Images of Myanmar Herlinde Koelbl

Photolectures Herlinde Koelbl
© Herlinde Koelbl

What memories do you have from when you first got into photography?

I am an autodidact and taught myself how to photograph. When I first started engaging with photography, I knew straight away: we have found each other. Photography found me and I found photography. This is a feeling I have carried with me to today, and which I still experience as a feeling of happiness. It allows me to do what I love and what gives me a sense of fulfillment.

You already had children and were in your mid-30s when you took your first steps in photography.

This can also be an advantage, because you don’t need to shake off any role models. You don’t need to cast off anything, and can thus quickly develop your own distinctive approach, your own signature. You figure out what suits you.

Where would you situate TARGETS in your overall work?

TARGETS is a very important project to me. Together with Jewish Portraits and Traces of Power, I consider it one of my principal works. I worked on it for six years, to really get into its depths and look at it from all perspectives. In the end, what is left is the essence of the subject. It is about a kind of spiritual deepening and shows us something fundamental about our society. What does the enemy look like? How are soldiers conditioned to encounter a certain kind of enemy and, if necessary, to kill them.

It is also about fundamentals of history: about violence, death, aggression, and armies as political means. TARGETS is a unique project in the sense that many of the authorizations have meanwhile become impossible to obtain. A window in time has closed for instance in the Ukraine, in Poland, in Russia, in China, or in the United Arab Emirates. At times I had to wait for up to four years to get permission from the various authorities.

The medium of photography means…

…to explore the world and see things that usually remain unseen. It is a deeper glance at the world, its events and people. It is a possibility to inspire others, to excite them and to expand their worlds.

Which photographic philosophy is behind your works and especially behind your project TARGETS? What does My View mean to you?

Everyone sees the world differently. My gaze is my perception. Perception is a key experience, it diversifies things, deepens, changes, so it sees beyond the superficial. It is a fundamental curiosity, to allow oneself to engage with people and things. That moment, when you commit yourself to the world and its encounters, reveals a broader profundity of experience.
To examine a subject from different perspectives requires deep reading, in order to gain a better understanding of culture and history. It allows me to not only see the moment, but to extend my gaze beyond it to the origin of my subjects.

…in a way an expression of artistic modesty towards one’s own perspective, which will not and cannot be universal.

It is impossible for my perspective to be universal, everyone sees something different! There is no absolute. I see the world in a very specific way. One must never forget that how we see the world is determined by our own characteristics and backgrounds. There were and are cultures where things stand for the opposite of what we see in them today. We are shaped by our present culture. Many years ago obesity was considered a symbol for wealth and prosperity. This has been completely reversed. Culture shapes and conditions us humans.

Could it be argued that of all the arts, photography gets closest to the real world?

So far the photographic world has mirrored what we see. However, nowadays something is changing. Especially in artistic photography there are few pictures which have not been digitally edited anymore. This should not be underestimated.

For TARGETS you went to places where civilians and women are a rare sight. How were you perceived by the military during your visits?

The military is of course a closed world. It was often difficult just to get hold of a permit from the ministries of defense. The military is a man’s world. More often than not, female soldiers are to be found in offices instead of doing the actual fighting.
Journalists always demand action: running soldiers, movement. By contrast, I wanted to see targets and training camps. The soldiers had never experienced this before. I was often asked: “What is all this about?”
On the shooting range I simply had to figure out a way to function. You don’t have time to “be a girl” and you have to jump onto the tanks just as quickly as everyone else. Consequently, it was important to be in good shape, since the soldiers were too, of course.

TARGETS resembles a visual study of enemy-perception in the armies of the world. Which conclusions can be drawn from such a study?

Soldiers do not think about the essence and the appearance of the enemy. My interests lay in changes in the concept of the enemy. For years American soldiers trained with three-dimensional green figures with a red star on their helmets, the symbol for the Soviet Union – the enemy. In the meantime these figures have gone out of fashion. The new enemy has an oriental appearance. It is clear that the conditioning first requires the establishment of a self-evident conception of the enemy. A good soldier only functions when he doesn’t ask too many questions. A doubtful soldier is no longer a good soldier.
I imagine that to kill someone for the first time is like crossing a threshold from which there is no turning back. Here people are trained to deliberately shoot another human being. It ruptures the moral behavior of the soldier.

