In the year 2014, German photographer André Lützen visited Arkhangelsk, near White Sea in Russia’s north-western Polar circle, for a month-long residency. He visited the country in March and April when the temperature was still -20 degree Celsius. The cold ensures that life takes place indoors. “I stayed in a two-room apartment with classical Russian architecture. I thought, if you happened to be in a city like this, with five to six months of hard winter, how you would spend time! What could you possibly do?” Lützen says. “I was intrigued by how people create their personal space, where they spend most of the time during the winter season.”
His ongoing photo exhibition, titled Living Climate – A Tale Of Three Cities, in collaboration with Goethe-Institut/Max Muller Bhavan developed organically from that thought. The exhibition covers Arkhangelsk in Russia, humid Kochi in India and blistering hot Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
“The connecting element of these cities is the extreme climate: the cold in Russia, the monsoon in India and the heat in Sudan,” says Lützen, an alumnus of the International Center of Photography in New York. The exhibition draws upon the interplay of living conditions of the people and climate in the photographs that he took between 2014 and 2017.
His set of photographs on Arkhangelsk, called Zhili Byli (Once upon a time…”), features residents creating cave-like havens of intimacy and comfort, with houses having rugs on walls, where they spend most of the year. The freezing world on the outside looks strangely neglected.
After Lützen’s residency in Arkhangelsk, he was invited to the Kochi Muziris Biennale and Goethe Institute for a residency in the city in Kerala. Here, he worked with portraits of living space during the monsoon season. He was surprised by the weather — he had expected it to rain for days together. When it is not raining, Kochi is humid. “I had in mind to connect this climatic conditions with that of Russia,” he says.
His series on Kochi is called Inside Out, where, as the exhibition note says, heavy rains flood streets, public spaces and force people inside — even though living spaces are crowded and the heat is suffocating.
He traveled to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan situated at the convergence of White Nile and Blue Nile, to take photography workshops. In its oppressive heat and desert climate, he worked on the relationship between people’s ways of living and the extreme heat that touches 50 degrees Celsius in sub-Saharan desert that resulted in the series, called Khartoum.
“If not for climate as the common thread, the motif would be privacy. Climate is one thing that connects them, but it’s not the main subject. The main interest is the people living there, their personal space and their intimacy,” says Hamburg-based Lützen, who was born in a small village in Germany.
His photographs show people in their natural, intimate spaces — curled up on the bed, watching television with their feet up, contemplative, unaffected by the presence of a camera. How did he manage to create such vivid moods in his photographs at places where he surely encountered a language barrier?
“I worked in all three places with translators and took some time to get to know the people I´m going to photograph,” he reveals. The other way he made his subjects comfortable was through body language and laughter.
“When you laugh together, they react. All of a sudden, they develop some kind of first levels of trust. So I always try to get people laughing, by strange communications or making myself a clown in front of them to open up the situation and space to let me photograph them in their privacy,” he elaborates.
Even though the landscape, the climate and culture of the three cities were in complete contrast, what he found common was the warmth and friendliness of the people. The people in Khartoum were conservative, so they took time to accept him. Once he was accepted, they were extremely warm.
The photographs were taken on an analogue camera — a Mamiya 711. “Working in analog needs more imagination than digital. Somehow, the photo is of a different quality. It seems to have more life,” he says.
Lützen’s work involves projects that often lead to exhibitions and book publications. In December last year, he published photographs from Congo in a monograph, called Up-River Book, on the lives of the people, the flora, fauna and the Congo river. The photographs were accompanied with text from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This was a project he accomplished by travelling to the strife-torn place twice on UN patrol boat.
The exhibition “Living Climate: A Tale of Three Cities” is being showcased in Uru Art Harbour in Mattancherry, Kochi till Feb. 28.