Hans-Jürgen Burkard crisscrossed thousands and thousands of miles, traveling into the very heart of Germany. A photojournalist with magazine Geo in the 70s and 80s and then for STERN-magazine as their Moscow photo-correspondent until some years ago, Burkard embarked on a photographic journey through his native land: “I had traveled all around the world, and yet right in my own backyard, I have encounters I had never thought possible; I took a fresh look at my country and saw it in a whole new way,” recounts the photographer.
He roamed around for several months, meeting ordinary folks, camera strapped around his neck. “I come from a completely different photography world, I’m an old-school photojournalist,” says former Geo magazine staff photographer for over a decade and Moscow correspondent for Stern magazine from 1989 to 2016. He was behind the camera when Gorbachev announced his resignation on December 25, 1991. With his most recent project, this winner of three World Press awards returns to his roots.
When photo meets pop
The special feature of this inner journey is that Hans-Jürgen Burkard has paired his pictures with German pop songs. As a teenager, he knew the songs of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc. by heart. But very few German songs marked his childhood. “Everything was in English. In Germany after the war, being proud of your country, saying things that sounded nationalist, was frowned upon.”
And then, some pop artists took the matter into their own hands and started singing in Goethe’s language. “When you read these lyrics, it’s mostly great poetry, it’s youthful, fresh, corrosive!” The photographer met Silke Müller, a journalist at Stern. “She wanted to do something about this new German music scene.” Silke Müller gave the photographer 150 German pop songs. “She said, ‘Listen to them as you travel around Germany, and find images that somehow relate to the words or show the German way of life, the culture of the young. Without looking for a deeper meaning, take these lyrics and give them a new life through photography.’ ” And so the adventure began. In addition to the text by Silke Müller about the German-language music scene of the last 50 years, the book contains a very personal portrait of photographer Hans-Jürgen Burkard written by former Geo editor-in-chief Peter Matthias Gaede with detailed experiences and observations from many years of working together. Pop songs played through the car speakers while miles rolled by on the odometer.
Germany of a thousand faces
The journey began in Berlin. The first picture was that of a young woman smiling at a row of police officers in riot gear. “This photo of policemen in their Darth Vader getups, confronted by a young woman, reminds me of Marc Riboud’s picture [The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet, 1967 – Editor’s note].” Hans-Jürgen Burkard pairs the photo with a song by Prinz Pi: “Mädchen von Kreuzberg” [“A Kreuzberg Girl”]. “It’s a song about a girl from Kreuzberg, Berlin’s liveliest neighborhood, home to a lot of immigrants, a lot of students. It’s about a girl who looks more like a pit bull than a chihuahua,” quips the photographer.
But Burkard’s Germany is not just the capital: he traveled south, to the Austrian border and the foot of Zugspitze; to Saarland in the west; and, in the east, to Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx Stadt, with its imposing bust of the author of Das Kapital. “I went slowly, taking three or four months to collect the images. I also attended some events,” he explains. For example, he went to the Pentecost festival in Bavaria, where he followed the procession on his bike. The click of the shutter: a man emerges in a traditional Bavarian costume, mounted on a horse bedecked with flowers, and carrying an imposing wooden cross. Throughout the book, we discover a Germany that oscillates between tradition, modernity, and pure joie de vivre. The encounters are unexpected, sometimes funny. Some remind us of the country’s painful past, like the man whose tattoos are a chronicle of the Second World War. But as you browse through the photos, while listening to pop songs, what you feel is a real breath of fresh air. You get a snapshot of a country that has often been misunderstood.
Perhaps the best example is one of the last photos taken during Covid lockdown. In the words of Hans-Jürgen Burkard: “There is this 89-year-old man who used to cross the Danish border to see his 86-year-old girlfriend. The lockdown made those visits impossible. So, for weeks on end, they would meet between the two countries: they set up beach chairs between the two borders and every day got together in their little love nest.”
It’s a delightful and touching anecdote. “These are the sort of stories I am looking for, interaction with people, the human touch.” Hans-Jürgen Burkard paints a bright picture of a Germany that doesn’t worry about tomorrow. This project has also opened his own eyes onto the country: “I had never been aware of the beauty of my region: the old castles, a magnificent landscape shaped by an ancient culture. Now people are rediscovering the beauty of their own civilization, their history, their culture. This is what I found so interesting. We aren’t traveling much these days and instead are rediscovering the beauty of our country.” This is perhaps the biggest lesson of the global lockdown: cut off from faraway destinations, we have rediscovered our own territory.
By Michaël Naulin
Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked in regional and national newspapers, he is above all passionate about photography and more particularly reporting.
Hans-Jürgen Burkard, An Tagen wie Diesen
The book is available here.