2018 — Zanzibar, Tanzania
About this series
Sehnsucht is a term that came into use during the German romantic period; it describes the longing to exist in a reality other than one’s own. Places described as Sehnsuchtsorte are usually real – like Zanzibar.
There are many reasons why Germans connect the name of an island on the eastern coast of Africa with such grand expectations. Most immediately, the tourism industry markets Zanzibar as a tropical paradise.
While Zanzibar itself never fell under German administration, it was a site of overlapping imperial encounters, serving as a centre of the slave trade under Arabic rule before becoming a British protectorate in the nineteenth century. After the 1963 dissolution of its
protectorate status, Zanzibar became part of the newly-formed postcolonial nation of Tanzania. For decades, Tanzania was one of the poorest countries in the world; while conditions have improved since the 1980s, it is still economically fragile.
The German fantasy of Zanzibar as Sehnsuchtsort, then, exists in perpetual tension with the historical reality of Zanzibar as a product of unequal and often exploitative global developmental trends.
The photographer Mirjam Wählen was well aware of this tension when she traveled to Zanzibar. Her portraits acknowledge the educational, infrastructural, and health care disadvantages faced by locals, without fetishizing them. They approach Zanzibari culture with curiosity and respect, refusing the typical German Sehnsucht that has transformed Zanzibar into an imaginary utopia while robbing it of its history.
Ironically, for some Africans, it is Europe that acts as a Sehnsuchtsort: promises of a better life in Europe drive dangerous migrations, leading some to death in the Mediterranean and others to an uncertain future in poorly-maintained camps or a state of legal limbo.
When Europeans pursue their Sehnsucht, the most they risk is disillusionment; when Africans pursue theirs, they risk their lives and freedom.
The photos of Mirjam Wählen strive to replace Sehnsucht with a respectful perspective, a distance that nevertheless cares – a glimpse into a more multipolar reality. (edited) Hendrik Lakeberg
Photographer: Mirjam Wählen
Based in: Berlin, Germany
Mirjam Wählen is a german born photographer who works internationally to create both personal and commercial work. Growing up in the border triangle of Germany, Belgium and Holland, she moved to Paris in 1994, where she gained experience in photography. She went on to graduate as a photo designer from Berlin Lette Academy. Since then, she’s traveled the world for clients like Mercedes Magazine, Sony Music, Schauspiel Frankfurt and her pictures have been featured in magazines like Icon, Nylon, L’Officiel Hommes, Monopol, Zeit Magazin, Intersection, Sleek and Fräulein Magazin.
In her photography she is always trying to get to the core. Mirjam loves to tell stories in a documentary style and enjoys to work with available light. She was educated in analog photography, but she’s also familiar with digital equipment. Her sensitive approach leads to intimate portraits as she understands the value of photography as reciprocal. Berlin has been her home base for the past 23 years.