugs, and all of them drink heavily.
What happens when it becomes too great to bear a family’s immediacy, or its loss? When apathy, violence and sometimes even emotional neglect harm your own life? Or if you want to find yourself steady on a path where others have failed? Then you react to the flight reflex and head out into the wider world.
For many, the wider world is Berlin, and Alexanderplatz is the place where runaways, vagabonds, thrillseekers and the stranded form a community. Here they meet with others who have had similar experiences, and who sometimes offer them the first survival tips or even a place to stay for the night. Most are very young. Some are only thirteen and have already run away from home. Only rarely do you encounter anyone over thirty.
Life on the street is different, sometimes more dazzling, but often more brutal than what the normal citizen experiences. Children grow up quickly and adults are soon old. The scene in the shadow of TV tower exerts a strong pull on all those who approach it. An external lack of prospects in the efficient society, accompanied by desolation within, ensure that life’s volume-control here is jacked up to the full, with the distortion produced sounding something akin to a song. The people change and adapt themselves to the new conditions – become louder and harder so as not to break again.
The circumstances of the working world are remote here, and the people of Alex often do not even fit into the systems of social welfare. For me, homelessness is a condition that only applies in exceptional cases when sleeping under the bushes. Yet being destitute is one’s own homelessness in a world that one no longer understands. It is the absence of societal references, as well as the severing of connections to people, their rules and their rituals that have been deemed meaningless and empty. Anyone who has suffered an extreme experience, often early on and at the hands of a trusted individual, can have a lack of confidence in the world that others might call normal. As such, one looks to the other castaways at Alex, taking on its rules because they are transparent, and where an ambush is rarely attempted. Alexanderplatz means protection, even if blood occasionally flows here.
They hug you when you come to Alex. People come because they do not want to be alone. As a result, they are more open to strangers than one might expect. When I am here, it is often from the afternoon until late in the night. I’m here with my whole person – not only as an observer but also as a participant. I drink with them, and many tell me their stories. They sit down beside me – the one who listens and sometimes afterwards does not know how to deal with the knowledge of this life. I trust a few, usually the older ones: the thin Meph with his understanding look, Jennis with her gruff warmth of heart, Paule the punk who now comes only with crutches, Jule the BPD sufferer whose heart flutters in the wind, and René the quiet one out of jail. What I experience here is often confusing and rarely clear. To understand the circumstances would require a prior knowledge of the stories that no one here can have. Only the effects are visible, while the causes remain in darkness. But that does not seem to bother anyone.
I rarely see the stories that are told to me in the portraits that I photograph. I cannot capture a true picture of the dirt, the violence and the emotional scarring that dictates the lives of many here. It is too complex, this reality. Pictures are only pictures, and in the best case they belong to their own reality. I am aware of this, and that is why I also write texts. I make abstract and transform what I find at Alexanderplatz. Nevertheless, an equally valid picture forms of the scene, because it is through the process of detachment that the process of questioning is expanded. I can reveal no truth, and do not wish to lift a veil. I want to show something.
My portraits concern the restoration of dignity. I want to expose something in the pictures – something often considered hidden: inner integrity, self-consciousness and also beauty. Beauty, where one hardly expects it.
Alexanderplatz is not just a place. It is a condition not easily revealed to the passerby. That a unique fate lies behind the faces here is often not perceived by the passerby, since you do not look in the face the one who asks for small change.
‘Not being alone’ is the lowest common denominator. Someone is always here. The days pass, and time makes little difference. It is often impossible to arrange to meet. Tomorrow? That’s alright for the moment. But the day after next?