Landscape Stories: 'Postcards from Europe' is a project about immigration, its effects on European societies and the ways we relate to it. Can you tell us about it? Eva Leitolf: Europe's tightening of restrictions on immigration and asylum over recent decades has thrown up many tough issues. In Postcards from Europe I set out to examine the ways Europe, and specifically the European Union, deals with its external borders and the associated internal conflicts by bringing together images of places with carefully researched texts about events that have occurred there. Designed as an open-ended archive, this long-term project wants to delve deeper into the issues, looking behind and beyond the level of day-to-day news reporting and politics. My work focuses not on the suffering of those involved, which has already been widely documented, but on the way the European Community relates to that suffering, administers undocumented migrants, and works to expand control of its external borders. Since 2006 the work has taken me to Spain and the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco, to the Hungarian borders with Serbia and Ukraine, to the Channel ports of Calais and Dover, to southern Italy, and to Greece.
Landscape Stories: You have used strategies of documentary photography. Tell me about this choice. Eva Leitolf: Using strategies of documentary photography as well as conceptual approaches I hope to challenge the viewer intellectually, in such a way as to not only generate an emotional reaction to social and political issues. I am interested in the tension between what can be seen and what is left to the imagination, visiting sites long after the event to research incidents that leave little or no trace on the ground. I think in a world overwhelmed by media images this strategy offers space for reflection.
Landscape Stories: How did you start your artistic career? Eva Leitolf: With sixteen I fell in love with a guy who had a darkroom in the bathroom of his parents' home. Watching the image occur on the black and white print in the basin with developing-liquid felt like a revelation and left me in a state of incredible euphoria. The whole process of taking pictures and putting them on paper seemed to be such a miracle. Later I studied photography at GH Essen with Angela Neuke, a strong and idiosyncratic personality. She taught photography as a critical practice. With the help of a grant and having Alan Sekula as my mentor, I did my MFA at California Institute of the Arts in 1997. Having had critic classes with artists who worked in very diverse fields was an outstanding and very productive experience for me.
Landscape Stories: Does photography save souls? Eva Leitolf: If souls can think, there might be some work out there to feed them.
Landscape Stories: Has this body of work changed the way you look at the world or is it a kind of visualisation of it? Eva Leitolf: Both, I guess. I am interested as much in the process of working as in the results of it. There is no antagonism for me here. I am learning continuously and hope it won't stop: during the extensive research phases, while taking pictures and right now while working on possible forms for an installation of the work. Probably one of the main driving forces within my work for me is my necessity to find out more about the structures and mechanisms of social situations and developments as well as generating ways of communication that involve the viewer in the process.
Landscape Stories: What role does landscape play in your series? Eva Leitolf: In "Postcards from Europe" as well as in my last work German Images – Looking for Evidence I am interested in city– and landscapes as a sort of stage, a space for projection. The absence of protagonists and any narrative action helps to evoke latent pictures. The deserted landscapes in combination with the texts become hopefully the starting point for the viewer to think of how meaning comes about. If you think of Judith Joy Ross' work Protest the War, interestingly enough, it works also the other way round: people who stand still is all what you get to see and yet all latent depictions of war immediately come up. So probably working with landscapes for me is one possible way to create placeholders, to be filled with the imagery we all carry around with us. I always found Eugène Atget's work attractive in this respect as well as some of the landscape paintings of Gustave Courbet like Paysage de la Gruyère or Village Street in Winter for example. Lately I started to think about the politics of History Painting and the role of landscape within this practice. Stripping the genre bare of its most important ingredient – the emblematic and condensed representation of a "historical" event – and treating seemingly minor incidents as "historical" subjects, seems to be a productive way to speak about how meaning is generated.
Landscape Stories: Next projects? Eva Leitolf: Right now I am working on possible forms of presentation for Postcards from Europe. The texts and their presentation are central to the work. I intend to separate image and text and to leave it to the viewers to decide for themselves how thoroughly and in what order they wish to explore the different levels of meaning. At the beginning of 2012 I will move to Rome as a stipendiary of Villa Massimo (Academia Tedesca) and am looking forward to a full year in a city where all sorts of history seems to be so present.