Where Worlds Collide
Katrin Koenning’s soulful visuals tell a nuanced tale about our troubled times, discovers Nilofer Khan. Her project, The Kids are in Trouble, is currently being exhibited at the third edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale.
The beginning of Ludovico Einaudi’s song, Experience, commences with soft notes from a piano. Gradually, other instruments, such as a classical guitar, a synthesiser, a cello, a violin, intertwine with the piano to form a symphony. The music gracefully, almost playfully, begins to pick up the pace. Each note seems to race with one another akin to waves crashing on a shore. The exhilaration rises, reaching the crescendo, then falling back to a slower pace, eventually ending on the similar piano notes as the start.
When you view Katrin Koenning’s work The Kids are in Trouble, you can’t help but draw parallels between music and photography. One instantly notices the rise and fall of light, with stark pockets of whites and black colliding with each other. The elements, too, complement one another, and form a visual melody. “The notion of putting the project together in this particular sequence was much more to do with inter-image dialogue—the way the images speak to each other and extend each other—and how spaces are interconnected. The single images then become interrelated too. When you pull the work apart by disrupting the order, it somehow offers new narrative spaces,” she explains.
Merging Art and Activism
The series elegantly portrays daily life—graffiti on the wall, a balloon behind the curtains, or a shattered window. We all have witnessed these moments over the years, either during our commute or evening strolls, but haven’t quite noticed them in their entirety. “Mostly, I work in my backyard. I don’t get jaded seeing the same things. In fact, everything is always a little bit different from one day to the next. It is an enormous privilege to be able to observe things to time. For instance, you can see a pile of bird shit on the ground, you can toss it, or you can see it as a work of abstract art or the universe. It is the idea of reseeing what is familiar or deemed unworthy of being seen. Much of my work rotates around the idea of returning to things. It enables me to know, the knowing makes me love, the loving may help author me,” she says.
But these images are not merely of everyday mundaneness. The inanimate objects, animals, and partially visibly humans depict a monumental tale of ecological collapse, extinctions and social emergency. “I want the work to suggest a narrative that is about us, the sum of us, rather than individual people. So, there is this subtlety, fluidity, and openness. I don’t want to dictate or prescribe how one has to experience it. For example, there is an image of glowing, steaming coal, which hints at climate catastrophe. With these small, minute pictures, I am trying to suggest greater issues of our time,” she says.
“Experimenting is crucial to photographic development. Through letting go, you stumble on new ideas, or things that trip you up, and in that small peripheral moment, when you trip up and you’re mid-air, something unforeseen can emerge, and from this emergence can come growth.”
The images represent moments caught in time, while others, the aftermath of these tales. While it evokes a sense of serenity, mystery, and confusion, one is consumed by the chaos that ensues. “That’s how the world is and how I experience it through pain, wonder, and beauty. It’s equally horrific and breathtakingly beautiful,” she explains.
Interestingly, in this series, time seems to have come to a standstill. The days and nights seem to merge into one another, which is a result of Katrin’s skilful use of flash and her tight compositions. “I think a lot about engaging a story that is working with a fragmentary approach. To try and invite pieces to suggest how everything holds multiple knowledges and truths in different spaces. The Kids are in Trouble seems puzzling because the pictures jump across variations of geographies, several years, and seasons,” she explains. The series was photographed across India, Cambodia, Australia, Germany, and Croatia.
Letting the Story Take its Course
For most artists, the infancy stage of any project is shrouded with mystery and apprehension. One is required to constantly make decisions from aesthetical, technical, emotional, and ethical perspectives. For Katrin, too, the process commences with a set of questions. “It always begins with ‘What is this thing that is burning in me? What is this story? What do I want to talk about?’ I also think that stories are live beings, and what does the story want from me too. What do I have to do, to do justice to it? For instance, what camera must it need? Does it need polaroids, film or digital? Does it need to be tiny and intimate or need to breathe and be huge?” she says.
While many photographers do not prefer text along with their images, Katrin feels that words add a nuanced layer to the narrative. For instance, when one puts together the title of the images from The Kids are in Trouble, it forms a poem. “Language is my first love. It is critical in my work, increasingly so through the years. It is also about how images and text can be interrelated and how they can be an extension of each other rather than an explanation or a description. They can extend the narrative experience. With this series, if you throw the pictures up against each other and jumble them up, it becomes something entirely different. It is kind of strange and interesting,” she states.
