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Work / Photography

Jann Höfer explores the history and impact of a former German cult community in Chile

Like Wet Cement is a documentary photography project from Cologne-based Jann Höfer, and explores the impact the sect Colonia Dignidad – now called Villa Baviera – and its history has had on the people and landscape that remains.

Colonia Dignidad, was a commune in Chile and was initially established as an immigrant community by a group of Germans after World War II to celebrate their language and culture. It was taken over by Paul Schäfer, a former Nazi, in 1961 shortly after he arrived in Chile. Through promising followers a god-fearing life in a promised land, he soon established a “system of hard labour, abuse of power and isolation”. From the outside it appeared idyllic, yet in four decades he’d turned it into a viscous cult, with watchtowers and weapons, where abuse of children went unquestioned and Schäfer was all powerful.

Schäfer fled Chile in 1997 after being pursued for criminal charges for his involvement in the Chilean military dictatorship, in which he allowed Colonia Dignidad to become a base for illegal arms-trades and the murders of mutineers. After his imprisonment in 2005, the sect changed its name to Villa Baviera and a process of rebuilding slowly began. For the people that remained there – 120 from the original 330 – it was a period of huge adjustment with many inhabitants only been educated to a “seventh grade level”. Soon old office buildings were turned into hotels, restaurants started serving traditional German fayre and German folk music began playing out on every corner in a bid to draw in tourists and build a future for the commune.

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

Jann had only heard about the story of Colonia Dignidad from researching German villages in Latin America. “I’d never heard of it before. All the articles I read had the same conclusions about its tourism and the 120 people who still live in Villa Baviera: ‘like relaxing in a torture camp’. The question for me was could it be that simple? What about the people who were born in the sect and lived 30 years completely isolated in a different reality and today have no pensions, savings, nothing. Can they all be culprits in what happened or is the tourism just a way to survive?”

The original residents remain in Villa Baviera are portrayed by the Chilean media as culprits for the murders that happened during the dictatorship and not looked upon well by society as a whole. Jann wanted to understand more about this community, as well as get the remaining residents’ point of view and as such he sees the portraits as the most important part of the project. “I tried to get to know them and gain their trust. Beside the portraits, I was interested in their stories,” say Jann. “Though I didn’t ask them a lot of questions. I was interested in their truth and point of view of their own history, rather than what I’d already read.”

Jann was in the village for three weeks and his photographs feel as though they’re set in a different decade through the spotless hotels with kitsch interiors and the seemingly unused communal spaces sitting at odds with the ragged hills of the Chilean landscape. Families pose formally and the unmoving figures in Jann’s crowd scenes create a tension and stillness throughout the series. This unnerving atmosphere is emphasised though the photographer’s detached approach, where Jann’s images are informed by the people and the landscape of the community rather orchestrating them himself. Jann hopes the series gives a “deeper insight into the past and present of Villa Baviera” and delves a little deeper than the many articles he initially read about this Chilean settlement.

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement

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Jann Höfer: Like Wet Cement