Eva Leitolf • Photographer, Germany

Postcards from Europe

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.

Eleftherios Venizelos Avenue, Athens, Greece 2011 - In November 2010 a group of Afghan refugees set up camp in front of the Propylaea of the National Technical University of Athens, demanding that their asylum applications be processed. Under the Asylum Law police were unable to enter the university grounds to evict them. After collecting ten thousand signatures, organising a hunger strike and repeatedly taking their demands to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the demonstrators were promised their applications would be approved by the beginning of March 2011. - Interview with the spokesman of the Afghan group on 29 April 2011

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.

Ladders, Melilla, Spain 2006 - In autumn 2005, after it became known that the Spanish government intended to strengthen security measures at the Spanish enclave of Melilla, hundreds of migrants came to the border fence every day attempting to scale it with home-made ladders. According to eyewitness reports, the Guardia Civil used stun guns, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. At least fourteen migrants lost their lives, bleeding to death in the razor-wire of the border fence or shot dead by soldiers – according to the Spanish government from the Moroccan side. A spokesman for the aid organisation Fundación Prodein said he believed that the government had intentionally left the ladders on show to justify its use of force against what it presented as an "unstoppable avalanche of immigrants". Later the same year, the EU announced it would give Morocco €40 million, largely for policing and border security. - Der Spiegel, 27 September 2005; interview with José Palazón of Fundación Prodein in Melilla on 6 January 2009

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.

Playa de los Lances, Tarifa, Spain 2009- A boat carrying twenty-three undocumented Moroccan immigrants sank at Tarifa in a severe storm on 1 November 1988. The bodies of tenwho drowned were washed up on the beach at Los Lances. Nine remain missing and there were four survivors. A boat with more than thirty people on board sank near Tarifa on 15 September 1997. Six passengers survived, fourteen corpses were foundon Playa de los Lances and an unknown number of people were lost at sea. - El País, 2 November 1988 and 16 September 1997

Landscape Stories: Does photography save souls?
Eva Leitolf: If souls can think, there might be some work out there to feed them.

Railway Halt, Marasia, Greece 2011 - After crossing the Turkish-Greek border in the Evros region, undocumented migrants wait at nearby railway stations to get picked up by Frontex forces. According to human rights organisations, the Greek border police structurally impede the submission of asylum applications, deport migrants straight back to Turkey or detain them in overcrowded reception centres. Eurostat reports that at the end of October 2010 the Greek authorities were holding 54,145 unprocessed asylum applications. About 2 percent of processed applications are accepted. - Human Rights Watch, report of 26 November 2008; Eurostat (as of 31 October 2010)

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.

Ferry Crossing, Melilla-Almería, Mediterranean 2009 - On 10 January 2009, I made the seven-hour crossing from North Africa to Europe, travelling on the Juan J. Sister from the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco to Almería in Spain. The ticket cost €19.20. According to the Italian organisation Fortress Europe, at least 14,714 migrants died attempting to enter to Europe between 1988 and 2007. Of these, at least 10,740 are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic en route to Spain. Spain/Morocco trip, January 2009; - Der Spiegel, 7 May 2008; Fortress Europe press release, 10 February 2010
Orange Grove, Rosarno, Italy 2010 - In January 2010 the price obtained by Calabrian fruit-growers for Moro and Navel oranges was five euro cents per kilogram. They pay their mostly illegally employed and undocumented African and Eastern European seasonal workers between €20 and €25 for a day's work. Depending on the variety and the state of the trees a worker can pick between four and seven hundred kilograms of oranges in a day . Because the doned buildings or plastic shelters, without running water or toilets. On 7 January 2010 local youths with an air pickers returning from work and injured two of them. The ensuing demonstration by migrant workers ended in severe clashes with parts of Accommodation used by seasonal workers was torched and On 9 January 2010, under police protection from jeering onlookers, about eight hundred Africans were bussed out to emergency accommodation in Crotone and Bari. A Season in Hell: MSF Report on the Conditions of Migrants Employed in the Agricultural Sector in Southern Italy, January 2008;, 10 January 2010; - interviews with orange farmers and seasonal labourers in and around Rosarno, 27-29 January 2010

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.

Maize Field, near Záhony, Hungary 2009 - On 25 June 2007 three smugglers and twenty-eight Moldovan citizens were detained in a maize field between Záhony and Zsurk after cros- sing the River Tisza in a line of rubber dinghies and passing the Ukrainian-Hungarian frontier between border stones 356 and 357. According to the police each of the detained persons had paid the smugglers between $1,200 and $1,500. Because they had entered Ukraine legally they were immediately deported back there. - Records of Záhony border post, 25 June 2007
Calle Virgen de Africa, Las Norias, Spain 2009 - On 5 February 2000 a 26-year-old Spanish woman was stabbed to death in Santa María del Aguila, a village of 9,000 inhabitants in Andalu- sia. A mentally ill Moroccan fruit-picker was arrested as a suspect. During the following five days, local people hunted immigrants with guns, attacked their shops, cars and homes, vandalised mosques and prayer rooms and urinated on religious texts. The Red Cross put up tents in the nearby hills to house fleeing migrants. Not until the third day were the police and Guardia Civil ordered to respond. The worst clashes took place in Las Norias, where police used tear gas and rubber bullets against about 300 Spaniards armed with baseball bats, sticks and iron bars. During the unrest 56 people were injured and 22 arrested. The mayor of El Ejido, himself a greenhouse-owner, called for all foreigners without papers to be deported as quickly as possible. The prime minister said that people should not take the law into their own hands and the labour minister proposed promoting the integration of the North African minority. Migrant groups called strikes demanding substantial improvements for workers in the fruit and vegetable sector. During the main harvesting season every day of lost production cost the employers millions of euros. After almost a week, on 12 February, Moroccan migrant organisations, employers, trade unions and representatives of the regional government negotiated an agreement to end the strikes. Promises included compensation and better accommodation. One year later 42 new housing containers with 300 beds had been set up on land owned and controlled by the agribusinesses. The promised bus lines to El Ejido had not been established. Compensation was paid to 232 individuals. To this day there is no collective wage agreement. - El Pais online, no. 1375, 7 February 2000; Manuscript of radio feature on SWR 2, 22 July 2003, 10:05 a.m.; Nicholas Bell, "El Ejido, 10 Jahre danach", Archipel 180 (March 2010),

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.

Interview curated by Camilla Boemio