I liked Jutta Benzenberg's work a lot when I discovered her on facebook. The German born photographer had worked on stories in Albania for the last 20 years, the European country of which until today so little is known. Many of those excellent photographs are on view on her website. But when she shared her series PHOENIX I was really touched, those photographs are prints from negatives she saved after her house burned down in Albania. The images have an 'unworldly' quality, a spirituality of their own, almost as having waited for this process of being exposed to fire in order to be 'whole'.
Below is a text about the experience in Jutta's own words, please view the images at : http://juttabenzenberg.com/category/image/phoenix/
I found the negatives in the ashes: thirty years of experience now melted beyond rescue. In just a few hours my entire life had been reduced to ground zero. Negatives, memories, my things, my furniture and… my whole life with its natural colours, now turned to mere dark matter. My husband's voice with its shocking news echoed deep in my mind. “Everything was destroyed. Everything”. This was the lowest point. This went beyond fear. It was like the death of someone close. I couldn’t remember how long I remained in shock, but I recalled in a flash my father's motto, "Never attach your heart to material things". All right, father, but what about this? I was alone with these ashes, naked, bereft of everything.
I knew from experience that the camera can be kind but at the same time 'cruel'. Even in its ‘cruelty’ it produces another sort of beauty, but in the face of this destruction my camera was powerless. My hands hung heavy, I sank into my misery, speechless at this crossroads. At such a time, you have to shoulder your cross. I tried to stand up but I felt as heavy as lead. My children and my husband were beside me. Be strong, like you always have been for them! Get up, go on for their sakes. My voice returned to me.
Surprisingly, Albania looked the same to me as it always had done. Burning. I had not understood that in my pictures, the subjects look scorched by fire. Sometimes during the '90s in Albania, I felt that everything around me was being burned. I tried to pin down this feeling, but is everything we feel explicable? My black-and-white pictures looked as if purged by fire. I had been ready for this fire: the burning of the Albanian people and places I had photographed. Was this really conscious? An inner voice seemed to say to me: "Look, Jutta, we are here in Albania, but we always carry our ashes with us, and we do not give up on life. Go on." I had always been wary of moralists who claim to resolve images into words. My images needed to be burned!
For a moment I faltered and tried to hold the pictures again in my hands. In my burning house. In my burning spirit… It hurt, a lot.
I glanced through some of the negatives a year later and was surprised. All at once, images appeared. They looked fantastic, just as they were. Burned and yet alive. They had their own inner life. The burned negatives brought Albania and the fire there back to me. I saw that destiny was not leading me down a dead end. I would go on in my own way of “Forward with the past”.
On this journey, I have had a lot of help from my family and friends. Without them I could not have continued, and I am very grateful to them.
Jutta Benzenberg juttabenzenberg.com