- Tired of the racist comments she received, Berlin-based Indonesian photographer Irma Fadhila made ‘where are you from?’, a series of photos of Southeast Asians
- Those who have taken part, and spoken about their struggles with identity, welcome the project as a safe space where they can speak about the racism they endure
When Irma Fadhila, 25, an Indonesian photographer based in Berlin, walks through the streets of the German capital, she braces herself for possible derogatory comments. “Hey, sexy lady from China!”, “Ching chang chong!”, and “Konnichiwa!” are a few she is familiar with.
“Normally, all you do is freeze and try to process, because it always happens in a split second, and the people calling me names obviously wouldn’t stop to wait for my response, they would just walk away,” says Fadhila.
The vendor greeted her with “ni hao” – Mandarin for “hello”. Fadhila understands he was probably trying to be friendly, but at the time all she could think was, “Oh no, not again”.
“One assignment was to create a series of portraits of people from a certain community; the other was to design a book,” she explains.
As well as taking their photographs, Fadhila asked them to share their stories, resulting in a series with a kaleidoscope of different experiences.
“My idea was to shoot them with the most natural and honest expressions possible,” she says. “In the end, some are looking vulnerable, others are looking strong. I think their expressions in these portraits have a direct link to their stories or their reactions to their harassers.”
While Hagn focuses on the design of their social media profile on Instagram, Fadhila concentrates on the content. By telling people’s stories, she hopes to have a lasting impact in the fight against racism.
As a result, she adds, Asian men in the West are often regarded with polite indifference, whereas Asian women are frequently fetishised.
Before living in Germany, she had never experienced racism, Lambo adds. In the German capital, though, it happens regularly, most recently on the Berlin subway where she was having a casual conversation with her Vietnamese friend. Out of nowhere, a man sitting across from them started to get angry, telling them they were too loud and accusing them of talking about someone else on the train before insulting their appearance.
“The strange thing about this whole situation was that no one stood up for us,” Lambo says. “No one told the guy to shut up or to leave us alone. People acted as if nothing was happening. They looked away as he verbally attacked us, while my friend and I struggled to protect ourselves. That experience was very difficult to digest. I still remember feeling angry, sad and confused all at the same time.”
“In my childhood, I never questioned it,” she recalls. “But when I got older, I felt angry and frustrated, not only because I was faced with it, but also because most of the time I didn’t know how to react or what to say. The urge to actually do something has become bigger.”
Thu vividly remembers two occasions where she found the courage to speak up. The first time, she says, she was outraged and ranted, but the second time, she tried to engage in a conversation with a group of men who had made fun of her because of her Asian looks.
“That time, I calmly explained that the way they acted was neither nice nor polite,” she adds. “I told them how they can do better, and they listened.”
Thu says she grappled with identity issues for more than 20 years before being able to confidently say that she is both German and Vietnamese.
“It was a long process, but I don’t think your surroundings define who you are, but you yourself,” she explains. “For a long time, I felt that it’s a curse being raised between two cultures. You are faced with reactions from people who show you that you don’t belong to their culture. But my story brings me to what I feel now: my mind is German, my heart is Vietnamese.”
Thu’s new-found confidence and strength also pushed her to participate in Fadhila’s project.
“I think it’s very important to give people who feel lonely and disconnected a platform, where they feel safe and understood, where we help each other and learn from different experiences,” she says. “With my story I want to say, ‘You are not alone’.”
“Any ‘normalisation’ of racist, extremely right-wing and anti-Semitic discourse in and outside parliaments has an impact on the situation of attack and threat in public space, and the AfD contributes to this considerably,” says Sabine Seyb of ReachOut Berlin, a counselling centre for victims of right-wing, racist and anti-Semitic violence in Berlin.
According to Lambo, people are finally waking up to the truth. “Ultimately we are one,” she says. “There is an awakening, not only in Berlin, but all over the world. We have to fight for each other; we have to stand together.”
#RobertReview: 8 | 10
Racism Awareness by South East Asians in Berlin
Published: 5th August 2020.