The Poet of Radical Photography: Miron Zownir

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Miron Zownir, Berlin (2008)
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photo: Nico Anfuso

‘Photographer, filmmaker, writer and club bouncer. Born in Karlsruhe he moved to Berlin in 1976, and left some years later for New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Radical Eye – The Photography of Miron Zownir was published in 1997 (Die Gestalten Verlag, Berlin) and contains some of the most disturbing images depicting human life ever seen. Furthermore, he is the author of crime novel Kein schlichter Ahgang and is currently writing a new novel. Parallel to writing and photography, he has been making several underground short films, like Skinhead lane which won several awards in 1993. Ten years later the documentary film Bruno S – Estrangement is death screened at the Berlinale. It deals with the life and tragic faith of old Werner Herzog actor Bruno S, which nowadays earns his living as a backyard musician in Berlin.’

In 70’s, most of the Turkish families moved to Kreuzberg as workers. In 80’s and 90’s, there were lot of attacks, clashes and deaths between Turkish and Germans based on racism. So, when you look all the way back, how do you remember this period? As an artist, how was the feeling, being a witness to all this tragic period?

Well, in the 70’s I was a draft evader, lived in Kreuzberg and worked as a temporary laborer doing many different underpaid jobs. During that period I had contact to many different foreign workers and I personally never had problems with any of them. Berlin at that time was politically pretty open minded and rather left wing. Open racism was rare and generally not tolerated by the majority of people living in Berlin. Of cause I can’t speak about latent racism which exists everywhere where different cultures mingle or clash especially among the underprivileged. But I must say even I who didn’t have any ethnical prejudice and was rather open minded, didn’t have any Turkish associates or friends at that time. Those Turkish immigrants I met didn’t speak much German and were not that open or interested in any contact beyond “Hello” and “Goodbye”. But there was no feeling of any hostility or animosity. It was just a feeling that there wasn’t much interest between Germans and Turks to mingle above the level of working or business relationships. I think it was the growing education, emancipation, political awareness and adjustment of a next Generation of young Turkish people that closed that gap especially in Kreuzberg. But again that is a rather new development of inter ethical understanding, a process that probably developed during the last ten years. The 80’s and 90’s were a rather confrontational time of open racism from both sides. Initially provoked by rightwing Nazi Idiots after the fall of the wall, many young Turks in the 90’s where violent and racist as well, as I encountered myself when I got attacked several times because I was German and had a shaved head. Frustration and hatred makes blind and there was enough of that but still it never blew up to a riot and the majority of Turks and Germans never felt hatred for each other. Let’s say at the most they felt uncomfortable with each other. Of cause my recollection is very subjective. I was never pro or against anyone out of principles or prejudice but after all those Turkish people were Underdogs and had a hell of a lot more reason to be angry than any stupid Nazi.

Let’s say in the 70’s relations were mostly indifferent, in the 80’s partially overheated and fanatic, in the 90’s more openly racial and violent and since the early new century much more relaxed, creative and sympathetic. But my recollection from the 70’s to now is interrupted by 15 years. From 1980 to 1995 I lived in the States. The most outrages crimes on Turkish people that I’m aware of were probably those killings by the NSU and the dubious disinformation tactics by the German authorities. And that arson attack on a Turkish Family in Solingen. But that didn’t happen in Berlin and I only red about it.

Miron Zownir, New York City (1983)

Have you ever interested in sub-cultural movement which Turkish youngs created in Kreuzberg? 

That was definitely the time I missed out. But one thing I remember. In the 70’s you didn’t see many Turkish kids playing football. That probably also started in the 80’s and definitely helped to integrate or at least to communicate with each other. Even now it is a common interest of German and Turkish workers. They finally found their common heroes. That doesn’t sound big but it is.

On a cultural level, yeah there were many initiatives among Turkish kids that probably started in the 80’s in Kreuzberg that aroused interest among culturally interested Germans. I think it was mostly Theater Groups that started a mutual cultural interaction.

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‘Parasiten der Ohnmacht’ audio-cd

How did you meet with Birol Ünel?

I met with Birol about 6 years ago at a common friend’s home and worked with him on several projects. First we did an audio book called ‘Parasiten der Ohnmacht’. Birol was reading my short stories and FM Einheit (Ex –Einstürzende Neubauten) composed and perfomed the soundtrack. We did several reading tours of ‘Parasiten’ with and without FM Einheit. After that Birol Ünel played the lead in my last short film ‘Absturz’ and recently I casted him for my latest full feature film ‘Back to Nothing’, in which he plays a man obsessed with death. For me Birol is one of the greatest actors in Europe but he is very publicity shy and many people claim he is hard to deal with, which is a prejudice I can’t agree with. I’ve never found him difficult and everything we ever did was a great experience for both of us and everybody who was involved. He is very creative, has an incredible expressivity and gives always everything if he is convinced it is worthwhile his effort. As a matter of fact I just met him a couple of hours ago and he told me he is supposed to play Yılmaz Güney, a famous Turkish director, in the next Fatih Akın film. He also told me he would love to do a reading tour in Istanbul with ‘Parasiten der Ohnmacht’. But who should understand it, it was written in German?

