Berlin, Alone at Night
Artist Romeo Alaeff chats with GARAGE about his new book "In der Fremde. Pictures from Home."
Mercator Hoff by Romeo Alaeff.
In a different year, at night, the artist Romeo Alaeff walked the streets of Berlin alone with his camera. He took photos of the skyline, of young people fighting on the train, and empty pools and buildings. He captured this loneliness and transience in a new book called “In der Fremde. Pictures from Home.” Before moving to Berlin, where he’s lived for eight years, Alaeff was living in Brooklyn, and his work as a photographer is inspired by that sense of being uprooted, of living somewhere new and trying to orient oneself in a new land. Alaeff’s book is about Berlin, but it’s also about his himself, his life, which he lives in a constant state of movement, he comes from a family of immigrants with roots in Yemen, Uzbekistan, Eastern and Central Europe. At a young age, he learned that national identity was something fluid, often in motion, which has become the central theme to his work. GARAGE spoke to Alaeff about his book (which will have a launch party in Berlin on November 7th and is out now), which feels more timely than ever where isolation and alienation have become a quotidian occurrence.
How did this project come to be?
One day I just started walking around the city, just taking pictures at night, just trying to connect with Berlin, which is a place that I had moved to from New York, and was still trying to find my footing, and connect to this kind of very foreign place. In some ways I felt very much at home, and in other ways I felt like I was living in such a little bubble of my own making that I realized that I was so disconnected from the city. And as I was going around, usually by myself, taking pictures, I realized there was a pattern emerging, and that was that I was taking pictures of mainly empty places, and of people. I am a foreigner in this country, and that made me think about how I felt in the U.S. as a first generation American, with family members from so many different parts of the world that I never quite fit in anywhere. I realized that was kind of part of my identity. I actually was taking pictures of things that nobody seemed to care about. They were empty parking lots, and random places. So I realized that the theme of the project was home.
What was seductive or attractive to you about these empty spaces at night?
It just kind of spoke to me. There was something kind of mysterious about it, or maybe also the way that I was photographing it made it seem more mysterious and alien. But somehow they were, at the same time beautiful and seductive, all these rich colors. A comment that I get very often is people think that the images are staged, or that I've used some kind of artificial lighting, or that I've done something special, but I haven't. And there's just sort of a combination of the feeling of alienation, and there's the feeling of beauty. I think it's the combination of those things that resonated with me. I think that the pictures kind of hit that spot between those two polar opposites.
Can you talk to me about that idea of migration, and how that has manifested itself in the book?
I think there was a UN report in 2019 that basically said [something] to the effect that international migrants are now outpacing the world's population. If, as the report says, that migration is outpacing the human growth of the population, then to me that means that this idea of migration and of having to redefine what home is, is becoming more and more ubiquitous. I feel like the story of humankind is about migration in a sense.
It's less and less likely that we're born in one place and we stay there all of our lives. But the degree to which people feel a sense of home or don't feel a sense of home, is very personal. For me specifically, as a first generation American, and having migration be such a huge part of the family story, I never felt home anywhere, and I may not, but every time I go to a place, it's this new attempt to redefine who you are in the context of the place that you're in. I think this, leads to a kind of nationalistic mentality, which I don't have at all. For me it's all very fluid, and the price to pay for that is that you may always feel like you're drifting, or as one of the writers [in the book], in her essay, she calls it being an “international drifter.” Or another friend of mine said, "There's a fine line between being homeless and being a global citizen,” it really depends on the framing, but I feel that a lot of the political issues that are happening globally. The rise in nationalism, and the rise in authoritarianism, has a lot to do with the increase in migration. In some cases specifically refugees, as with the case with Germany, having taken in so many, or in the case of the United States, there's debate always about how many we should take in, and the way that people who migrate are often demonized. All of this is part of the whole political story, but for each individual it's a very personal story, and some people adapt much more easily than others.
This book is coming out at a very particular time, with everything that's going on, with COVID and protests in U.S. Did you choose to release this book this year because of what's going on in the world, because, like in your book, isolation has become such a huge part of human life?
There's two sides to that. One side is that everybody told me, "Don't do it now. This is the worst time to do an art project. This is the worst time to try to raise money.” In fact the opposite was true. But on the flip side, all of these pictures of empty spaces, during COVID especially at the beginning when we couldn't really do anything, and I was looking at the pictures of the empty spaces, and I was thinking, in the abstract, it's kind of a social distance [work]. Because it's me being distant from people, but also of the city. Berlin was kind of like a stranger to me, but cities everywhere have become strangers to everyone, now in this new situation.