Cyrill Lachauer is a renowned photographer based in several places around the globe, but is currently living in Germany after some years in the United States. His work, inspired by a nomadic sense of place and a particular perception of the landscape surrounding us, has been exhibited in multiple international galleries and reflects on themes like history, anthropology, and beauty. We discuss the role of photography, white privilege, and his reflection of everyday life through different optics.
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First of all, I would like to ask you about your background. You studied Cultural Anthropology in Munich and pursued your studies in Photography in Berlin. What made you follow this path?
I was born with the mindset of a traveller. This is not heroic or great. Nothing on which you could imagine something. It's just an all-important trait. A nomadic pattern, which prefers movement in principle to the static. A state that is lived outward or inward and that is both a curse and a blessing because it carries aspects of freedom in itself, but also aspects of the permanent not arriving. Disappointment is inherent to this state. It is often a feverish condition and this condition made me take pictures and write from an early age. It was a reaction to the dreams of the world and to the experience of the real world.
After school, I really only had the mountains in my head, but I applied to the Film School in Munich. I thought, there I could freely follow my interests. But I had to produce immediately and I had the feeling that I hadn’t learned enough and experienced enough to be able to make films. So I broke off my studies and started Cultural Anthropology. That was before the bachelor-master-time and it was a study in the utmost freedom and self-responsibility. Although I loved it, I realized that I was not a scientist. I wanted to go back to picture-making, to writing. But after my experience with the film school, I realized that I would only find the freedom I wanted in visual art.
Your work, as seen in previous exhibitions like What Do You Want Here or in films like Dodging Raindrops – A Separate Reality, seems to reflect on various aspects related to landscapes, not only through their aesthetic value, but as a relation to space and to human beings. What can we learn from landscapes
For me, landscape is not just a physical surface. Landscape is a space of multiple entities – weather, atmosphere, material culture, people, architecture, animals, plants and implicit inscriptions. In my opinion, history inscribes itself into landscape, often not in the form of canonized historiography, not even in the form of an objectifiable figure, but rather in a very fine, subjectively perceptible, silent dimension of history. Actually of ‘histories’ – as who would have the sovereignty of the one story to tell.
Ethnicity is present in your work as a main topic. It can also be related to major ethnic problems issued from colonialism, as we can observe in your photographs directly related to Christopher Columbus. In what way do you think your work can widen our understanding of anthropology, ethnicity and ethnocentrism?
I do not do my job to teach anyone. Rather it is a constant questioning and doubting process that works its way forward piece by piece. This path is full of contradictions. But I want to deal with these innermost contradictions of longing and (post)colonial realities and not pretend that there is only one or the other in me. I have just been criticized for having experienced myself at the expense of the ‘others’, whom I would never call so myself. Such a typical pattern of earlier cultural anthropologists. If so, then this is just another step to go further, to learn, to deal with criticism, to risk being misunderstood sometimes.
My last series of photos along the Mississippi, for example, was not at all about poverty. A car wreck on the countryside in the United States is not necessarily an image of poverty. It could also be part of a specific culture that you simply leave your old car on that piece of land. Maybe you need a spare part one day. Or an old hut next to the Mississippi. Of course, you can see poverty in it, but the one I took a picture of was a hunting lodge, which is used only a few months a year and thus there is no interest of the owners to maintain it in a special way. It's not always what it seems to be. Furthermore, and in general, I have no intention at all to speak ‘about’. I hold it with Trinh T. Minh-Ha, who said: “I do not intend to speak about. Just speak nearby.”
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Apart from being an artist, you are also currently working on a PhD at Freie Universität in Berlin, as an academic of the Visual Anthropology Master. In what sense do you think art and anthropology can intertwine in order to change society?
As I indicated above: first of all, I work. For me, changing the world begins with myself. I dream of a world in which two categories are not replaced by three, but in which it hardly needs any more categories. Of course, in order to get there, the old binary patterns have to be blown up first.
Your work, in many occasions, is shot in the United States, representing the cultural background of the region and its impact on our society nowadays. What brought you to grow an interest in the country?
My interest in the United States has always been there. As a child, I hated Karl May but I loved Cooper, Twain and Gerstäcker. Later, Kerouac joined. And then, McCarthy and Snyder. Also, I have always felt much more attracted to American independent cinema than to German cinema. During my civil service, I saved every cent for my first six-month road trip from Florida to California. When I landed in Los Angeles in 2012 to live there, I got off the plane and felt immediately at home. A feeling that has not yet settled with me after ten years here in Berlin.
Intellectually, there is a lot to say against the United States, but where the soul feels at home can’t be controlled by the head. In Germany, it is exactly the other way around. There is a lot that speaks for the country: the free education system, health care, environmental protection, etc. But I do not like Germany very much and often do not feel at home here.
In Dodging Raindrops – A Separate Reality as well as in other works there is a concept that is strongly represented: the white middle-class man. In these days, where privilege and inequalities are more and more debated and fought against, how do you represent this concept?
I do not believe that the colonial phase ever came to an end. The white middle-class man is loaded with complexes and guilt and yet that is exactly my lineage. I come from the white middle class of the countryside. We were never rich – by Western standards – yet I am, by far, part of the most privileged persons on earth. It is our deepest responsibility to end this dominance and to give our privileges back to all. We never earned them in an honest way or earned them at all. But that scares many people. Angry white man, the blue-collar worker – categories that are talked about a lot, mostly from distance. In my opinion, it is important to include the white middle-class man in the compelling process of change. Maybe ‘we’ need to be destroyed, like Fanon wrote many years ago. Maybe the dominance of the white man in reality has to be ended violently. Maybe it will not work otherwise. But in my utopia, I would prefer it if there was a common way.
“I come from the white middle class of the countryside. We were never rich yet I am, by far, part of the most privileged persons on earth. It is our deepest responsibility to end this dominance and to give our privileges back to all. We never earned them in an honest way – or earned them at all. But that scares many people.”
In your opinion, what is the role that modern photography should adopt to change many aspects of society that need to evolve? Should photography have a pedagogic role towards the audience?
I would like to emphasize again: there is hardly anything apolitical that one does in public. My art, whether one likes it or not, is political. Just as every athlete should actually stand by his or her political responsibility. I do ask sociological questions and I would like to encourage dialogue. BUT: I do not want to teach the viewer in any way!
As a photographer, a filmmaker and an academic, who and what inspired you to represent reality through your prism?
A state of rest – often on the move – is for me the deepest and greatest source of inspiration. If I now mention a person that has inspired me, that would be only a snapshot, because these opinions change very quickly in oneself, or at least in me.
What are your plans for the short-term future? Anything we should know of?
There are many plans. For internal reasons, although I am reluctant to do so, I have to work on a series of photos in my homeland in Bavaria. Then I want to start with an apocalyptic group of works, starting from the impending drinking water shutdown in Cape Town. And I want to return to Yosemite as soon as possible. There I will meet my friends and, for a couple of weeks, we are more or less just in the vertical. Life is reduced and becomes very easy for a short time.
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