Damian Heinisch replicates his family’s journeys made during WW2 in an immense new photographic project
Taking pictures from train windows between Oslo and Ukraine, Damian Heinisch tells of the harrowing journeys that his family once took during the second world war.
- Ayla Angelos
- 13 January 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Damian Heinisch has always shown a great interest in the environment. Born into a heavily industrialised area in Poland during the late 1960s, he yearned for untouched nature – something that was dissimilar to his current surroundings. “This craving was relieved by help of my first serious excursions into the world of photography,” he tells It’s Nice That, “focusing on visits to the landscapes of the northern hemisphere.”
During his earlier years, though, the Germany-raised and Oslo-based photographer practiced in the more traditional sense, echoing the work of black-and-white landscape photographers such as Edward Western and Ansel Adams. Discovering and relishing in the joy of nature, this was interrupted by the early death of his mother, which provoked him to confront a new journey into a “very personal landscape driven by sorrow and despair.”
But with this hardship came remedy, as Damian looked to photography as a way of helping him to address his emotions. This lead to an “intense confrontation” during his time studying for an MA in visual arts at Folkwang School in Essen, in turn forming a different direction for the photographer. “Projecting my fantasies onto the world of a synthetically created nature, I started my frequent excursions to the world of the Alps,” he says, equipped with a 16mm camera. The result of which is a documentary short called Pylod – a long-term project comprising photographs, drawings and installation.
With a career now spanning over 30 years, Damian’s work has been exhibited widely. He’s also been a permanent staff member at Bilder Nordic School of Photography in Oslo for the last 12 years. His practice, too, has continued to lens the natural world, as well as the inclusion of architecture and historical spaces. All of which are united by a deep exploration into the “human soul”, he says, as well as topics of identity and migration – themes that are present within his most recent body of work, 45.
In 2013, Damian travelled from Oslo to Ukraine by means of a train, seeking to replicate the journeys that his family members once took during the second world war. After his grandfather disappeared in 1945, Damian says that he was always eventually going to visit his unknown grave in Ukraine – he who'd vanished like a “ghost” along with countless men from Upper Silesia. Later, in 1978, struggle and unemployment swept the Silesia and forced Damian’s father to flee the city to start a new life in West Germany, a move that was spurred on by forced immigration. “And, as a method of transportation, trains played a significant role in the process of resettlement,” he says. “I began to respect the ‘forced’ journeys of my family members while at the same time documenting my own.”
Accumulating around 4,000 images in the process – all of which were shot on 35mm film – 45 is an emotionally charged series that sees a son search for answers of his own childhood, not to mention uncovering of stories from his family and how human’s can be reduced to mere “cattle” in transport. Taken through the windows of fast-moving trains, it’s an arduous process that involved Damian holding his camera up close to his eye for hours on end. Alongside spotting the tiny moments of human activity through the image-morphing glass, he also sought to capture each and every station board with the name of the location he was travelling through. “Stations were generic places and had recurring elements and similar structures,” he says, stating how he’s always been fascinated by such signs. “They have a high semiotic value for me and evoke a feeling of longing for my childhood.”
The grainy, speculative and in some ways abstract imagery has now been compiled into a book, published by Mack, and was awarded the Mack First Book Award 2020 last summer. It’s also the focus of a new exhibition currently on show at Webber Gallery in London, on view until the end of the month.
The number 45, evidently, has great symbolism throughout the entirety of the project. Not only is it the title of the book – which includes a foldout poster with a typology of all 45 train stations – his grandfather also passed away in a Russian Working camp in 1945, and let’s not forget that the war ended that year. “At some point in all three train journeys, each family member turned 45,” he adds, noting how he’d wanted to also uncover the age at which his grandfather had died. “I realised he was the same age as me,” he says. “This brought a different dimension to the project’s focus, since I could relate to his fate. It gave me goosebumps when I finally realised that my father was the same age when he was allowed to leave Poland with his family back in 1978.”
It’s plain to see how great an impact the process of making this project has had on Damian. After reaching his final location and compiling his workings into a coherent publication and show, 45 is a way for him to reconcile with his past and to pay respects to the generations he was raised by. “When I reached the point of my destination in Debalzewe in east Ukraine, I selected a beautiful graveyard and a place as a symbol for my grandfather’s unknown grave, and left some red and white flowers there,” he says, concluding the project with an act of peaceful closure. “And I called both of his children, my aunt and my father. Hearing their voices, I understood something was closing in a positive way. I was the first and most probably the last member of the family who visited this place.”
Damian Heinisch’s 45 is on show at Webber Gallery, London, from 3 December 2020 to 29 January 2021.
GalleryDamian Heinisch: 45 (Copyright © Damian Heinisch, 2021)
Damian Heinisch: 45 (Copyright © Damian Heinisch, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.