The trauma is not only experienced physically by the soldiers, but also becomes part of their being.

This is why I engaged in conversations with so many soldiers, questioned them. How do soldiers deal with this? Do they even have fears or doubts? Fears sometimes, doubts less. An Iraq war veteran told me that he could only fall asleep if he took pills. His troop was approaching a house, they were being shot at from the windows. The shooter was killed. The soldiers walked around the house and ran into a child who aimed a rifle at them. They shot the child too. Its weapon was not loaded. Such experiences will haunt the soldiers forever.
After half a year in service, the soldiers have been irrevocably changed. A soldier said that he had frozen in his mind a certain image of life at home. But life continued without him, and when he returned, everything had changed.

Which realizations, as a civilian, shook you up the most?

Soldiers sense and internalize the moral attitude of their leader. If a superior silently tolerates certain behaviors, it gives leeway for violations. Atrocities are always a consequence of weak leadership, a colonel once told me, and said that clear boundaries and guidelines are essential. “If you allow a soldier to break the rules, some will kill at random at the next opportunity.”

For several years you visited armies all over the world. Did you personally also have to fight against manifested or emerging ways of thinking?

Of course one has prejudices against the military. This is why I always said: open the doors! Let the journalists in so they can get to know this parallel world. The moment you get to know something unfamiliar, you also understand it better. In the military I have met people whom I respect and appreciate. When my the person I am talking to realizes that I do not judge but simply listen, people tend to open up more and trust me with things which would have been unthinkable before. I have always tried to lead serious discussions. They were of course aware that I was not doing uncritical reporting, but I always tried to be fair. So my aim was not to attack the military. It is easy to produce a negative story about the military, and a perspective which fits into most people’s conceptions.

Did you encounter a conception of death and killing which has universal predominance?

Every army, in no matter what country, shares the principle of attack, defend, kill. Otherwise you would not need any armies. In post-war Germany, the army never gained significant societal approval. In Dallas in America, on the other hand, I experienced how bystanders were applauding soldiers getting off the plane, or giving way for them during boarding.

During your conversations with soldiers from Myanmar, which deeply entrenched structures of the Tatmadaw did you encounter?

In the barracks in Pyin Oo Lwin I was received in a massive, splendid building, with the training camps stretched out behind. The military in Myanmar holds a special position. There is the official army, which I visited, and there are the armies in the various states. The structure of the military conforms to society. Myanmar is to a certain extent characterized by a hierarchy-based thinking, by an acceptance of the authorities. Obedience and taking orders is entrenched from the start. Conversely, I was surprised by how many women served in the army.
In all the former British colonies, including Myanmar, English shooting targets are still used today. Only on the last day was I able to photograph the Burmese targets. I am interested in what their own targets look like, what hides behind the “official”.

Do you increasingly see a world without armies as a utopian idea? What would the majority of the soldiers think about this?

In England I asked the commander who had been assigned to me the provocative question: “What would it be like if all armies were disposed of?” He replied that this was naïve thinking. Aggression exists as something basically human. Just look at how many people already argue and get into fights in their everyday lives! Such disputes are then settled in court. An American commander reminded me of how throughout world history disputes have been settled through wars, and, according to him, there would thus always be wars. Everything else was considered wishful thinking on my part.

Recently your project REFUGEES in Munich came to an end. Another expression of your engagement in a highly controversial societal crisis of our time. What is next?

I am always working on new projects. However, the subjects and topics I only discuss with myself. Thereby it remains my own spiritual conflict. If I talk to other people about it, the diversity of comments would turn it into a conglomerate of different thoughts in my head. A writer once said: one can talk about something or write about something. In my case I would say: one can talk about something or actually photograph and develop a project.