Katrin Koenning: A sense of belonging

I discovered Katrin Koenning‘s photos by chance, bumping into one of them on Flak Photo. Some more clicks and I ended up on her website where, among the many projects, I found Backpackers Inc., a peculiar look at the world of backpacking, which portrays backpackers in their most private, fragile and lonely moments. Some more clicks and Katrin’s photos brought me to Australia: an Australia distant from any cliché,  made of spaces and relationships between those spaces and the Australian people. If I had to, I would think of Katrin as the Tim Winton of photography: both approach the land where they live with a very personal look, both search for meaning in the environment that surrounds us human beings. Curious about the why, the how and the when related to her photographs, her view on Australia and on the relationships we create with what surrounds us, I asked her a few questions. The interview that follows is the result of those questions: words as profound as Katrin’s photos, illustrating her personal research on the theme of belonging to a place.

Lake Mountain, Victoria

NBM: You were born in Germany, what made you leave your country and move to Australia? Why Australia?

KK: Ultimately I moved for love, and because I needed a change. I also wanted to study photography in Australia. What made the move easier was the fact that some of my immediate family migrated in the later half of the 90’s, and I had since visited often.

NBM: You’ve been taking photos of Australia from different perspectives and in different areas for a while: how would you describe the Australian landscape, if you had to do it with just words and no photos?

KK: Much of what you read about the Australian landscape overseas tells of harshness, glare, pulsating heat and a nature that is somewhat unforgiving. Then there is the notion of the Australian Gothic, which describes the Australian landscape as fearsome, mystical, grotesque and dark. Personally I see the wild and the harsh of course, but I also see something fragile and kind and shy. I often try and imagine what this land looked and felt like before colonial occupation. There is a certain melancholy in Australian ideas of place. To me the vastness of the outback, often described as ‘the great nothing’, is a great everything. Its beauty and depth and stillness are of such grandeur! It’s like the sky wraps itself right around you out there and enters your brain, becoming something felt, making your thoughts large and meaningful and calm. You can find something out in the land. Some tiny part of yourself perhaps, the one you lost or misplaced by spending too much time in a big city behind brick walls, in front of a computer screen, looking at pictures of landscapes.

NBMWould you say that the relationship between the landscape and the people in Australia is different from the relationships people have with their environment in Europe?

KK: In the Century of globalisation and urban explosion, a true connection to land (not to be confused with place!) seems difficult to find. An increasing distance from nature is a worldwide phenomenon, not a concept bound by borders. Hence to me, ideas of land or place in contemporary photography are inevitably linked with the desire to understand social and cultural landscapes in both a local and a global context. The relationship between us and nature continues to be fractured. Sometimes I think to truly connect with nature we need to unlearn everything we know.

NBM: I found your Backpackers Inc. project to be an extremely interesting look at a category of travellers that has almost become a cliché: why did you decide to focus on backpackers? How did you develop the project and approach the people involved?

KK: I made most of the Backpackers Inc. project while participating in a Magnum workshop with Trent Parke in Fremantle, WA as part of Fotofreo. I arrived a few days before the workshop started, as I found it hard to determine from a distance what project to work on. Due to having to work to a very confined timeframe, I wanted to feel my way into the place and then find something that interested me, rather than having a set story in mind already. The hostel in which I made the portraits was in fact my ‘home’ for those two weeks – it seemed logical to photograph what was immediately around me. Beyond the surface I saw a lot of vulnerability in the travellers I met there. This was something that really interested me – the more hidden side of backpacking perhaps – a by-product.

NBM: In an interview with CNN, travel writer William Least Heat Moon said that we should “not conflate moving with traveling”: do you find there are different ways of traveling? In your Transit series you look at commuters and at their daily trips, are those to be considered journeys somehow? Why did you decide to focus on this subject?

KK: A lot of my work follows a narrative of journey in one way or the other. I believe there are many different states of journey. Like anyone who lives in an urban environment, my day–to–day involves a lot of commute. (Public) transport is an essential part of our lives and the time spent getting from A to B is in some way travel, even if dictated by routine. It is the kind of journey we all experience and share; a journey of necessity, not of privilege. Transit is concerned with the space that lies between destinations, routines and obligations – the space between distances. A space that is, depending on the length of the commute, often filled with imagining.

NBM: You’re currently based in Melbourne: what do you find fascinating and unique about this city?

KK: Melbourne is a kind city to live in. People from so many different cultures call it home, and there is an incredible array of food and art. In winter, it gets cold – if you drive for 1.5 hours, you’re in the snow. In autumn, the streets are draped with leaves (this is nothing special when you live in Europe, but most of Australia is either desert or evergreen). The ocean meets this city, and living so close to it is a privilege. I always think of cities as personalities – Melbourne is friendly, funny, giving, chaotic…a little grungy in parts, which is something I like. I admit I sometimes miss the European grit. Having grown up in the heart of the formerly industrial part of Germany, the Ruhrgebiet, I have a passion for places that are overlooked for their ‘ugliness’. Things that are a bit broken often hold a lot of beauty – perhaps that is because people tend to leave them behind and they take on a life of their own.

NBM: I read your interview on DesignMontage. The interviewer wrote that your work is themed around questions of belonging: is that correct? Why this theme and what’s home for you?

KK: Yes, belonging is something that keeps cropping up in my work in different forms. Apart from having a genuine interest in the divergence between concepts and realities of it, pondering belonging is also something innate to my reality as a migrant. What is home? Wow. This remains one of the big questions. Perhaps it is, after all, a feeling of happiness.