Eyes on Concrete: Ethical Photography in Public Space

Eyes on Concrete: Ethical Photography in Public Space

Last Updated on June 23, 2023

In a world where construction workers often remain faceless and their stories untold, one public photography exhibition “Eyes on Concrete” is changing the narrative.

A Personal Project: The Story Behind Eyes on Concrete Exhibition

It’s a little-known fact about myself, outside personal circles, that in addition to writing, teaching, and producing art, I work part-time in a hospital as a computer tomographic technician. In layman’s terms, it just means I scan people who usually have just had really bad accidents.

I bring this up now because recently I had a patient who fell off a building from 20 meters high onto the concrete ground. His pelvis was wrecked, and he suffered countless broken bones and internal bleeding. In addition, he barely could speak the local language, in my case German. This John Doe was a construction worker, whose helmet did save his life, but was left literally shattered and distraught.

eyes on concrete public photography exhibition

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the construction industry has a higher rate of fatal and non-fatal injuries compared to other industries in the United States. In 2019, there were 1,061 worker fatalities in the construction industry, accounting for more than 20% of all worker fatalities across all industries in the United States.

The leading causes of worker fatalities in the construction industry, referred to as the “Fatal Four,” were falls, being struck by an object, electrocution, and being caught in or between equipment or objects. Together, these four causes accounted for more than half of all construction worker deaths in 2019. In Germany, a large percentage of these workers who risk their lives daily are immigrants looking for work. Though they remain faceless, the demand for city housing keeps rising.

The Power of Public Photography Exhibitions in Sharing Diverse Perspectives

So as a photographer, I was more than pleased to happen upon the public art exhibition, “Augen auf Beton,” or translated “Eyes on Concrete,” in Berlin, Germany. I was intrigued by this portrait photography project, aimed at giving the many migrant workers of Berlin’s construction sites a voice and a face, which one can meet at eye level.

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Photography has long been a popular medium for artistic expression, and in recent years, there has been a growing trend of exhibiting photographs in public spaces. By displaying photography in places such as parks, plazas, and even on the sides of buildings, these exhibitions aim to make art more accessible and engaging for the public.

Portraiture in photography has the power to capture the essence of a person, convey emotion and expression, and tell a story beyond words. Eyes on Concrete, initiated by film producer Janine Baumeister, seeks to break the anonymity of the big city and showcase the people who play a significant role in shaping Berlin’s neighborhoods.

By displaying large format portrait photographs directly on construction fences, the project aims to promote community and brings to light the stories of the workers who often go unnoticed by the public. Also shown next to the 16 side-by-side the larger-than-life images are bios and quotes from the no-longer anonymous construction workers.

For me, one happen-chance highlight of this project was the demolition of a building whose side displayed a mural of one of the project’s portraits. Below we see the remains of an amazing image at one of the pop-up exhibition sites. Here, the charismatic smile of Mirjan M, a 34-year-old Albanian Industrial Mechanic can still be made out.

That smile, at it happens, is one of Mirjam’s trademarks. As he explains, “I laugh anyway, no matter what pressure we have.”

Eyes on Concrete is a non-profit project that is both barrier-free and free of charge, with no entrance fees or catalog sales. As a traveling exhibition, the portraits have already been displayed and are still viewable in various pop-up actions at different locations throughout Berlin.

Also central to the project are documentary films that tell the personal story of each of the 16 protagonists. Below is the compelling film about Remo F. who, on account of tattoos, describes himself as a work of art.

In the film, Remo, a German Construction Site Recycler, describes in brutal detail the challenges, confrontations, harsh working conditions, and discrimination he often experiences on the job. Hearing his and others’ stories is a reminder of the human experience behind the frantic building of this city.

The project is a personal and social cause for Baumeister, who was inspired by her curiosity about the people on the other side of the fence and felt compelled to pick up a camera to capture their stories. By the way, Baumeister ironically translates to “Construction Master” in German!

The project has successfully generated media attention, including being short-listed for The Guardian’s Festival of Ethical Photography for the powerful portrait of Zeynep K, a female assistant manager construction worker, seen below in the image on the left.

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As Zeynep describes it: “They often asked me: ‘Are you sure you could even handle the construction site language? As a woman, you are more sensitive and much weaker and won’t be able to assert yourself at all!’”

Ethical photography refers to the practice of photographing in a way that upholds ethical standards and values, both in the creation and presentation of images. This includes respecting the subject’s dignity, rights, and privacy, as well as avoiding manipulations or alterations that could misrepresent or deceive the viewer.

Ethical photography also involves considering the impact of images on society and the environment and taking responsibility for their use and distribution. This can include obtaining consent, acknowledging cultural differences and sensitivities, and being transparent about the context and purpose of the photographs. Ultimately, ethical photography aims to promote honesty, empathy, and respect, and to use photography as a tool for social justice, awareness, and positive change.

Public photography exhibitions can serve as a powerful tool for community engagement and storytelling, providing a unique opportunity to share diverse perspectives and experiences with a broad audience. In this instance, the accessibility we as viewers experience through the captivating portraits and films of Eyes of Concrete gives us a rare but striking insight into the reality and lives of these “essential” workers.

As Zeynep puts it, “Not between two walls, but between people. It’s the togetherness that is quickly forgotten, even though that’s exactly what’s most important. But we need much more social recognition for all the sweat, all the hard work of the men and the far too few women who do so much here every day. Because they, the construction workers, are the real foundation of every house.”

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