During the past four years I have travelled across Europe searching for traces of my family history. The destinations of my search brought me to the Donetsk area in Ukraine, Gliwice in Poland, the town of Essen in Germany and finally home to Oslo. I travelled by train to all destinations, since train journeys played a central role in my family’s existence. With a 35 mm Leica R9 film camera I documented the fast changing views of Europe through the train window, all the way from Oslo down to Debalzewo in Ukraine. My grandfather died there in a camp in 1945 together with several thousand other Upper-Silesians. He was 45 years old when he was deported from Gliwice (previously Gleiwitz), which marked the border area between Poland and Germany before World War II.
On February 16th he stepped down from the doorstep, left his family behind (his wife and four children) and never saw them again. With the help of a friend, who also buried him after he died in Ukraine, his diary found its way back to his wife. He wrote it day-by-day in the period of his deportation, which ended after 10 months on the 5th of October 1945.
Many images spring to mind when reading a document as strong as this diary: the long and inhuman train journeys, the work in the coal mines, hunger and starvation and the generally terrible living conditions and his failed escape through the woods that led to being sentenced to death by hard labour in a metal smelting plant. And maybe worst of all, his longing to see his family again!
I was 45 when I visited the unknown grave of my grandfather in Debalzewo in May 2014.
The exhibition “ERDE, WIND & FEUER”, which is currently being shown at Noplace Gallery in Oslo until December 7, is a short, curated preview of the first part in my long-term family project. It contains five images, which are placed in two different rooms in order to create distance in the story the images tell. The photographs are in different sizes and each of them has its own function. Furthermore I am very glad that my grandfather, Walter, has his own photograph among these five pictures; actually it is the first image you see as you walk into the show! It is my opinion that this is a beautiful photograph; he took it of his family on vacation in the mountains back in 1942. This was three years before his deportation in February 1945. He mentioned his family constantly in his diary, and that his longing and hope to see them again was unbearable.
In each of the four countries I have worked in, I used a different photographic and technical approach. For me, it is important to reflect a theme’s approach in its technical photographic reproduction. The Ukrainian part is the one that goes furthest back in time and the choice of a large format camera felt authentic. Large format is the way in which photography was born and it definitely became the most physical of all four parts of the project. The process is slow and demanding and besides this, you need to carry a lot of equipment. Additionally, I decided to use the tri-colour technique, which is fragile and demands total dedication in every step. I wanted a challenge and I felt the need to earn my images in a way that did not feel too easy. In the end, I was travelling in a territory where many people lost their lives and unfortunately are losing them in that area again today.
Most of the deported Silesians worked in coal mines as coal turned into gold by selling it further. This again reflects the decision to use the tri-colour technique, which turns black-and-white photography into colour. Furthermore, it allows you to see colour photography in its purest form. The process was discovered by Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, and I was motivated to use his approach as I was working in Russian influenced territory. Three black-and-white films are exposed with the three base colours, then developed and scanned. The process is then controlled with the help of a computer. It sounds easy, but can be an intense and long process. At the same time it represents a contemporary approach, and reflects our longing for analogue closeness in a fully digitally controlled world.
Parallel to my large format equipment I used a Leica Monochrom. It was mainly used on a tripod since the tri-colour process demands steadiness. I don’t see the results a tri-colour image produce as an effect. For me these images caring time and are created purely by light and the influence of wind. Moving parts will always be visible in a tri-colour image. It is not just about that. Some of them took over one hour of exposure time. While the large format results are created by a long process during exposure and post-production, the Monochrom delivers very fast results so I could view my results almost every day in the evening at the hotel.
The image of the diary is photographed with a Leica S and the Summarit 70 mm lens. I wanted to show the original size of the book in a wider framed surrounding. The image should depict the diary’s scale and his tiny hand writing. For the exhibition I selected a special page from his diary, which Walter Heinisch wrote on the 3rd of May 1945:
“The morning soup was very thin and unsubstantial, only water with one tablespoon of rye porridge in it. In addition, there was 1/4 lt. russ. tea, 100 gr bread and two biscuits. The biscuits were probably on the occasion of Polish National Day. A big scam is the bread ration of 700 gr for two people. If you work in the camp, you should receive 500 gr each! But you are not allowed to complain. I am writing signposts for the camp. Exactly two of them stating: “no through way” and one: “The emptying of water or any other contamination in the vicinity of the building is strictly forbidden”. For material I only have a piece of old cardboard and one small pencil. Here there are just orders; how you do it is up to you. At noon I received the gift of a soup, just imagine, only water without any content. You just get weaker day-by-day. At 6 pm we were ordered out into the camp compound, supposedly for 10 minutes. Announcement. We were there for at least one hour and a roll was called. After they had finished counting, we had to form a circle and were told the following: Hitler, Dr. Goebbels, and the General Staff have all shot themselves; the brother of Dr. Goebbels was captured with 27 men. Surrounding Berlin 120,000 men were captured. Furthermore, we were told not to dream about going home since no orders have come from above. But we were informed that mineshaft no. 10 was good but XI was performing badly. If there is no improvement in the extraction, people will not earn enough to pay for the camp’s food. And thus it is expected to be deprived of food. At the moment the question of food and accommodation came up, the officers chose to leave. At 7 pm we received the evening soup, only 1/2 lt. of hot water.”
– Damian Heinisch
The exhibition “ERDE, WIND & FEUER” is currently showing at Noplace Gallery in Oslo (www.noplace.no). This is a short curated preview of the first part in Damian’s long-term family project.