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When people see no way out of their predicaments, they may decide to simply take the bull by the horns. Some then scale heights – they climb roofs, cross mountain ranges, stand on barricades. Where voices rise up unexpectedly, where bodies expose themselves to the harsh light of the public or worse, the insurgency of the political subject begins, and a boundary is crossed that separates invisibility from visibility. What fell on deaf ears is suddenly heard. Climbing roofs and mountains is one way to cross this line; George Clooney made Tobias Zielony see that going into orbit is another. More on that below.

In September 2014, a group of refugees occupied the roof of Berlin’s Gerhard-Hauptmann-Schule to demand their right to self-determination. The protest was part of a collective movement that generated awareness in the German public for the political demands of migrants; some of these demands were subsequently met. Since February 2014, Zielony has followed several movement activists in Hamburg and Berlin, photographing the occupation of the roof; of Napuli Langa, who lived in a tree for five days to protest the removal of the refugee camp on Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg; and of scenes in Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood. Each image contributes to a narrative about the political subjectivity of the refugees, about their status as citizens.

Zielony’s camera captures people on the margins of social recognition in those moments when they seek to limn their self-image. The distance between photographer and subject bespeaks the complicity that grows out of a shared uncertainty: What comes into view when someone takes a picture – forms an image – of someone else? The uncertainty does not grow any less acute when the pictures show refugees struggling for acceptance and visibility, or when they are the work of a widely recognized German photographer. It led Zielony to abandon the conventional format of the individually framed picture. Instead, he circulated his shots to initiate a polyphonic exchange of views about the protagonists of the refugee protests and their public representation.

Unlike people hoping to move from the Global South to the North, photographs travel freely, and Zielony sent his in the opposite direction. Twelve daily papers in Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and Sudan accepted his proposal to run the pictures from Hamburg and Berlin with reports on refugee movements, rebellion, and photography. Each of these contributions framed Zielony’s photographs in a different way.