6 Questions to: Merlin Nadj-Torma

In her photo series “Here is everything as 22 stars :-)”, the photographer has been following and documenting since the year 2011, the life of refugees in illegal camps on the Serbian-Hungarian border, at the gateway to Europe. She tells us about her personal experiences in this short interview.

The work was exhibited in the fall of 2015 in the PAST IS NOW exhibition of FOTODOKS, the Festival for Contemporary Documentary Photography, and is presently touring through the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

WIR MACHEN DAS: For your Photo series “Here is everything as 22 stars :-)”, with its photographs of refugees on the Serbian-Hungarian border, you received the ZEITmagazin Prize. How did you approach the subject and what was of particular importance to you?

Merlin Nadj-Torma: At the time I was living in Serbia and working as a volunteer on social projects. That’s how I came to know of the illegal camp on the site of an abandoned brickyard, where refugees were biding their time before continuing the rest of their journey to the EU. At that time they were mostly people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. I wanted to see how they lived and what they thought. I was especially interested in what their reasons were for taking on the risks of such difficult and dangerous travels. Often they were the similar dreams and desires that my father also had, over 40 years ago, when he came to Germany as a guest worker. I was very moved by this, especially since I know that the reality here in Germany can be quite different.

It was important to me that the people in my work had a chance to speak for themselves, rather than to have me speaking about them.

How exactly did you proceed?

During the year that I spent intermittently with the refugees, I collected the SMS texts that I received from them. Later I combined them with my photos. The messages represent the thoughts of the person, their daily routine, their worries, but also their hopes. They take the photos to another level.

What have you learned as a photographer and as a person through the project?

A great deal. As a photographer it became clear to me again the responsibility that I carry toward the people I photograph. This can mean that my own project is not the highest priority. I have also learned that long-term projects have advantages and disadvantages. Naturally, a deeper knowledge and closer relationship can be formed with people. But at the same time, there is the danger that a project like this one becomes a part of the system; that one photographs what is not always beneficial. After a while I did had some problems with the authorities and smugglers, and even refugees who thought I was working for the police.

As a person though, unfortunately, I have gained a certain degree of disenchantment toward the authorities. There was a woman in the camp in an advanced stage of pregnancy. No one took responsibility for her. So her small son came into the world at a gas station. But I was also able to witness many moments when individuals stood up for refugees. And mainly these were people who also had very little and were fighting to survive themselves.

And it became very clear to me once again, just how privileged I am. And that I should not only enjoy these privileges, but also use them to help other people who’ve not had the same opportunities in life that I’ve had.

You’re the daughter of migrants who belong to the minority in Serbia and you work a lot with identity and migration. Do you feel you have “arrived” in Germany?

Well, I was born and raised here in Germany. And as such, I don’t really need “to arrive”. Nonetheless, I have a very emotional connection to the homeland and culture of my parents and grew up with a different cultural background than my German friends. In concrete terms, I notice this quite specifically when it comes to family, hospitality, and also humor and the private sphere. In these things, I am very southern European in character.

As a child, for example, when I was at a birthday party and wasn’t offered something to drink there right away, I thought they didn’t like me. Because in our home something like that was unimaginable. Everything would be served up and guests would almost be forced to eat and drink, which could become somewhat annoying also.

If by “arrival”, integration is meant, then yes I have “arrived”. But often in discussions, integration is confused with assimilation. That I certainly am not. Fortunately! For I consider it an enormous advantage to have grown up with two different cultures and to some extent also different values. This meant that I learned along the way to question things and incidents and to see them in context. And also, that there are different values, without the one necessarily being better than the other. And I can pick for myself from both cultures, what in a particular situation seems most appropriate.

In your opinion, what role can photography have nowadays?

To stimulate thought. To give hope. And sometimes only: to be beautiful. Even when I myself sometimes become frustrated, I still secretly believe in the fact that photography can make a difference. Perhaps it can stop no war, but it can motivate individual people to action.

What sort of project are you working on at the moment?

Just recently I completed a project on the subject of faith, in which I wanted to encourage the viewer of the work to question where he or she stands on faith. I am currently looking for a possible exhibition space for this project.

Parallel to this, I would like now finally to self-publish, after many years, my book of “Here is everything as 22 stars :-)”. It should be published in the beginning of 2017.


Thumbnail: Serbia, Subotica, 23.03.2012: To bridge the time while waiting for their try to cross the border to Hungary, migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan are playing cricket in the field with self made bats and balls.


Merlin Nadj-Torma studied photography at the University of Applied Arts in Hanover, Germany before moving to Berlin and working as a freelance photographer there producing photostories and audio-slideshows.
Being the daughter of Hungarian migrants from Vojvodina in Northern Serbia, a region which is noted for its ethnical diversity and their peaceful coexistence, she grew up with three languages being spoken at home. This raised her interest in identity and ethnicity at an early age. Thematically she is interested in human rights issues, migration, ethnically mixed areas and the resulting conflicts.

Translation: May Koot