The Myth of Thumbprints: Reading John Berger in Berlin


Alexis Zanghi in the LA Review of Books:

“THEY TRAVELED in groups of 100. Mostly at night. In lorries. And on foot.”

During the 1970s, migrants leaving Portugal in search of opportunity developed a system to ensure their safe arrival at their destination, and to deter fleecing by people smugglers. Before departing, each man would take his own picture. Then, he would rip the picture in two, keeping one half of his face for himself and giving the other half to the smuggler. Once over the border, the man would mail his half back to his family, to indicate that he had arrived safely in France, Germany, or Switzerland, or any of the other northern European countries reliant on cheap labor from the depressed and volatile countries ringing the Mediterranean. Then, the smuggler would come to collect payment from the migrant’s family, bearing his half of the man’s face as evidence.

These pictures stare up at the reader of A Seventh Man like eerie passport photos. Written by John Berger in collaboration with Swiss photographer Jean Mohr in the 1970s, the book sought to document the daily lives of migrant workers in the industrial north of Europe. In one, ripped in half on a diagonal, a man’s forehead drifts apart from his chin, eyes obscured by the tear, suspended on the page. The effect is one of facelessness and anonymity. This is perhaps the intention of Berger and Mohr: to highlight, and in doing so, hopefully negate the erasure inherent in migration. Berger sought to facilitate “working class solidarity”: to promote empathy among workers, across linguistic and cultural borders. Then, one in every seven workers in Europe was a migrant.

Today, as well, one in every seven people in the world is a migrant, refugee, or otherwise displaced individual.

At the Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin, a collective of migrant artists called KUNSTASYL (literally “art asylum”) are at work on a “peaceful takeover” of the museum’s east wing. On the ground floor, one artist, Dachil Sado, has painted a large Hokusai wave washing over a giant, oversized thumbprint.

More here.