On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the twinning between Tokyo and Berlin, Kiên Hoàng Lê captured the German capital for an exhibition project at the Japanese-German Centre in his current hometown, Berlin. His images taken in the Lichtenberg district, combine portraits, landscapes and still-lifes, and reveal both the small and large aspects of the metropolis.
Photographically speaking, Berlin already has a strong presence. What was it that still made this project interesting for you?
A city is defined by the space it gives both its citizen and its visitors. When the enquiry for the exhibition came, I knew immediately that I wanted to dedicate my project to the Vietnamese community. It was important to me to show a part of Berlin that is barely present in people’s awareness. I decided to take a closer look at the Lichtenberg district, and to allow my protagonists to show it from a new angle. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the people who define the personal experience of a city.
You were born in Vietnam, grew up at Bogensee in the former GDR, and now live in Berlin. Do you still have an “outsider” perspective or do you observe the city as a local?
In daily life I no longer have the perspective of an outsider. In my photographic and film work in Berlin-Lichtenberg, however, I got to rediscover the district through the eyes of my protagonists.
Your pictures show people, nature and also buildings. Are these the things that define a city?
In my mind, a city is characterised as a living space that people have created. Within it, they limit nature according to their needs. In my photos I only ever show a minimal excerpt. That’s why I like to combine portraits, landscapes and still-lifes. Together they create the pieces of a puzzle that the viewers themselves can put together. With each new experience, each new encounter and each new thought, a new picture of Berlin-Lichtenberg emerges – which also means a new picture of Berlin. At the end, the viewer always has a constantly changing puzzle in mind.
In the exhibition we find pictures of Berlin hanging next to pictures of Tokyo. You yourself lived in Japan for a long time. What do the two cities have in common?
It is really interesting that I learned to see Berlin with different eyes following my time in Tokyo. The image of Tokyo as a highly-technological metropolis was firmly anchored in my mind. However, when I was there, I discovered many little villages the moment I moved into the side streets. When I returned to Berlin it became very obvious to me here as well: the town has grown out of different villages, and the locals rarely move away from their neighbourhoods.
Your pictures show a different, not exactly trendy, Berlin, that appears desolate at times …
Berlin is primarily un-hip and raw; but I don’t find it desolate. Precast, concrete slab buildings are a phenomenon of the sixties, a time when there was a shortage of accommodation. Large surfaces and places give room for development; demolition and core restoration tend to cause upheaval. I consider them a symbol of positive change. Old structures are transformed and people create new spaces for themselves.
Did the fact that you grew up in the former GDR have any significance for your work?
My biography is, of course, reflected in my work. This is actually the reason why I came up with the idea of dealing with the Vietnamese diaspora and, in a next step, the changes in Lichtenberg. Lichtenberg carries a weight of history. Before the fall of the Wall, it was the headquarters for the Stasi secret police, and was a more or less gated community. In common vernacular the district was referred to as Mielke’s village. I’m only here because there was a relationship between North Vietnam and the GDR.
You used the Leica S2 for your series. How was the experience for you?
Though a medium format camera, the Leica S2 was really handy. I didn’t want to lug a lot of stuff around, preferring to concentrate on the people and being able to react spontaneously. So I walked through the neighbourhood with just the Leica S2 and the 70mm, 2.5f lens. The lens was a dream. It helped me to show the people within their space, while also managing to disassociate them from their background. I also filmed interviews with the Leica SL. The handling was very intuitive and the autofocus while filming was indispensable.
Did you have a specific photographic approach?
I try to use only as much technology as necessary. Depending on the narrative form, it might be just one camera with one fixed focal length, or a complete, mobile studio. In the case of my Lichtenberg project, I used a Leica S2 with 70mm, 2.5f, and a Leica SL with 24-70mm to film. In addition, I used film lighting, an external microphone and a recorder for the interviews.
You photographed the series in colour, but your pictures do not appear brightly colourful, but rather muted. Was that deliberate?
While I was working on the project, Berlin revealed itself from an exceptionally warm and sunny side. I wanted this beautiful, warm mood to be reflected in the aesthetics of the pictures.
The exhibition continues on display at the Japanese-German Centre in Berlin up until June 28, 2019. In addition to Lê’s images, pieces by Kojima Yasutaka, Tsuchida Hiromi, Ohnishi Mitsugu, Herbie Yamaguchi and Günter Zorn are also being exhibited.
Kiên Hoàng Lê was born in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1982, and grew up at Bogensee in the GDR. He has lived in Great Britain, India, Japan and Australia. He studied photojournalism and documentary photography in Hanover. He has been producing reportages and portraits for editorial spreads, corporate clients and NGOs. Kiên lives and works in Berlin and Frankfurt.
To see more of Lê’s photography you can visit his website.