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Carolin Emcke is an author, political theorist and war correspondent with German newsmagazine Die Zeit. She has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Haiti, where she pondered what happens to truth and certainty in wartime. She spoke with The Link in advance of her panel appearance at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. The following is a transcript of that interview.
What kind of censorship have you encountered?
I usually really have to deal with direct, concrete state intervention into my own work, meaning I may not even be allowed to enter a country in order to report on what’s going on. There’s various answers. It has been extremely difficult to travel to Northern Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein; it has been very difficult—actually, impossible—to enter Gaza during last year’s military campaign. So if you had asked me personally, I’m most of all concerned with such forms of direct censorship, I would say there’s also indirect censorship, I would say that the American way of inviting journalists to be embedded [inside a military unit], I would call that an extremely intelligent form of censorship. By just integrating journalists into combat units, I would say had an enormous impact on the kind of writing or filming of the journalists, there have been wonderful, critical, exceptions. But I would say generally it’s extremely difficult to write critical about the people who are also in charge of protecting your life when you travel with them, so these are the forms of censorship that I have to deal mostly with.
I’ve never been embedded, I made the decision not to, just because I have experienced, once that I more or less accidentally ended up with a fighting unit during a particular combat situation in Northern Iraq, actually in 2003, and while lying with a group of people under attack, I was under attack as they were, and I realized that I actually wanted my soldiers to kill the soldiers on the other side. Basically because that meant that they wouldn’t kill me. I don’t think I thought that was because I was a particularly mean person, but I think it’s just the natural thing to do in a moment of existential threat, you rather want your people to win than the other side, and so I think that the whole myth of neutrality is lost in such situation, so I just don’t want to get into those situations. The focus of my work always has been to look at the lives and conditions of life of civilian populations, so I’m not a war reporter in the sense that I, you know, mostly write on armies or the military development.
I write on civilians, refugees, and those who are victims of war and not the ones that are actually in the combat, so you can say that’s an easy way out of that conflict, but it is a way to look at another side of war than by focusing on the weapons.
Has it become more difficult for journalists to do their jobs?
I’m doing this since more than 10 years, and I wouldn’t say it’s become more easy or more difficult, I think one aspect has become much more difficult. In some Arab countries, journalists are not perceived as independent anymore, but are more sort of profiled as belonging to the Western world or white or non-Muslim, and that has been, I mean, for me, personally tremendously disconcerting, a) because I don’t perceive myself that way, but b) because it meant that in certain countries you couldn’t really travel anymore unless you wanted to run a really high risk of getting kidnapped for ransom or getting killed in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
Have you ever felt the need to censor your own work?
I think as a German writer, I think there’s only one area that’s highly sensitive not in the sense that anyone would censor you, but in the sense that you yourself are very, very careful I think about framing just any sentence and any thought, and that is Israel. And, as a young German writer, I think for my generation we’re all driven by, you know, the consciousness of the Shoah, and of the responsibility of the next German society to never, ever have anything like Auschwitz happen again, so I think there’s an enormous, you know, caution as a German to criticize Israeli politics, that’s not censorship, that’s sensibility with historic knowledge, but I think that’s the only real topic where the German public fear one has to be careful.
How do you deal with what you witness?
I think one doesn’t. I think what you see and experience is just overwhelmingly upsetting and you don’t come to terms with it. I could say that there is something else that doesn’t really compensate but that gives you the energy to cope with it. Very, very often, in such areas of death and destruction, it’s particularly beautiful and people are incredibly hospitable and generous, actually particularly in poor countries, people are incredibly generous. So you feel enriched in these areas and you feel honoured by many of the conversations and encounters with normal people that you have, so that doesn’t stop the other experiences from haunting you, but I think it’s a force for joy and gratefulness that I think is what allows you to continue to do it.
Would you consider yourself an advocacy journalist?
We don’t have that term, I [just] heard that for the first time. No, I mean, it seems strange to me. I’m highly critical of concepts such as objectivity and neutrality, but I’m, you know, not an advocate of any group, I’m definitely an advocate of human rights, so I think what I will defend and what I’ll never be neutral about is, you know, the Geneva conventions, international standards of law and human rights. Whoever undermines these I will criticize them, whether that is members of my country or another country, I don’t really care. So in that sense I would say I’m trying to be independent, I’m trying to be self-selective about my own subjectivity, and I’m cautious about terms as neutrality and objectivity.
Is it difficult to get people to open about their experiences, especially in times of war?
It always surprised me, but actually people want you to write about what the experience as injustice. People beg you to tell their stories, not because they were so naïve that they would think that because some unknown German writer writes something that their lives would immediately change, but because they have experienced such long-term structural exclusion that the sheer fact that someone sits down with them, listens, and says, what you’ve experienced is wrong, that already makes a huge difference to them. And I think that is different in regions of natural crises, or natural disaster. I was recently in Haiti, and no one wanted to talk to me there, all they wanted was food or a tent, but this was the first time in my life that that happened. Usually, people really want to share their experience, and I think the difference between a natural disaster and a political disaster is that in a natural disaster, their critique doesn’t have an addresee, I mean there’s nobody to criticize for what’s happened to them.
