"Basement Sanctuaries" explores how apartment building superintendents decorate the basements of their buildings in Northern Manhattan, NYC. These intimate photos attempt to illuminate the process of how migrants adapt to their new homes. 

The basements occupy a strange space in every apartment building. On the one hand, they feel like special sanctuaries for the supers and their families, since the supers often live in the basement. The spaces are mostly hidden from the public and from visitors, thus giving them a sense of privacy. However, the basement is also a space of work for supers and the environment is on display for the residents of the building. Under these circumstances, the supers’ decorations function as a territorial claim over the basement’s semi-public/private space.

Most of the supers in Northern Manhattan are migrants from Latin America or the Caribbean, and images from their home countries might connect their new home to a past they have left behind. This can be especially important given the grueling nature of their work and the difficulty of establishing themselves in NYC.

When photographing the basements I was interested in what decorations I would encounter, how the supers would curate the space using found objects (in fact, most of the objects were discarded by tenants) and what references I would find to each super’s culture and/or dreamscape. The images encourage viewers to think in new ways about how space functions in NYC apartment buildings and broaden our understanding of the relationship between migration, semi-public/private space, and the everyday landscape.

The project has been initially supported with grants form the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC). "Basement Sanctuaries" will be published by Schilt Publishing in the Spring of 2014. As an additional element for the book, I have also photographed and interviewed the supers to present their personal stories. The images were shot on film with medium format cameras. Only available light was used to show the conditions the supers work and live in.

—Gesche Würfel


Exhibition of all 50 LensCulture Emerging Talents: Barcelona, October 13-31

Gesche Würfel's work, along with photographs from ALL the LensCulture Emerging Talents will be shown in an exhibition at the Galeria Valid Foto in Barcelona. Please join us for the opening party on October 13, 2014—we hope to see you there! See a preview of ALL the winners here in LensCulture.

ALL winners have already been featured at photo festival screenings in Dublin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Amsterdam so far this year. Next screening in Korea at the
Seoul Lunar Photo Fest.