Marco del Pra’: Documenting a Village Before it Dissapears

A compassionate photographer creates a compelling scroll-documentary that captures the humanity of a small town and exposes the hypocrisy of Germany’s vaunted energy transformation.

Marco del Pra’ was born in Italy in 1979. He studied photography in Milan and visual communication at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany. Based in Berlin since 2005 he is working as a freelance photographer for international newspapers and magazines as well as on longer photojournalistic projects. He specializes in documentary, portraits, and editorial photography. Here is the heartfelt story of his Atterwasch project.

Q: You last appeared on the Leica Camera blog in April 2013. What have you been up to professionally since we last spoke?

A: It has been a year full of news, thanks to the experience gained working on a web documentary. As the author, I had to deal with news-gathering tasks, and especially production, project management, finding media partnerships, team management, PR, etc.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your Atterwasch project? When and where was it shot?

A: Atterwasch is a documentary about the German village of Atterwasch that is under pressure to make way for a brown coal open-cast mine, despite the fact that the village exemplifies Germany’s acclaimed energy transition. This is a multimedia documentary that focuses on the uncertainty Atterwasch’s residents were confronted with over a one-year period (2013-2014).

Atterwasch is a village nested in a marsh area, right on the German-Polish border. It’s a beautiful village, but one that is slated to vanish in 10 to 15 years. Coal mining shovels, excavators and diggers are closing in on it in an effort to dig up the brown coal underneath it. Atterwasch is just the latest in a series of German villages under threat. Since 2007, a major energy group has been eager to dig up the coal in order to turn it into a source of cheap power supplying industries and cities.

Ironically Atterwasch currently experiences what it means to be self-sufficient, energy-wise. In other words, in today’s Germany entire villages continue to be dismantled and displaced, despite being energy role models.

Q: What was the purpose of the project? Was it an assignment?

A: The project was not an assignment. Our purpose was threefold: 1) To confront Germany, and the German government in particular with its own contradictions, and to demystify its energy policy. 2) To reveal the pervasive lack of democracy in Europe when it comes to big business. 3) To capture a village before it disappears, and to illustrate the beauty and value of it.

Q: You put together this project in the form of an interactive scroll documentary. What made you choose this format to present your images?

A: I worked with the interactive storyteller Frédéric Dubois. We are both tired of conventional formats in journalism and documentary photography and therefore opted for a format that moves images without using video clips or motion pictures. Also, we wanted to tell the story in anti-chronological order and we found that that worked best using a scroll-documentary format.

Atterwasch was released by ARTE on the 1 July 2014 and in the first seven days 75,000 people watched it. Statistics show us that you can really reach a wide and diversified audience with an innovative format. For a certain type of journalism this is quite a good signal for the future.

Q: Do you have any future plans for the project? For example, do you intend to exhibit it in galleries, publish it in book form, etc.?

A: We are working on photo and illustration exhibits, many ways to arrange live navigation options at photography sites as well as at multimedia and documentary film festivals.

Q: What, if anything, do you hope the viewer takes away from this project?

A: That reality is never what we think about at the beginning. However, we do hope that the viewer sees some hidden realities. If the village of Atterwasch should really disappear by 2025, the viewer can have a vivid memory of how things were back in 2014. Its documentary value will then be seen in a different light, as a precious memory.

Q: All of the images are presented in black-and-white. What draws you to this medium and why do you think it is most effective in conveying the human dimensions of the story you want to tell, of a small, old German farming village threatened by an emerging brown coal mining operation?

A: Black-and-white has very often been my choice in regard to narrative style and color is sometimes distracting to me. We (author Frédéric Dubois and me) wanted a timeless feeling in the documentary that encompasses the uncertain present, but also the future and the past. Black is the color of lignite. Thankfully illustrator Edith Carron added some color in the scroll documentary.

Q: Which camera and lenses did you use to create the images for this project, and what are some of the reasons you chose them to capture the recent images you have presented here?

A: The photos (except for the stitch of the coal conveyor bridge in the scroll-doc) were all taken with two analog cameras, a Leica M6 and an R6.2, and three single-focal-length lenses, a 28 mm, a 50 mm, and a 90 mm. We chose the analog technique to decelerate the process of taking pictures and also be more discrete with less intrusion. I decided to take all the photographs on analog film as a matter of documentation because to me the negative is much more tangible than a digital file. The light writes, the sign remains. In this project, most likely what is photographed will disappear. It will not be possible to capture the same photographs anymore, and not even literally to be in the same place one day.

Q: After examining the images you have submitted and also having viewed the scroll documentary you helped create, I believe that the scroll documentary is a much more powerful and focused statement about the fate of this small town and its inhabitants because of its superior organizational thrust, and the voices of the participants that deepen its emotional impact. Do you agree and do you regard the video and its still images embellished with artwork to be, for the time being, your definitive statement on Atterwasch?

A: The scroll-doc is certainly a more complete work using photography, illustration, and sound. My photographic selection and editing had to adjust to the format and storyboard. The photos, individually extrapolated from the documentary, require a slower, more contemplative approach on the part of the viewer and more background information to understand the context. We wanted a total immersion of the viewer and to reduce the written element as much as possible to provide a more fluid experience. The interviews were very important in creating the environment without having to add too much written text, captions etc.