Carolin Emcke will be speaking at Blue Metropolis’s “Writers in Peril: Censorship” panel on April 23 at 6:30 p.m in the Delta Centre-Ville’s Verrière AB (777 University St.). Admission is $10.
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The Link writer Rachel Lau interviewed our March 2 cover artist, Robin Wattie, for the article “Sex and baggage” in Fringe Arts this week. Wattie, a 26-year-old fine arts and anthropology student, based our men’s & women’s issue cover around the idea of androgyny—but the work she’s showing at Art Matters this week is more about the body than an androgynous face. Her paintings are in the show On the Line, at Artefacto (661 Rose de Lima St.) until March 19. This is the complete transcript of Lau’s conversation with Wattie about Polaroids, sex and colour.
When did you start drawing?
I essentially started drawing when I learned how to hold a crayon. I have always considered drawing as a hobby. I never thought I would pursue it as something serious (however I also have never really thought about doing something else). I had taken Illustration and Design at Dawson but dropped out after about a year and half for three reasons; rent and bills became more of a priority; I realized that this type of work wasn’t as intellectually challenging or stimulating as I would have liked; and it seemed to have drained all the love and passion I had for drawing. I even stopped drawing for about 5 years until I started at Concordia. Also prior to my enrolment at Concordia, I had only dabbled in paint. So painting is still fairly new to me which is exciting because there is a lot to learn (I mean there is always a lot to learn no matter how accomplished one is or one might think they are in any case).
Elaborate on the sexual nature of your artworks. What intrigues you about this subject matter? Why and since when?
The sexual content in my recent work stems from a box of Polaroid’s the father of my ex-boyfriend had ‘found’. It’s kind of a long story but basically he was helping his friend clean out her garage of which she was storing some belongings of one of her friends. She had been storing them for about 40 years because her friend had moved to Japan thinking he would one day return. I guess he must have contacted her to let her know that he would not be returning and to throw out/give away everything. So back to the father of my ex- he saw that there was a box of old photography equipment and asked if he could take it home to go through seeing as how there might be something of use to him. At home, he found a little box inside the large box. Inside was a bunch of tourist photographs of the guy from Japan. And finally inside that box, was another filled with his Polaroid’s of his sexual relations with his lovers… These photos are quite beautiful in their rawness and colour.
I guess what intrigues me most about sexuality is how much it varies, how we as humans understand it, the ways in which we try to understand it and how we all posses our own experiences. It is interesting to explore how varied sexuality is and in terms of culture, the different practices, taboos and labels. For example I am a female art student drawing some pretty explicit stuff that a male art student would not be able to necessarily get away with so to speak. And what of the apparent sexual content in mainstream everything? And why is sexuality as dichotomous as we all seem to believe it to be (i.e. heterosexuality and homosexuality)? And what of the sexual labels we tend to apply to ethnicity? Where does one fit, how does one function if one is not white and heterosexual? Where do I fit as female who is not white and is not definitively hetero? All these questions and more are things I have spent a lot of time contemplating over, especially in relation to myself etc. Those Polaroid’s have opened a wide door and a lot of windows for me to explore all this on a more general basis which I am using as a sort of stepping stone (until I have exhausted my general approach) to eventually delve into my own sexuality and experiences (provided I have the courage and more importantly if I can mentally and emotionally handle rummaging through my baggage that I have so carefully stored… away… really far away… waaay deep down… haha!).
I notice in quite a few of your works you do no draw faces. Why is that?
Oh there are a lot of reasons. Some of which I haven’t fully developed yet to properly articulate. But mostly it is because I do not want the viewer to enter the pieces through the face. By having no faces the viewer can more easily assume the figures as their own. I want them react to the content specifically. If it makes them uncomfortable, if they don’t understand, if it angers them, if they enjoy it, I want them to focus on why. I want them to relate it to their own experiences and their own sexuality. I think if they were to have faces, it would distract the viewer from fully relating to the physicality of the subject matter. They might even relate the face to something else entirely.
You do not use a great deal of colour. Is this of particular importance to you when depicting these sexual scenes? Is this a preference?
The limited palette is a conscious choice because I want to create a feeling or mood more than an accurate depiction of whatever the content may be in my drawings or paintings. I have always been drawn to not just the colours I use, but any colour in an image that gives you a sense of feeling or rather that makes you feel something, that takes you away or enhances your present state (for me it is warmth, bitter sweetness, desolation, hurt, softness… oh I can go on…)
But intellectually one might say that my limited palette is also founded on my continual learning about colours (seeing as how I only really started to use colours when I started at Concordia).