About the work of Steffi Reimers
What memory does a landscape hold when it witnesses a crime? In this essay, Foam curator Aya Musa dives into the work of Steffi Reimers. Her project Guilty Grounds is a poetic yet emotionally unsettling exploration of landscapes forever marked by the actions of a criminal organisation.
Steffi Reimers' evocative photographic project, Guilty Grounds, offers a profound exploration into the landscapes of Calabria, Southern Italy, revealing them as silent witnesses to the unsettling crimes and the dominating influence of the 'Ndrangheta. The 'Ndrangheta is a powerful criminal organisation from Calabria, Italy, involved in activities like drug trafficking and extortion. It is among the world's most influential mafia groups. What once stood as serene landscapes, brimming with natural beauty, have now been indelibly marked by the shadows of crimes, resonating with profound significance. With a keen eye Reimers captures these landscapes in all their haunting beauty, preserving memories that permeate their fabric - the soil, the air, and the very essence of the region.
Roland Barthes (1915-1980), the French literary critic, philosopher, and semiotician, introduced the concept of punctum in his seminal work Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. This nuanced concept finds a deep resonance in Reimers’ photographic approach. Barthes' punctum describes those unique, emotionally captivating elements in a photograph that can transcend the primary subjects or even the overt composition of the image. Such elements have the power to touch the viewer deeply and personally. Within the framework of Guilty Grounds, Reimers' work consistently displays her ability to evoke this punctum. Whether it is a nuanced imprint of past events on a tranquil backdrop, an unexpected play of shadows, or a delicate dance of light and dark, her photos invite the viewer into a deeper, more personal engagement with each scene.
In a deliberate choice, Reimers excludes human figures from her images, drawing the viewer's undivided attention to the profound emotions and stories these landscapes have witnessed. This approach, while eschewing overt drama, underscores the broader, universal human experiences of suffering, loss, and remembrance. By removing distinct human elements, Reimers ensures that viewers deeply connect with the narrative, evoking feelings of empathy and connection, both with the unseen, anonymous events, and the remembered victims. Beyond their visual aesthetics, Reimers' photos become portals, unveiling the concealed scars, tales, and histories these landscapes have silently held onto. They transition from passive settings to active chronicles, bearing witness to events and even subtly influencing them. Guilty Grounds does not just document physical spaces. It reveals a tapestry of hidden stories, emotions, and histories, offering viewers not just a visual experience, but an emotional journey through the landscapes of Calabria, forever marked by the actions of the 'Ndrangheta.
Echoes of the Past in Present Landscapes
For some photographers, working within the theme of guilty landscapes often translates into a deeply personal journey, seeking understanding, healing, or reconciliation with haunting past events. In Guilty Grounds Steffi Reimers presents tranquil, undisturbed images of landscapes, often associated with peace and untouched beauty. Yet, her work goes beyond the mere act of capturing a scene, making viewers question the assumption that serene landscapes remain unaffected by human actions or historical events. This contrast between the serenity of nature and the echoes of past disturbances compels a deeper reflection. Reimers' visuals bridge the past and the present, nudging viewers to consider the lasting imprints of bygone events on today's landscapes. Embedded within her project are pivotal keywords that shape her intent: Loss, History, Recognition, Healing, Calmness and Distance. These words not only describe the emotional and thematic undertones of her work but also encapsulate the essence of her photographic journey.
The concept of guilty landscapes identifies spaces imprinted with the scars of past or ongoing crimes, conflicts, or injustices. Encountering these landscapes can provoke feelings of unease, moral tension, and even culpability. Alongside this, there is the idea of "witnessing landscapes". These terrains silently observe and remember, becoming chroniclers of the stories and incidents that unfold upon them. They not only bear the weight of what occurred but also challenge subsequent viewers or visitors to acknowledge and confront these histories. These spaces, imprinted with memories of transgressions, confront individuals with a stark reminder of collective responsibilities and evoke feelings of guilt, shame, or introspection. The concepts of guilty and witnessing landscapes serve as powerful tools, illustrating the complex interplay between power dynamics, societal changes, and spatial memories in today's world.
Calabria's landscapes, beyond their physical essence, embody the socio-cultural imprints of the 'Ndrangheta's pervasive influence. These landscapes tell tales of the organisation's grip on the region's economy, politics, and the very psyche of its inhabitants. The ever-present shadow of the 'Ndrangheta casts an air of unease, turning these landscapes into arenas of moral tension and apprehension. Here is where the concept of Landscapes as Witnesses becomes integral. These landscapes, shaped and marred by the 'Ndrangheta, serve as silent witnesses to the syndicate's deeds and influence. Each contour and feature of the land carries stories, memories, and scars of past actions. The terrains have seen the transitions, the struggles, and the clandestine operations. They have silently observed as the 'Ndrangheta carved its niche, becoming passive repositories of its dark history. Just as the earth bears the footprints of those who walk upon it, the landscapes of Calabria bear the indelible marks of the 'Ndrangheta's actions.