Q: What are some of the reasons you believe that documentary journalism must advance to encompass new media and fresh approaches in order to remain relevant and viable going forward?

A: There are so many new formats and endless possibilities in storytelling on the web. We are at the dawn of web-documentary. Experimentation and innovative approaches are always very valuable and what interests me is that it attracts more diverse audiences. Within this project I learned that almost every idea can somehow be realized in a web documentary. You simply need to experiment a lot, and to want to tell stories that need to be told.

We consume a lot of news every day. We are inundated with images. Let’s take time again to explore a theme, to go below the surface, and to create more in-depth and wide-ranging projects. A certain kind photography as well as journalistic news needs time to be digested and the new media approaches give you the opportunity to do so.

Q: While there is one person you interviewed who believes that there may be sufficient time left (as of 2013) to raise his children in Atterwasch, most of the people you interviewed are retirees or elderly that are much less sanguine on its future. Do you think that part of the problem in saving Atterwasch from being obliterated has to do with this age demographic, and also with the fact that a small village, however ancient and appealing, does not have the resources to go up against the government and the big power companies?

A: It is a tricky situation, and the energy companies benefit from this lack of decisive clarity. Yes, one of the big problems in some areas of the former East Germany is that of shrinking villages. This does not make the resistance to big power companies any easier. The lack of young people, the few job opportunities, and emigration to the big-cities all create problems. And then, not to forget, not everyone is against the big companies. Many living in the region of Lausitz see no job prospects other than those provided by the extraction of coal, lignite, and the related trade sector. These small villages struggle against many factors.

Q: Most people think of Germany as a fairly progressive country when it comes to preserving the environment and promoting renewable energy resources. For example, the German government has essentially renounced the use of nuclear power going forward, and many German companies are leaders in developing renewable technology. Even if it didn’t entail destroying Atterwasch, developing brown coal would appear to be a retrograde step, and at least one local politician you interviewed seems to agree. Do you think it would have been useful for you to address the politics behind this apparent hypocrisy, and do you plan to do so in future documentary projects?

A: Germany is experiencing a silent renaissance of brown coal. To exit from atomic energy, Germany burns and extracts even more coal than ever before. A clean energy transition would, and should, be possible. Atterwasch will be a victim of false political decisions, and various studies show that to be true, but there are economic and political interests too strong for a real ecologically based decision. We think we have, in a subtle way, addressed the politics and the hypocrisy and we’ve tried to put Germany up against its own contradictions.

Q: Evidently this image on the left shows a man standing in a control room of a coal-fired power plant, and the image on the right shows the stacks of this plant. Is this correct, and how do these images fit in with your Atterwasch narrative?

A: It is the control room of the coal-fired power plant, the crucial point where the energy produced by brown coal is concentrated and is re-distributed. It’s a completely sterile place in sharp contrast to the reality of Atterwasch. We wanted the viewer to see and understand what might happen. Metaphorically speaking, Atterwasch will one day be emitted from one of those chimneys.

Q: One of the most graphically powerful images in this portfolio shows a farmer in a modern barn tending to his cows. The video also makes the strong point that farmer Schulz has a biogas power plant on his farm that generates more power than the village actually uses, as well as a substantial amount of food, and also that the farm has been in the family since the 16th century. How do these facts play into the story, and is this farm also doomed despite its contribution to the life of the village and surrounding community?

A: Farmer Schulz proved that a biogas power plant can make a whole village self-sufficient. Moreover, he is the spokesman of Atterwasch. He and his family play a crucial role in the resistance of Atterwasch, but he is also the one who does it principally from an economic aspect. Probably his future is not financially doomed, but the work of a lifetime and generations before, building and organizing the farm as it is today is being threatened.

Q: How do you see your photography and multi-media projects evolving going forward? Do you plan to follow up with more on Atterwasch, and can you tell us anything about any other documentary projects on your agenda for the immediate future?

A: Without any particular desire on my part, the history of Atterwasch is destined to haunt me. Maybe it will become a truly long-term project.

I do have many open photographic construction sites. We shall see whether they will convert to multimedia or not. This was my first great experience with a web documentary, and I realized that one can think of many more, each completely different. The possibilities seem to be truly endless.

Q: Overall, what do you think you have accomplished with the Atterwasch project? Do you believe it will have any political impact going forward, or will it have a positive affect on resolving this particular situation or other German developments in energy usage and resource exploitation in the future?

A: We do not expect it will have any direct political impact. Meanwhile, as we are trying to talk about Atterwasch and its actual problems there are still many people in Germany and in the rest of Europe who do not know yet that whole villages are being demolished and resettled, and that huge areas of land are being destroyed for the extraction of brown coal. These are stories that Germany and the large energy lobbies want to silence, and that in itself illustrates the lack of democracy in Europe when it comes to big business.

Thank you for your time, Marco!

-Leica Internet Team

View the scroll-documentary here, or visit the special dossier on ARTE Future here. To connect with Marco, visit his websiteTumblr, and Twitter pages.