What do you think about Fatih Akın? He’s not focusing on underground themed movies any more I think, right? 

Well I only know two films of him and of cause I like ‘Gegen die Wand’ the best. A movie for which Birol not only contributed his great acting skills but also a lot of ideas while developing the script. But you are probably right I don’t think Akın is focusing any more on the Underground since his budgets get bigger and bigger.

Miron Zownir, Moscow (1995)

So much poverty, suffering, frustration, ignorance and violence that I changed my objective and started to document this dramatic change from Communism to aggressive Capitalism.

One of my old friends told me about Weegee. That he listened the police radio and went to the crime scene before the police and photographed the area. Why does a photographer has such a motivation?

I don’t know about Weegee’s motivation why he did what he did, but in my case my focus of photography was always on the outsiders, underdogs, outcasts, rebels or misfits. I very much focused on sex and violence from the beginning. But when I went to Moscow to document the nightlife scene I encountered so much poverty, suffering, frustration, ignorance and violence that I changed my objective and started to document this dramatic change from Communism to aggressive Capitalism. People where openly dying on the streets from hunger, thirst or diseases and nobody came to rescue them or offered them any kind of comfort. I couldn’t just close my eyes and ignore this unbelievable situation. So my motivation to photograph dead or dying people grew out of the horror of what I was facing, a modern day inferno of greed, ignorance, pain and death. Death is the beginning and the end, something everybody has already experienced and something everybody has to face again. The greatest mystery of all, even though it is so close and always present. But the way those miserable people died in Moscow in 1995 on the streets was so unnecessary and disgraceful.

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Miron Zownir, Moscow (1995)

We would also talk about the old war painter Otto Dix. The desire of being close to the death, facing with it and melting in it; have you ever felt similar desires? 

Otto Dix was a world war 1 veteran and pretty much traumatized by the senseless massacres he experienced. For him his paintings probably had an effect like therapy, it was his mental tool to release all those nightmares that tortured him during combat and afterwards when it was virtually over. Emotionally and psychologically he never really escaped from it. I don’t have those experiences of openly tolerated bloodshed. I grew up after the Second World War was over. No. I’m not traumatized by or attracted to death and not that horrified either when thinking of my own end. I don’t have to create a situation where I’m melting into it, I don’t need a fetish like Bella Lugosi who slept in his coffin and I don’t have a preference for dying lovers like Edgar Allan Poe. I’m not eager to kill anyone and I don’t want to die yet. I don’t like wars and I’m not hoping for the end of the world. But I’ve lost quite some family members and friends and there is hardly a film I shoot or a story I write that doesn’t climax or end in any kind of disaster. You could refer to that subject for ever. But there are other subjects too and if you don’t want to lose your mind you better relax once in a while and focus on something else.

You’ve worked so hard on figurative photography and stories, maybe through years. After all these experiences, what is your aspect on human; do you consider the human being as a special creation of the God?

No. I’m an atheist. And the worst thing about man is that he thinks he is a special creation of god. Better than other species. A meat-eater! Well I’m a meat-eater too but I shouldn’t be. The way the meat industry provides you with food is humiliating and criminal. But that’s only one aspect to your question. I’m not a misanthrope. I met all kinds of people. I can’t generalize in blind categories of good and bad. You can’t make a quick judgment about mankind because you read newspapers, watch TV or because of your personal experience with a few of them. I’m still open for any surprise whatever the outcome will be. If I’d known already everything in advance why would I bother to encounter new experience in my real life or art. But I’m certainly afraid that mankind uses its ability to create and destroy in a way that is increasingly dangerous for the balance of mankind and nature. For the good of a few and for the worse of all others.

Scandal author Miron Zownir interrupts stage show of Birol Uenel & FM Einheit (Dec.2011)

True art is always underground, uncomfortable, edgy, controversial or at least unique and never the result of the goodwill of the establishment.

How do you consider life and of course what do you think about death?

Actually I believe you’re only born once. Whatever’s left of you after death might be an invisible element of nature like a molecule or atom but not really enough to contain consciousness. But there are millions of speculations and some ridiculous isms forced upon it by religion over the last thousands of centuries. People still get persecuted, punished or killed for the wrong believes and answers.

What do you think about art in our century?

Let’s say we live in a century of entertainment, vicious advertisement, ruthless marketing and manipulated values. Art is more and more becoming a tool for the rich to play with. They collect, speculate, boast with it and create a market and an opinion about what is good or bad art. What’s supposed to sell and what’s not worthy of buying. Artist are more and more reduced to act as vassals of powerful gallery owners and willful monkeys for the media. True art is always Underground, uncomfortable, edgy, controversial or at least unique and never the result of the goodwill of the establishment.

Miron Zownir

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