News1968 revolt, women's movement, civil war: photographer Inge Werth...

1968 revolt, women's movement, civil war: photographer Inge Werth was always there with her camera

Inge Werth photographed the student revolts in Paris and Frankfurt, the women’s movement, revolutions and wars: a visit to the camera artist, who is now celebrating her 90th birthday

Peonies bloom. Old, bent trees line the lawn. A wrought iron table with three chairs is waiting. Inge Werth likes the morning light in this quiet Nordend garden. She receives the visitor with her camera in hand. The first recordings are made immediately. “I got curious again,” she says with a smile. The great German photographer has returned to her old hometown after a wandering life halfway around the world: to Frankfurt am Main. On Friday, May 21st, she will celebrate her 90th birthday there.

And her life’s work seems to be in order. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin received countless works, many others went to the Institute for Urban History in Frankfurt. But anyone who knows the woman who was born in Szczecin knows that she cannot just stop. Retirement? Pah! Werth is as lively as ever, direct and hands-on. She has just started a new project. Photographs the homes of the elderly in their senior citizens’ residential complex. “They are so different, beautiful.”

Our conversation meanders through a long life. Inge Werth captured many social upheavals with her camera. The 1968 revolt in Paris and Frankfurt, Swinging London 1970, the “Carnation Revolution” 1975 in Portugal, the hardships and struggles of the people in Palestine, the civil war in what was then Yugoslavia, everyday life on the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia. “I was never interested in glamor, I would never have gone to a movie ball,” that comes with a downright contemptuous undertone. Did she see her work as political? “It would be presumptuous to say something like that,” she countered immediately: “Everyone has to draw their own conclusions when looking at my pictures.”

It is the experiences as a young girl in the bloody turmoil of the final months of the Second World War that shaped her. The escape with the mother on a long trek westward, in the icy cold, shot at by low-flying planes. The omnipresence of death. At the age of 14, she learned to fight for her life. Steel potatoes or coals. They ended up stranded in Hamburg and immediately made the experience: “We weren’t welcome.” From this time, the basic features of their character have remained: “I never liked being dependent.” And: “I am not subject to authority!” No, Inge Werth decided always about their own lives. That also applied to relationships, love affairs. “I am a spontaneous person.” She also looks back self-critically on the past decades: “I am full of feelings of guilt towards some people.” She has offended people, but she will not say more.

As a young woman, she was given a camera. And she learned and understood that you can tell with pictures. “I was interested in the world of work.” Her first large report was commissioned by the IG Metall trade union from the world of work at Krupp in the Ruhr area. “The men there fought for better working conditions, that made a big impression on me.” She visited Israel for the first time in 1963 and was met with harsh rejection from Holocaust survivors. In 1964 she was able to photograph the meager everyday life in East Berlin. Well-known magazines and daily newspapers were soon among their clients: “Spiegel”, “FAZ”. And the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Karin Beuslein, the gallery owner who has been exhibiting Inge Werth’s work for decades, pours champagne at the table in the garden. We’re talking about photography. Above all, you have to know which pictures you shouldn’t take, says the photographer. In the slums of Port-au-Prince in Haiti she came across a man “who wore only rags”. He saw her camera and shook his head. She decided not to take the photo. Even when a police officer beat an almost naked woman, she did not hold onto it. “I don’t photograph objects, I photograph people.”

Today, the ruthless competition of social media has dropped many of those boundaries of morality and decency. Inge Werth, however, “respect for people” was always important. She worked more casually and inconspicuously, without much equipment. She couldn’t afford expensive equipment: “I always had little money.” And yet she managed to get pictures that made history. In 1966 she was there in Frankfurt am Main when the young director Claus Peymann staged the first success of the young playwright Peter Handke in the Theater am Turm (TAT): “Public abuse”. Handke was 24 years old, Peymann 28 years. An iconic photo of Werth shows Handke with his favorite drink at the time: Afri-Cola.

And then came 1968, the year of the revolt, which became Inge Werth’s year. She was living in Paris at the time because she had fallen in love with a young French man. He was friends with Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s brother, who became the student leader. This enabled Inge Werth to take photos that no one else could get. They found their way into a famous book, “Paris burns” by Arno Münster. When the French state put down the revolt and expelled Cohn-Bendit, Inge Werth also left. She speaks about this time without sentimentality: “It was an enthusiasm, yes.” But: “I left, my love was over.” She laughs.

The photographer has experienced this several times: political hopes that have been disappointed. This was also the case with the “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal in 1974/75, when young officers overthrew the right-wing dictator Salazar. The attempt began to improve people’s miserable living conditions, especially in rural areas, and Inge Werth was there. Scraps of memory. “When an ancient man clenched his fist in a village in a revolutionary greeting and laughed.” In 1997, Werth returned to the villages and had to realize: “The poverty has remained.”

A political conflict that has accompanied her all her life is that between Israel and the Palestinians: within, which is just now escalating again bloody. In the 1970s she visited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under conspiratorial circumstances. “At the time I was very divided because I had a lot of Israeli friends,” she recalls. But Arafat showed her the miserable living conditions of the people in the Palestinian territories. “We visited the school of the martyrs, where the children of the killed Palestinian fighters were educated.” She remembers: The only thing the boys and girls got to eat was a little bread dipped in olive oil.

Now it suddenly breaks out of Inge Werth. “This conflict only hits the poor again and again!” Her drastic advice: “Only put the politicians on both sides behind bars for bread and water.” But if you want to survive physically and mentally all that the photographer has experienced over the decades he also needs a certain internal and external distance. Nevertheless, Werth has always remained a committed person. This always brought them into conflict with the prevailing conditions. When the journalist Ulrike Meinhof wrote her book “Bambule Fürsorge: Sorge für wen?” In the early 1970s about the devastating grievances in German youth homes, Werth illustrated the analysis with her photographs. She had to experience how this book became a taboo for decades, because Meinhof soon afterwards led the terrorist Red Army Faction (RAF).

We are now silent at the table in the little Nordend garden. Inge Werth admits that she still misses the lonely Haunetal in northeast Hesse. Between 2005 and 2019, she lived there in an ancient farmhouse that she inherited from her parents. “I have an unbelievable longing for the landscape, for the vastness there.” But immediately she forbids any sentimentality again, calling herself to order, as it were. “My life went well,” she says finally, taking a sip from the champagne flute. The 90-year-old only wants to change one thing. “I wish I had more prudence.” A small smile accompanies this sentence.

Solidaritätsdemo für die politische Aktivistin Angela Davis in Frankfurt, Juni 1972.

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Solidarity demonstration for the political activist Angela Davis in Frankfurt, June 1972.
Frauen demonstrieren in der Frankfurter Innenstadt gegen Paragraf 218, März 1974.

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Women demonstrate in downtown Frankfurt against Paragraph 218, March 1974.

List of rubric lists: © Peter Jülich

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