Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke are Berlin-based photographers. Since 2016 they have been working on the project Zenker, about the history and repercussions of the life of German botanist and gardener Georg August Zenker. The photobook of the project has just been published by Edition Patrick Frey and it’s the perfect opportunity to have this conversation.
How did you decide to start this photographic essay with strong biographical aspects about the German botanist and gardener Georg August Zenker?
Yana had been to Cameroon for several months right after she had finished high- school and this is where she first heard about Georg August Zenker. Years later, this project was meant to be her graduation project while we were both still studying photography in Berlin.
In 2013, we went to Cameroon and met the Zenker family for the first time. We quickly realized that the story was too intricate and complex for a graduation project. Since Jonas had already been deeply involved by that time, we decided to post-pone the project and work on it collaboratively at a later point. It took until 2016 for us to visit the Zenker family in Bipindi again.
How was your relationship with Zenker’s relatives that we meet in the portraits of the book. How did you approach them? Were they open to being photographed and talking to you about their experiences?
Ever since Georg August Zenker died in 1922, the family have had many Western visitors, often scientists and historians, many of whom showed little respect for the family’s history and situation. On a number of occasions, they seem to also have stolen material that Zenker had left behind (letters, paintings, etc.), leaving the house almost void of remnants from its early days.
Understandably, the Zenker family were very reserved when we first came to the Bipindihof. Over the course of our many visits, we hope to have earned their trust and to have given back as much as we have inarguably taken. We are grateful for them sharing their story with us and for allowing us to photograph them and their home.
The book contains a number of tables from the Natural History Museum Berlin, the Ethnological Museum Berlin, and the Botanical Museum Berlin. What are the possible dynamics between photography and text – how and when do they enhance each other?
Most prominently, the book features a number of letters that Georg August Zenker sent to Paul Matschie (who was the director of the mammals department at the Berlin Zoological Museum and one of the main purchasers of Zenker’s work as a collector) between 1896 and 1920. These letters near perfectly cover Zenker’s time at the Bipindihof, from its construction up until Zenker’s death there in 1922. In the book, they are interspersed with our photographs from present day Bipindihof, paralleling two narratives that share the same place but have happened at very different times.
Next to two interviews with some of Zenker’s descendants, a biography of Georg August Zenker and a short statement on our part, there are the tables from the Berlin museums you have mentioned. Zenker was an avid collector of specimens of plants and animals as well as ethnological objects, which he sold to a number of museums, most of them in Germany. Many of the items he preserved, some of which have been named after him, can still be viewed in these museums today. We were able to photograph a small number of them but even the tables in the book only list a fraction of the massive amount Zenker had collected. These lists raise many important questions about colonial booty, provenance, restitution and ownership.
Zenker is a long-term project. How do you decide the timing to put down the camera, start editing the series and present it?
There were many times when we thought we were done, only to find out shortly after that there are still things we have not photographed or that we did not know. That is still the case but at some point we realized that we would never be able to understand everything. In fact, some of the enigmas and paradoxes we encountered are now an integral part of the project. In many ways, the book is about highlighting the many open questions rather than giving definitive answers.
“In fact, some of the enigmas and paradoxes we encountered are now an integral part of the project. In many ways, the book is about highlighting the many open questions rather than giving definitive answers. “
In the history of photography, we have seen several photographers working as a collaborative duo which offers admirable work. Could you tell us a few words about how you decided to work together?
We are always deeply involved in each other’s projects right from the start. That was also true for this one, which made the decision to make it a collaboration rather easy. Along the way, we decided to give up individual authorship for the photographs, which is further enhanced in the book by printing them full-bleed and thereby equalizing their aspect ratios.
Some photographers prefer photobooks, while others prepare exhibitions for presenting their work. Taking into consideration your artistic activity, you probably like both. Where would you place yourself, if this applies?
Both have their advantages and disadvantages but we certainly lean more towards the photobook. Given its complexity, we had always imagined this project as a book rather than an exhibition. A book offers much more control over the narrative, time (both the reader’s and the story’s time), over the use of text and the overall amount of material. That is not to say that the project could not also work very well as an exhibition, but it would probably have to be thought out very differently.
Could you share some thoughts on the decisions you made with the Patrick Frey Edition publishing house for the book designing, binding, paper?
We were happy to leave many of those decision up to our designers Krispin Heé and Tim Wetter, who are not only fantastic book makers but who also critically engaged with the vast amount of material we had amassed and who helped us with finding the right approach to this book. Edition Patrick Frey to us seemed the perfect fit for this project, given their history of complex and profound books on intricate subject matters such as the story of Georg August Zenker.
Both of you are very active, in addition to your personal work. You recently created together one of the most interesting platforms Stay at Home (which I thoroughly enjoyed) while Yana is also running the Looking at Animals. I couldn’t resist asking what your next steps are. We are currently both working on new projects. Yana is working on a new body of work that looks at the companionship between animals and humans, while Jonas is putting the finishing touches on a photobook about Germany’s past and a reemerging nationalism which will likely be published later this year.
More on their websites Jonas | Yana