Tobias Zielony – Social Documentary Photography

Although now one of Germany’s most talked-about documentary photographers, Tobias Zielony remains a relatively unknown name. However, a penchant for exploring the darker sides of Europe’s working-class, fringe communities and a profound storytelling voice reveals him as something of a hidden gem.

Whilst studying Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport, Zielony was first drawn to ‘anti-social’ youth culture in Britain. In shady Bristol car parks, his aptly named series ‘Car Park’ captured listless young Brits in a desolate urban landscape, his images reflecting on their less than fortuitous backgrounds.

Since then, Zielony’s projects have covered ever-increasing territories, both in their geography and their documentary scope.

His Curfew project connected with the lives of young Liverpudlians, showing the destructive boredom arising from a youth spent in one of England’s poorest neighbourhoods. Dustbins are turned bonfires against a backdrop of council estates. Young men stare blankly, sometimes aggressively. A couple make rough love in the open daylight of a meadow. Throughout the project, we are confronted with the uncomfortable truths about poverty in the developed world, the rugged nature of which Zielony appears to capture with ease.

In more recent projects, Zielony has integrated himself with some of Western Europe’s fringe communities – akin to a Hunter S. Thompson of 21st century photojournalism. In 2009-10 Vele saw him explore a northern segment of the population in Naples, Italy. Stacked and sparsely decorated blocks of flats stand tall in an eerie night-time, where locals appear invariably weary and on edge.

His 2013 project Jenny Jenny saw Zielony spend eighteen months living closely with sex-workers in German capital Berlin. The depth this allows him to uncover is hard rivalled. The expressions caught on the faces of these women go beyond disillusionment – their pain is simply far greater. Their humanity, revealed through such intimacy between artist and subject, transcends the lingerie, the street corners, the underlying anxiety, to express the truly brutal impact of prostitution on the women involved.

It is not only the intimacy that makes Zielony’s work so moving, but the subtleties used to invite us into his world. Bleached, cold colours – incandescent street lighting, the paleness of malnourished skin – often impress the bleakness of each story. Hostile environments and shoddy housing combine with the creases and contorts of individual faces to deliver an undeniable sense of place and character. With looming and immovable concrete constructions surrounding their inhabitants, Zielony enables us to realise that such situations are unlikely to change without intervention.

Conclusively, Zielony has shown evidence of just a few of the isolated and forgotten thousands within our communities. The ever-lingering threat of crime, violence and tragedy, with an estranged sense of human beauty despite it all, makes his work truly profound. These people may be listless and lost, but they matter just as much, if not more. Through showing the unseen, Zielony confronts us with the neglected reality that we, now, must try desperately to acknowledge, and to change.

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