Berlin might as well be a wilderness area. During the winter months, the homeless go into hibernation underground, taking refuge in the German capital’s vast network of heated subway stations like they were nests specially prepared for them to sit out the worst part of the year.
It isn’t exactly pastoral. In fact, it’s quite filthy. But the pattern of taking shelter from the cold is reminiscent of an elementary school biology course, or a National Geographic wildlife special. In the place of nests, the homeless bury themselves in blankets and sleeping bags.
It would be nice to think that there was something seasonal about the reflex. Unfortunately, there isn’t. This is just about survival, and any allusions to the natural world are just that. Their improvised beds are just places to sleep and sit out the hopelessness of unemployment and inequality.
One can see persons living in the rough like this in the city throughout the warmer months. But they are often further out of sight, sleeping out in the open in the city’s parks. You only encounter the homeless in such high concentrations as this during the winter, when they must find warmth to survive.
This is of course not unique to Berlin. Most Western cities, particularly in the United States, have played host to large homeless communities for decades. But, for many, like the author of this column, they only come into regular contact with them during the winter months, because it gets too cold to cycle to work.
So overwhelming has the homeless presence been in my borough, Neukölln, this year, that I felt compelled to photograph it, for as long as I had to take the train to work. Now that the worst of the winter has passed, and I find it easier to cycle to my office again, I’ve begun looking at what I shot, and what it says to me.
I live in a tough neighbourhood. An in-demand and hip neighbourhood but an economically mixed, albeit crisis-ridden one, where tiny, dilapidated apartments that survived WWII run for half a million euros each, and a quarter of the stores are closed on the ironically-named main thoroughfare, Karl-Marx-Straße.
Yet everyone, the world over, wants to live here.
The reasons aren’t hard to surmise. The neighbourhood is heavily Middle Eastern and boasts some of the best Arab and Turkish restaurants in Europe. The grocery stores are cheap, and some of the bars get decent bands. And the culture is about as international as one can get in Europe.
English, Arabic and Turkish are the main languages spoken. German is almost entirely absent, save for the street signs and the newspaper stands. Berlin is every bit the diasporic city that London and Paris once were to immigrants from MENA region in the 1970s and 1980s.
Germans are fond of bashing the neighbourhood for its foreign character. But if you live there long enough, like I have, you begin to realise that this is Germany, albeit a highly cosmopolitan one. There may not be a lot of wealthy people in the area, but the desire for upward mobility is there. It will change.
That’s precisely what attracts so many poor people to the area. Not just the poverty-stricken, but the untouchables, like the persons in these photographs. Their helplessness is a mirror to the sense that people have that Berlin is headed somewhere and that certain neighbourhoods point that way more than others.
The borough’s diversity is not just a magnet for persons of different cultures, but classes too. Though immigrants tend to often be poorer than locals, the way that their poverty, as foreigners, and that of the homeless, tends to get intertwined yields a predictable picture, in which it is impossible to separate the two.
Immigrants are homeless too, if only temporarily so. In between countries and cultures, their displacement communicates, however awkwardly, a symbolic kinship with those who are economically adrift, ensuring a classist response to outsiders, as though they are no different from poverty-stricken locals.
When I see extreme examples of inequality, like my neighbours, and feel impelled to photograph them, these are the sorts of things I think about. I would like to imagine that their portraits of disenfranchisement are consciousness-raising if framed in the right context. They deserve to be represented. Their plight is not porn.
These photographs were also an experiment, of sorts, as they were exclusively shot on in RAW format, on my iPhone, and published immediately, as Tweets, thereafter. I thought of starting a Twitter account, with the title Berlin Precariat. But that would be too much, for me at least.
Better to shine a light on them, in a single blog entry like this, than to immerse oneself in a full-time social media account dedicated to the subject. After all, I live here and report on it every day. Albeit in my own small way, as a journalist en route to a publishing job in the morning.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.