Guilty Grounds stands out for its depiction of photographs carrying a dual narrative. On one hand, there is an unmistakable emphasis on specific crime scenes, making them the focal point of the exhibition. These are places of direct transgressions, anchoring the exhibition in tangible realities. Yet, Reimers does not stop there. She also introduces landscapes that, while initially appearing neutral or untouched, are passive yet profound observers of the central narratives of crime. Through this juxtaposition, viewers are prompted to recognise that these seemingly untouched landscapes are, in fact, silent witnesses, forever altered by the crimes they have seen. Their passive observation adds layers to the viewer's understanding, forcing them to acknowledge that neutrality in these landscapes is but an illusion. Within Guilty Grounds Reimers masterfully captures both the quintessential landscapes of Calabria and the covert hideouts and escape channels of the 'Ndrangheta.
Making the invisible visible
Steffi Reimers' project, through its use of forensic lighting, ventures into a profound exploration of contrasting dualities. While the landscapes she presents exude a sense of romanticism and isolation, the very same scenes hold traces of grim real-world events, as brought to light by forensic techniques. This juxtaposition creates a palpable tension between the romantic and the realistic.
Dualism does not end there. Her approach brings to the fore a contrast between guilt and innocence, with the serene landscapes being silent witnesses to heinous acts, highlighting the unsettling difference between passive witnessing and active commission of crimes. This interplay introduces another layer of tension between what is hidden and what the forensic lighting makes visible. Furthermore, the project emphasises the distinction between perpetrators and victims. While the environment remains passive and indifferent, it is impossible to overlook the tragedies that unfolded within them. The viewer is thus compelled to confront and reconcile these opposing facets: the idyllic beauty of nature versus the haunting reality of the traces left behind. In employing a hard, unromantic technique like forensic lighting within an artistic setting, Reimers' work achieves a blend of opposing forces.
This duality—from the evident contrasts of romanticism versus realism, hidden versus revealed, to the more profound contemplations of guilt versus innocence and perpetrators versus victims—stands as a potent force in the exhibition, challenging viewers to re-evaluate their perceptions and delve deeper into the narratives behind each landscape. Through its interplay of dualities, the project aims to provide a pathway for healing by shedding light on the often-unseen narratives. By unearthing these stories, Reimers not only confronts viewers with the profound impacts of crime on individuals and the environment but also offers a contemplative space, where the serene beauty of the landscapes fosters a moment of introspection on the lasting imprints of past events.
The 'Ndrangheta’s Paradox
Emerging from the mountains of Calabria in Southern Italy around 1860, the 'Ndrangheta rapidly grew from its initial foothold in the villages of Reggio Calabria to extend its influence across Italy and internationally. The rugged and diverse landscape of Calabria, characterised by its vast mountains and intricate terrains, played a pivotal role in the rise and dominance of the 'Ndrangheta. The syndicate leveraged the region's intricate topography to establish covert operations, evade law enforcement, and expand their reach discreetly.
The name 'Ndrangheta, possibly derived from the Greek word andragathía indicating heroism, hints at a brotherhood of brave men or Good Men. This contrasts sharply with its actual criminal pursuits, which span theft, drug trafficking, political corruption, money laundering and murder. At its core, the 'Ndrangheta operates on deep familial bonds, with families forming groups known as cosca or 'Ndrina. These groups can work autonomously or in collaboration, known as locali. Today, the 'Ndrangheta stands out as one of the globe's most formidable criminal organisations, overshadowing even the Cosa Nostra in areas like arms and drug trade. Its name, suggesting honour and goodness, belies its true nature, making it a potent and enigmatic force in the underground realm.
The 'Ndrangheta presents a profound duality in its operations. On the one hand, it is deeply intertwined with religious practices and symbols. The syndicate holds significant meetings at the sacred Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi, attracting bosses even from international locales, displaying the group's global unity. The reverence for the Virgin Mary, seen as the protector and healer of the family unit, intertwines with their operations. This blend of deep devotion to Mary, which goes beyond personal beliefs and becomes a shared bond among members, seemingly contrasts starkly with their involvement in crimes, such as drug trafficking and murder. While they maintain an external religious facade, venerating the Virgin Mary and holding councils at sacred places, their internal operations reveal a different narrative. This external religious commitment, though genuine in its devotion, also serves as a strategic facade, creating a protective veil that both conceals and contrasts with their internal criminal pursuits.
A Symbol of Faith
A striking aspect of the exhibition is the presence of a Biglietto de Preghierra, a prayer card with an image of Santa Maria di Polsi. While these cards are often used for personal devotion and to connect with the divine, their presence in this context adds an unsettling layer to the exhibition. This card's placement within the realm of the exhibition symbolises the tension and contradiction inherent in the 'Ndrangheta's dual identity, further accentuating the simultaneousness of their devout religiosity and their criminal undertakings.
The prayer on this card, meant for intercession, is not only cherished by members of the 'Ndrangheta but is also accessible to visitors. Reimers discovered this specific card in one of the 'Ndrangheta's suspected hideouts. These cards, often exchanged among family and friends during religious holidays and special occasions, are symbolic gestures of love, gratitude, and spiritual connection. Additionally, the card is carried as a sacred seal, believed to offer protection to its bearer.
