Christina Stohn returns home to the Black Forest to capture tradition, folklore and religious beliefs
The photographer photographs where she grew up, after feeling estranged during her studies in London.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 3 February 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Living in a big city away from home can be a jarring experience, especially if you were more used to the countryside. It can feel alienating, perhaps a consequence of being away from your familiar day-to-day or from growing up in a quieter environment. Sometimes, one might even feel distanced from the spiritual and folk rituals that make their lives structured and comfortable.
After Christina Stohn moved to London in 2007 and later went onto study photography at the University of Westminster, this severance from a hometown was exactly what she experienced. Hailing from the Black Forest in southwest Germany, she felt that the move placed her in a completely different world. “I found that living in London created a certain estrangement from my once-familiar surroundings in the Black Forest. Staying abroad enabled me to see things I had not previously been aware of,” Christina tells It’s Nice That. “Every time I returned to my home country, I felt the need to document this region, inspired by my feelings of distance and displacement.”
Christina has previously photographed the Black Forest for editorial projects, mostly shooting high-tech companies to highlight their automation processes. “Compared to that, I feel that the traditions that are still maintained in the Black Forest are quite strange and archaic and I find it interesting to pose questions concerning the significance of customs within our pluralistic society,” she says. “Even though society has largely become secularised in the Christian world, religious events have become commercialised and well established in the tourist calendar.”
She titled her project Höllental und Himmelreich which translates to “Valley of Hell and Kingdom of Heaven.” In it, Christina looks at tradition, folklore and religious beliefs in the Black Forest area. “The Black Forest is often presented by the tourism industry or in ‘Heimat’ films – sentimental films in an idealised regional setting, as a place of longing, full of clichés,” she says. A few motifs that reappear include unspoiled pastures bathing in the sunlight, mills rattling beside a rushing stream or traditional farmhouses. There’s even what she calls the Black Forest big five — cuckoo clocks, Black Forest cake, Kirschwasser, ham and pom-pom hats. It is these exhausted motifs that she tried to distance herself from when creating Höllental und Himmelreich, avoiding landmarks and highly frequented destinations. Instead, the Black Forest itself is referenced subtly as a setting, attempting to distance it from the usual imagery.
In this autobiographical project, she opted for hills and pine trees blanketed in snow. A cut-out-style mural depicts three hooded figures on the perimeters of a body of water fenced by pine trees, where three more figures bathe in nude. In another image, a child stands on green-stepped stairs while wearing a fanged folk mask, signifying the folk traditions that Christina associates with her home region. In the book, she carefully arranges her images such that the photographs are bookended by a natural landscape on one end and an artificial one on the other.
“In my personal work, I focus critically on cultural themes both in rural as well as urban environments, incorporating issues of housing, redevelopment and gentrification. Generally, I find it interesting with series’ to combine different elements such as portraits, landscapes, architecture or interiors,” she says. “In the past, I often documented communities from an outsider’s perspective. However, Höllental und Himmelreich and my current projects are more autobiographical and subjective.”
“To me, photography is a tool that enables me to overcome my introversion. Equipped with a camera and a tripod, I approach strangers and enter places I would not have accessed otherwise, particularly as a tourist,” Christina says. Whether it’s Sarajevo, Minsk or Belfast, she manages to enlist her subjects’ trust in this photographic event. “They opened doors to their private homes so we can gain an insight into other living environments.”
Christina Stohn: Höllental und Himmelreich (Copyright © Christina Stohn, 2018)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.