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Photographing Racism

My experience in eastern Germany

By Justin Jin

I wrote this diary, published in Der Spiegel, at the start of my project in 2000. Germany has changed, and I have too; still, this excerpt explains a driving force in my early work, the spirit of which I continue today.

August 23

I took a one-hour train ride west to Rathenow from Berlin. I had come to meet 31-year-old Cameroonian asylum seeker Christopher Nsoh. As a democratic activist at home, Christopher was forced at gun-point to leave the country for “inciting insurrection.”  He hid in a cargo ship that took him to Germany.

Christopher picked me up with three African friends. I had not eaten, so we went to a café just around the corner from the Rathenow station. There were customers inside, but when we tried to enter the heavily built owner waved his hand gesturing us to go away.

Get out!

the man shouted in German. We asked why.

No foreigners, just get out!

The owner charged aggressively towards us. We left and went back to the asylum home, my first meal in Brandenburg spoilt.

August 24

I travelled with Christopher to drum up support for an anti-racism demonstration later in the week.

We arrived in Neustadt Dosse, a small town about an hour away from Rathenow. There we met a strongly built African clutching a teddy bear in his fist.

Declining to give his name, he told us how he was savagely beaten two months ago. He was on his way towards the train station to make a phone call when five skinheads spotted him. They called him an ape, tackled him to the ground, and smashed bottles over his head until he laid on the sidewalk bleeding and unconscious. Christopher spoke with him for two hours.

On our way back to Rathenow, we stopped by a railway station bar in Kyritz. As we entered, a woman who was chatting to the barmaid saw me, and pulled her eyes to mock my Chinese origin. She and the barmaid, both about 50 years old, looked at each other and laughed.

I realised I was an outcast too.

August 25

In the morning Christopher and six other Africans ventured to the town centre. They move in groups for safety. As we stepped out of the asylum home, a group of nursery kids, led by a female teacher, yelled monkey sounds and jumped up and down, like apes.

After dinner, Christopher, Koku (from Togo), Safery (from Sierra Leone) and I visited a nearby disco. Once inside, I felt uneasy. Everyone turned their heads towards us. A pair of tall skinheads said “Shit Niggers” as they walked past. We left without a drink.

As we walked past a bar towards home, a skinhead spotted us from 100 metres away. He thumped both his arms in the air, chanted racist remarks and charged toward us, pausing to pick up a stone.

He grabbed Christopher by the collar, yelling that Germany belonged to him and not to “Niggers” and “Vitchies” (a derogatory term for Vietnamese). He ran into the bar to get his friends and returned, punching me in the face after I made a photo of him. Christopher and Sefary stood between us like a human wall, their arms down in pacifism, while Koku slipped away to call the police.

Two policewomen, around 30 years old, quickly arrived and separated us. Christopher pointed out the stone still in the skinhead’s hand. After a few minutes of questioning, the two policewomen turned to me and demanded my camera. I refused to give it;  they pounced locking my arms behind my back, then dragged me across the road into their car. The aggressor stood free.

At the police station, I was given a tiny plastic child’s stool to squat on, while six officers sat on tables, towering over me, and interrogated.

When they realised I was a reporter, not an asylum seeker, the officers suddenly became very concerned and told me I was not under arrest, but kept there for my safety. One by one they slipped out of the room, leaving only the officer who had arrested me. She knelt next to me in my little chair, patted my shoulder asking if I was hurt, then brought me coffee and offered cigarettes.

August 26

, Berlin

Feeling unsafe, I took refuge at a friend’s home in Berlin. On radio and television, I heard reports of police in Rathenow arresting a skinhead for attacking an “Indian” journalist. The Brandenburg prosecutor ordered a speedy trial and summoned me as witness.

August 29

Tuesday, Rathenow

My stomach churned at the thought of returning to Rathenow for court.

During a press conference held by the police and attended by world media, the police chief praised the two police women for escorting me to safety and emphasized their fight against Far-Right extremism.

Christopher stood up, pointed his finger at the official and said,

This man is lying. I saw how Mr. Jin was put in an arm lock and pushed into the police car.

The crowd jeered at me as I stood on the witness stand; the judge had to silence them repeatedly.

The court handed a five-month suspended sentence to the aggressor, a 21-year-old construction worker.

August 30

Wednesday, Berlin

The police charged Christopher for slander over his pre-trial statement to the press.

I began to feel the daunting weight of documenting racism in Brandenburg. What is racism? Is it in a stare? Is it any worse here than in China, the US, Britain, France? How do I know someone is racist just by the way he looked, or the way he looked at others

Although Neo-Nazi attacks and other hate crimes often get the media limelight, as a foreigner travelling in Brandenburg I experienced much more silent forms of racism. It can be in a fleeting hateful glance, one too short to re-examine or photograph, but long enough to hurt. Or it may be in the tone of speech. Of course, this is all down to subjective interpretation.

One thing, however, is certain: foreigners–including myself–feel the constant threat of racist attacks in Brandenburg, and that puts harsh limitations on their lifestyle. It’s too risky and unpleasant to go out alone. Many foreigners wilt at home, imprisoned by fear.