Rory MacLean meets Göran Gnaudschun
'My first camera was a Perfekta II given to me by my father,' Gnaudschun told me when we met near Alexanderplatz where he shot his exciting and historical photographic series. 'At the age of six or seven that Bakelite 6x6 box camera taught me how to concentrate, for example by limiting me to a single roll of film - twelve images - for a whole summer holiday. From the start I concentrated on family portraits because people are so much more interesting than sights. I'd print the pictures at home in our bathroom. I loved that magic moment under the red safety light when, all of a sudden, the image appears. That has always fascinated me.'
In Kleinmachnow near Potsdam Gnaudschun trained to be a hydraulic technician and went on to study structural engineering in Berlin, but the freedoms that came with the fall of the Wall were too great to resist. He became a guitarist in a punk rock band, joined Potsdam’s squatter (Hausbesetzerszene) scene and – with the many late nights – began to miss his early morning engineering lectures.
'I always fell asleep in them until I decided that it would be healthier to stay longer in bed. In truth I couldn’t imagine becoming a site engineer or working in some administrative capacity. My experiences with punk rock and squatting had taught me to question, to try to do what I wanted to do, and the idea of the archetypal artist's life appealed to me. I wasn't interested in the question of how to make a living back then.'
Gnaudschun attended Leipzig's Academy of Visual Arts publishing both before and after graduation his first two books Longe – 44 Leningrad (1998) about the everyday life of an East German punk band and Vorher müsst ihr uns erschießen (2001) on the squatter’s scene.
'Most of the other students were also from unconventional backgrounds. It seemed that anything was possible in those first years after the Wall came down. Many of us had switched careers at least once before arriving in Leipzig.'
Above all it was Gnaudschun's portraits that captured public attention, due to his ability to catch raw, transitional moments in his subjects.
'When I shoot a portrait, I try to generate a certain calmness,' he explained. 'I encourage the person to let go, yet to remain present. I try to minimise my own presence, yet try to find a moment of harmony with the subject. We sit opposite each other for a while without talking much, then I simply start to photograph away, I take photo after photo to invalidate the so-called defining moment, because any moment could be defining. There comes a point when people no longer mind, they simply stay as they are. Often the really exciting things that happen are unseen and non-verbal, in the background.'
In early 2010 Gnaudschun began to visit Alexanderplatz every week. He wanted to meet – and photograph – the young men and women whose lives – in his words – had 'gone off the rails'. He was interested in people who had 'become different, often without even meaning to, and who are unable to cope with society’s established patterns or to accept its rules.'
What happens - Gnaudschun asked himself - when family troubles, apathy or violence leads a young German to run away to the wider world?
'For many of them, the wider world is Berlin, and Alexanderplatz is the place where runaways, vagabonds, thrill-seekers 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…'
Over time - by returning to give away prints of his portraits and with his street cred as a former punk guitarist - Gnaudschun won their trust and began to capture snapshots of their lives.
'Whenever I am there – which is always until late at the night – I'm there with my whole person, not only as an observer but also as a participant. I drink with them, and many tell me their stories: the thin Meph with his understanding look, Jennis with her gruff, warm heart, Paule the punk who now comes on crutches, Jule the BPD sufferer whose heart flutters in the wind, and René the quiet one out of jail. My portraits are about 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.'
Gnaudschun also tells their stories, in words. As a younger photographer he had wanted every image to be complete, with no need for explanation or even a caption. But at Alexanderplatz he felt a need to write down the exchanges and experiences, which have now been incorporated into his latest remarkable book (available in both German and English). He discovers that for many of these young people Alexanderplatz is the place where they are not alone, as well as where – despite occasional violence and a tragic, exceptional murder – they feel safe.
Gnaudschun's Alexanderplatz has been exhibited at Berlin's Haus am Lützowplatz, bautzner69 in Dresden and the Städtische Galerie Neunkirchen and – in spring 2015 – will travel to Munich's Stadtmuseum. In recognition of his work he has received a DAAD travel grant, a Lotto Brandenburg Art Award and the prestigious scholarship Stiftung Kunstfonds. As well as developing his own new project, Gnaudschun today is collaborating with his wife, fellow photographer Anne Heinlein, on her project Wüstungen ('Deserted Areas'), mixing archive and contemporary photographs of homes, farms and even whole villages that were expropriated or razed by East German authorities during the building and strengthening of the Wall.