“So it’s kind of like this; I think that life is a slither of light between the abyss—how lucky and how daunting then, to be a double-witness.”
As a result of her intuitive, experimental approach, several of Katrin’s projects tend to intersect with one another. For instance, the series which began in 2016, has a lot of similarities with other projects. “Many of my series are in some way interconnected or flow in and out of and intersect with each other. But always in each, there is something clear from the beginning—a thought or idea or question that asks for something to be a ‘new’ or other body of work. It was the same for The Kids are in Trouble. It is, for example, somewhat aligned with Lake Mountain, Swell and The Crossing thematically, where the projects focus on climate urgency. This series, too, tries to raise the same questions in a slightly different way,” she explains.
The Cost of Loss and Acceptance
Some experiences have such a significant impact on us that we experience their ripples throughout our lives. Something similar happened to Katrin in 1998, following the demise of her close friend, Tobias. “Tobias’ death was really kind of how photography crashed into my life, both with really great force and tenderness. It was right after we had finished high school. He died in a plane crash over Iceland. He wanted to be a pilot, but his passion was photography. So, inheriting his old Minolta from his mother, and my godmother, I left for Iceland to be closer to the loss. I worked there through the depths of winter, for three months, in remote greenhouses. All the pictures came out blank because I had no idea what I was doing, but the very act of walking in the snow, and the silence with the camera in my hand or against my body, mostly in the night, made me feel okay,” she says.
My thoughts are
I may leave
there like pearls, seen by
the only witness and the heart
that met the sky gathered
– An excerpt from The Kids are in Trouble poem by Katrin Koenning
While the incident prompted her to take up photography as a career, it also marked the beginning of her distinct way of seeing. Moreover, in her later years, she began to work on complex themes such as loss, climate change, minorities, family, distance, time, anger, each dealt with sheer tenderness. “Losing Tobias also taught me to attribute everything an urgency; that things are always transitory, never permanent. It made everything matter. It also positioned photography as something that has to be intimately connected to who you are. Moreover, unknowingly, I was thinking about how the medium can throw you up against the limits of representation. For instance, can we talk about absences with a photograph? Can a photograph offer a felt space?” she asks.
The Picture and the Viewer
Perhaps, the biggest challenge for artists is how their work will be perceived or whether it will create enough impact to move the audience. Moreover, the stakes are far higher if the project is suggestive in nature, much like Katrin’s. “We are always intimately touched by our works. But once it’s out in the world, it takes a life of its own. You can’t dictate, you can’t own how other people may perceive it. That’s also the beauty of it. It ought to be free like that. It is not something to be frightened about,” she states.
“For now, at least, that’s the kind of storytelling that interests me the most; one which navigates a language that suggests that things aren’t finite, and rather more about questions than answers. When I meet with something that’s not fixed, it can invite me in.”
Throughout her practice, Katrin has always preferred to make prints of her work. “It doesn’t have to be super expensive prints but something you can see in a bodied way. There is a presence that one could lose via the internet. Also, the space between you and the picture becomes a third character,” she says. As someone who has worked with multiple processes and mediums, Katrin says that the book remains one of her favourite mediums. “I never tire of looking at them. They draw you in again and again. It feels like a perpetual discovery. You’ve seen them so many times, and every time you open the pages you feel this like ‘ahhh’. Even if you have looked at a book for five years straight, you can still see new things somehow, you can be left breathless,” she explains.
Katrin’s series is like a bouquet, created by plucking moments from multiple realities, and when put together, poetically comment on our state. The series subtly but evocatively raises questions about nature and human entanglement. But it also hints at nature’s ability to reclaim what it once lost and how it will prevail as it always has. “I guess a whole number of works over the last decade have engaged with the idea about non-human and human entanglement and intimate relations—how do we live together and how could we be better. Through photography, I want to showcase how humans and non-humans are linked and are a part of the natural world.”
Born in Bochum, Germany, Katrin Koenning studied documentary photography at the Queensland College of Art, Australia. She is the recipient of the Australian Photobook of the Year Award, the Conscientious Portfolio Award, and the Daylight Award. Currently, she teaches photography across the Asia-Pacific region.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Better Photography.