A few weeks ago I was caught in a sticky situation with a group of Romanian car washers near Kottbusser Tor in Berlin. I’d snapped two of them in a photograph of the moving traffic and within the next two-minutes I was surrounded by eight young men and women rather aggressively shouting at me in angry high-pitched voices. I was on a rather secluded island under a bridge in the middle of a road and the gang looked like they were going to beat me up.
So I showed them my camera and Fringejoyride.com and persuaded them to let me be their unofficial photographer. The boys thought this was a brilliant opportunity to try out photography and offered to be guinea pigs.
At first the light was against them. Somehow we managed to communicate this and the older man pulled his younger company over into the island past me and purposefully putting down their tools of trade, which were diluted washing liquids and squeegee. This was their moment. They looked pretty cool!
The idea that they were included as the residents of the local architecture through photography pleased them. The younger boy was happy to catch a rare break of amusement while the older man looks on into the women standing behind me watching us in this unusual interaction. I promised to give them the printed copies within a week.
This time it was a warm welcome. I realised that I’d become the local photo booth on delivery. Others wanted portraits too, quickly getting into position. The residents of Kreuzberg looked in horror as girls squealed in the scramble for poses.
The girls were even at ease in front of me with no more shame in their cleaning tools. I realised that the circle has been redrawn, now with myself inside. For a moment, the cars of Kottbusser Tors were left soaped and un-harassed.
I asked for the younger boy who was in the first day’s photograph. The group expressed that he had to return to Romanian. They didn’t explain why or exactly where but it sounded like a casual affair rather than a dramatic migration. Six years ago I was in Bucharest doing a orphanage-design research project for Romania’s preparation for entering the EU. The orphanage foundation never received the funding from the EU and I was disappointed that the project was shelved because the box was ticked, but it seems that the young working generation has benefitted from the increased money-earning opportunities abroad and increased transportation freedom.
I reflected about the stigma against Romanian immigrants in Berlin and in the rest of Europe. In our first encounter a Spanish man exchanged stern words with the group in the middle of the photo shoot, then checked if I was okay before leaving me with a warning. I understood what it must have looked like to him, an Asian girl with a flashy camera surrounded by a Romanian clan. National stereotypes contributes all sides: of stigma towards the neighbouring nationalities and of Eastern European populations tension with the wealthier countries and of traditional cultural identities against the new and frivolous ex-communist generation. I was dying to tuck into their stories.
Dissecting ideas of ‘disintegration’ is about breaking down the nitty-gritty rather than polishing over tensions with a wax of politeness. I discussed my encounter with many local Berliners, who were themselves in different parts of the world with different lifestyles five years ago. The traditional stereotypes towards the Turkish has diminished as Berliners have integrated so much into the Turkish culture (especially in food) and is now directed towards the newest newcomers, the Romanians. The gang reps. agreed to do more research experiments in the name of a mutually respectful curiosity.