Cities as a mirror of the social conditions

Wolfgang Bellwinkel, photographer from Germany with a passion for the Asian region. In a renewed cooperation with the Goethe Institut, Herr Bellwinkel explored Yangon’s downtown in search of expressive house facades.

At the invitation of the Goethe Institut, you have developed the exhibition “yangon backstage”.

Wolfgang Bellwinkel, why did you decide to do a photo series about buildings in Yangon?

I have repeatedly lived and worked in Asia for a long time. I’m interested in cities and their architecture, not least as a mirror of the social conditions of a country. I believe the historical center of Yangon, the place where I took the photos, reflects the status quo in Myanmar very well; the condition and state of an unsettled and at the same time - because of the political changes – euphoric society in transition, a society whose future seems uncertain.
You have selected your motifs mainly in the downtown area.
Did you already have certain ideas or criteria in mind for the subjects of your photos? Or did the buildings attract you spontaneously and if yes, why?

Usually I researched for one to two days. I systematically walked the streets and in the following days took photos of the buildings I thought were interesting. All in all, I worked on the project in Yangon for about four weeks. For the selection I definitely worked subjectively; but I also tried to show a reasonably representative image of the old town. Therefore, buildings from the colonial era appear equally next to buildings from the 90s of the last century. I was interested in “empty spaces”, too, which were caused by the demolition of buildings in the last few years. In my work, I try to avoid valuations. I use a cautious “neutral” pictorial language.
In another interview you said you often ask yourself what relationship colleagues have towards their own photos and topics.
What relationship do you have to your work in general and especially towards the exhibition “yangon backstage”?

As implied before, I’m interested in how people shape their world and to what extent the image of a city can reflect the state of a society. I came to Asia for the first time thirty years ago and since then the continent has never let go of me. The focus of my interest may have changed over time, but the fascination for the region and its unstoppable and extremely rapid pace of change has remained. Myanmar is facing a massive development and change that makes it very exciting for me.
What allusions do the photos of the exhibition “yangon backstage” make; do they have a specific message?

The old town of Yangon is endangered. In the near future, it will either be mercilessly destroyed, as has happened in many Asian cities, or it will gradually be renovated and prettied up. Both will lead to an extreme gentrification. Maybe that’s the message. But maybe it’s just about raising interest for something that a majority of the population doesn’t view as noteworthy. (My impression is that most Asian cultures don’t place much value on that which is old). For me, the photos are essentially about playing with aesthetics. I like this part of the city and its buildings and I definitely see a certain fascination in the present mix of beauty and decay and also, as previously mentioned several times, its symbolism in reference to social conditions.
For you as an artist, is it important that the viewers understand your photos and the intentions behind them? Or do you leave it up the viewers themselves to decide what they take from the photos?

I think both are important. Photos which explain everything and don’t leave the spectators any room for own reflections are boring. On the other hand, photos that don’t give any direction can easily appear to be arbitrary.
The exhibition can also be seen as an inventory. In Myanmar as well as in Yangon much is currently in transition.
Can you imagine returning to the buildings again in a few years to take photos more or less as a comparison and maybe also to see what the transition has brought?

Yes I can. But that doesn’t have to mean showing a sort of before and after of certain buildings; rather more an exploration of the character of that district in a few years.
Maybe we can take a glimpse into the future.

Will your next project draw you again to Southeast Asia? Where does your preference for Asia come from; or, to put it another way, why do you not find inspiration in Germany, for example?

Most of my projects develop in Asia, which doesn’t imply that I don’t find any inspiration in Germany. It’s just that I find that Asia - a region which is still developing very strongly; where certain processes occur at unbelievable speed; where many things are still unpredictable; where there are still mysteries; - is at the moment more exciting than Germany. After the work in Yangon in the summer of 2015 I photographed in Sri Lanka. It was a work that dealt with the mass murder of the Tamil during the last months of the civil war; and yes, the next project will again be in Asia.