Damaso Reyes and The Europeans

A U.S. photojournalist’s series at the Amerika Haus captures the continent in the same vein as Robert Frank’s seminal 1958 work The Americans, documenting everyday European life

Top Stories | Lauren Brassaw | April 2013

A skateboarder in Budapest. “My goal is to document how Europe and Europeans are changing, but also what’s there before it changes.” (Photo: D. Reyes)

With the reconstruction of European identity on his mind, Damaso Reyes set out to challenge our picture of everyday life in Europe in the new millennium. The Europeans, a fresh and nuanced photojournalistic project on European society, focuses on change in the long term, on changes – social, political and economic – occurring within Europe and to European people.

In his photos, Reyes tries to portray how these nations and their citizens’ collective and individual identities are affected by things like the single currency or free movement within the Schengen Area. His latest exhibition in the series – at the Amerika Haus in Vienna on 21 February – focuses more narrowly on people living in Austria, and in rural Slovakia and Hungary.

"My goal is to document how Europe and Europeans are changing," Reyes said in an interview following the opening, "but also what is there before it changes." He captures hints of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and contemplates what generations 20 or 40 years from today will think of his photographs. "Ordinary people, on the streets, in their homes" are what interest him, trying to "give a sense of what it’s like to live in Europe at this moment of transition."

It’s a project he’s been working on for nearly 10 years. During a Fulbright Scholarship for photography in 2008, Reyes was able to delve deeper into the social fabric of Austria and surrounding areas, deeper than the usual photojournalistic portrayal of immigrants, asylumseekers, or encounters with the law. "It’s never about [those] people riding the train, shopping or just living their lives," Reyes pointed out. "For me, it’s important to show a diversity that often doesn’t get shown."

Those familiar with the history of photography would be quick to see the parallel with Robert Frank’s The Americans, only this is 50 years later and Euro-centric. "The Americans is a seminal book of photographs about everyday life in the United States in the ‘50s – just amazing, with a rich narrative, but without being didactic," Reyes said. The book captured change as it took place; to Reyes, it was inspiring.

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Reyes, 34, grew up in Brooklyn in a predominantly black neighbourhood. "There was always a question of identity," Reyes says, "so you just become interested in these issues on a very human level." Fascinated by the political and social changes occurring in Europe, Reyes decided to focus on a project that went beyond what breaking-news stories portrayed, and to find out what adopting a European constitution or opening the European borders meant for the layman.

In line with Robert Frank, Reyes tries to not take overly didactic images. "I try to get images which are a lot more ‘open’ and really let the viewers bring their own perspective and their own narrative to the image," Reyes says. "I’m trying to create something that catches the viewers’ attention, that’s more nuanced, more layered, more complex than what you see every day," he says.

Shooting Kodak Tri-X 400 black-and-white film on one of two Leica M6 TTLs, Reyes’ sharply-contrasted images emanate a humanitarian reality and social depth: The elegance of a smile at a Viennese ball; a group of Slovak women dancing in traditional dress; or a young girl participating in a memorial service, Hungarian flag in her hand.

"Even if everybody hates the project, for me the success was really getting to do it, getting to spend ten years traveling and working in Europe," Reyes says. "I create the work hoping it will connect; but you always run the risk of people not liking  it, and you have to be humble enough to accept that and carry on." So far, The Europeans has been a success, especially considering he first bought a one-way ticket to Europe with $400 in his pocket, not knowing how the adventure would end.

In Europe, Reyes sees mobility as an epic of how the continent is changing, reminding us that it affects where you can work, where you can study, even whom you can love. Already, these are things we are beginning to take for granted. How do Europeans see themselves, or others, or each other? What will immigration, migration and European identity look like in half a century?

These are questions posed by an American looking (back) at European societies and wondering – perhaps much as Robert Frank did in the U.S. in the ‘50s – what these changes mean and what they will mean for the future.


For more photos and insights see Damaso Reyes’ website and blog at www.damaso.com

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