Snt. Maria of Polsi
You, throughout the ages,
have drawn the hearts of men to God
for the sick healing,
for the disheartened hope,
for the sinner's conversion,
for everyone grace and salvation.
Obtain for me from the Lord
the grace I need
on the journey of life
until with You and the Saints
I can behold Jesus,
the blessed fruit of Your womb.
O merciful, o pious,
sweet Virgin Mary.
This prayer, which speaks of healing, hope, and grace, takes on a deeper and ambivalent meaning in this context. In an exhibition that highlights the silent witnesses of crimes and loss, the prayer calls for intervention and mercy. The agency of this prayer is strengthened by the surrounding images. It serves not only as a plea for the souls that have been lost but also as a reflection on the role of the spectator. By placing the prayer in this context, the spectator is asked to engage with the stories the photos tell and to contemplate the deeper meaning of the prayer. It is not merely a card; it is a tangible connection to the 'Ndrangheta's realm, a material manifestation of the intricate relationship between faith, crime, and place.
In Reimers' exhibition, the prayer card's journey comes full circle. Removed from the confines of the 'Ndrangheta hideout, the card finds its place amidst the tableau of 'guilty landscapes'. The exhibition itself serves as a testament to the invisible stories, emotions, and histories that permeate the landscapes of Calabria, making it a befitting backdrop for the prayer card's spiritual and contextual essence. While the card was physically displaced from its original setting, its inclusion in the exhibition essentially restores its spiritual sanctity. Within the realms of this curated space, the card is not merely a displaced artefact but a poignant symbol of the interplay between faith, crime, and the silent witnessing landscapes. Here, amidst the portrayal of landscapes bearing the scars of criminal undertakings, the prayer card resonates with both its spiritual purity and the moral dilemmas tied to its origin.
Moreover, the exhibition embodies an omnipresence of both victims and perpetrators, even in their physical absence. In this setting, the prayer card becomes a bridge, connecting the two realms. On the one hand, it represents a universal cry for faith and salvation, relevant to the victims whose lives and lands have been marred by the 'Ndrangheta's deeds. On the other, it is a reminder of the organisation's pervasive presence, a symbol of the very perpetrators whose actions have shaped these 'guilty landscapes'. Thus, while the prayer card was initially removed from its resting place, within the exhibition, it finds a renewed sense of purpose and belonging. The card, with its duality of spiritual hope and contextual weight, serves as a focal point, urging viewers to grapple with and reconcile the dichotomy of faith and crime, victims, and perpetrators, amidst the vast canvas of 'guilty landscapes'. Within this exhibition, the prayer card is both a beacon of hope and a mirror reflecting the complex narratives that shape the landscapes and stories of Calabria.
In Guilty Grounds Steffi Reimers taps into the deeply intricate relationship between the landscapes of Calabria and the clandestine operations of the 'Ndrangheta. Drawing from theories of material affordances and Affect Theory, she challenges viewers to move beyond the physicality of her images to confront the profound emotional and historical imprints embedded within. These guilty and witnessing landscapes stand as silent testaments to both the transgressions of the 'Ndrangheta and the resilience of the land and its people. The inclusion of the prayer card underscores this duality-representing a beacon of hope and spiritual connection, even amidst the overwhelming shadow of crime.
The exhibition Guilty Grounds is not just a photographic showcase but a powerful commentary on the shifting sands of time, morality, and memory. Through her lens, Reimers beckons viewers to not only observe but to introspect, engage and remember. In doing so, she not only captures the landscapes and stories of Calabria but also encapsulates broader themes of human nature, societal dynamics, and the everlasting impact of history on the present. Through the silent whispers of these landscapes and the profound words of the prayer card, Reimers delivers a universal message: amidst darkness, there remains a persistent glimmer of hope, spirituality, and the enduring spirit of humanity.
About the artist
Through her works, Steffi Reimers is driven by a desire to voice the silence, those stories overshadowed by violence or forgotten by time. Her images, while emphasising desolate landscapes, resonate with the solitude of the affected, urging viewers towards introspection and a deeper understanding of underlying narratives. Besides her artistic endeavours, in 2022, she began her role as a Medical-Forensic photographer at the Nederlands Forensisch Instituut. There, she captures forensic examinations and collaborates with a dedicated team, giving a voice to victims of violence who can no longer speak for themselves.
About the exhibition at Foam
Taking the audience on a journey deep into the scarred landscapes of Calabria, Steffi Reimers challenges the visitor to look beyond the physical sites. Instead, she invites the audience to reflect on how these landscapes are silent witnesses to the largely hidden operations of the 'Ndrangheta.
Steffi Reimers' museum premiere, Guilty Grounds, is an evocative exploration of silent landscapes marked by historical events, underlining her proficiency as a reflective photographer.
This exhibition is made possible with the support of the Van Bijlevelt Foundation, the Leeuwensteinstichting, the Mondriaan Fund and Kleurgamma Fine-Art Photolab.
Foam is supported by the VriendenLoterij, Foam Members, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, the VandenEnde Foundation and the City of Amsterdam.