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Burning Down the House – To be a Writer is a Big Secret

Burning Down the House is my first photography project. It’s a long-term project about Berlin’s Graffiti Writers. I wanted to create the opportunity to engage with the writers, their identities, and the places personally significant to them. The places that on the one hand serve as a stage for the writers in the portraits, where they present and create themselves, and on the other hand represent scenes and spaces of possibility, which can be used as a metaphor for their stories.

“To be a writer is a big secret. It’s the biggest secret that I keep from my parents. You don’t tell many people, you only tell people who you can trust. There is an impulse to maintain secrecy.” — DUKO

The lifestyle, the intensive attitude to life, the uninterrupted urge to realize one’s potential — these are the essential aspects of the phenomenon graffiti, that in their particular concentration and saturation in an individual person interest me and appeal to me photographically in portraits.

I understand photography as a means of appropriation, where I put myself in relation to the people, stories or objects of my desire. I am curious to see who the person is, how he is like or what he is doing in his civic life! In the end I am left with the experience in form of a portrait, this is the experience I like to share.

As Jo Spurloser said: “Graffiti and photographs are, whether created with paint or with light, cultural techniques of visualization. Out of a coloured mist or a chemical bath materialize signs which reveal the surfaces of the world. Photographers seek out extracts of reality in order to reveal them in a certain light. They observe from a distance and look for the moment in which the ‘pencil of nature’ can be immortalized. Earthly writers, however, seek direct contact in that they write upon the world by fixating almost immediately to the formats of the urban design with spray cans. Their signatures populate the impeccable undergrounds of public transport, walls, glass surfaces and street furniture and as a result make them visible. Their projections arise out of the desire to see their names everywhere. Mounted in shadows, in daylight they reveal extracts of the city in a certain light.”

Instead of accompanying and photographing the graffiti writers on their nocturnal adventures even forgoing the depiction of the graffiti itself, I decided on a quieter alternative to give the writers freedom to choose where and how they were photographed. The resulting photographs reflect on the tense relationship between visibility and anonymity, recognition and ownership.

While photographing the writers with my Hasselblad I began to ask myself if there might be a different approach to ask the writers for a portrait. I chose the Polaroid as probably the most honest and trustful process of photography. One image — no copies, a one of a kind. For the Polaroid portraits I photographed the writers infront of tiled walls in the subway stations of Berlin. To me, these tiled walls function as a symbolic backdrop — a smooth and easy-to-clean surface which gets an allegory for the daily almost every minute battle for order and cleanliness, a projection surface for different ideologies regarding the appearance and function of the public space in Berlin.

„It’s a question of the distribution of property and the representation of residents in the city’s public space. It’s also about an excess of writing, the conversion of surfaces and consequently having an influence on the course of a city’s development. People can simply snap and suddenly paint flows all over the city, just as road networks flow all over the civilized realm.“ — EXOT

While working on the project and getting to know the writers personally, I recognized that the mysticism and tension of the topic graffiti was blurring more and more. Somehow the process was leading to a demystification and a loss of tension of the unknown, which is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and essential parts of graffiti writing. Like Susan Sonntag wrote in her book On Photography: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

„I’ve realized that for me it’s a very central issue generally, what I do, or more specifically that I do something, produce something and have an effect. A crucial factor in doing so is the achievement, only when I’ve achieved something I do feel good. I think that the graffiti scene in Berlin and the achievement-oriented society exhibit a number of interesting parallels. For achievement you receive recognition, through recognition I form my identity.“ — EAST

Every single Polaroid is an immediate testimony of an encounter. Through the immediate visibility of the picture, from one moment to the next, photography turns the present into the past. Both the person being portrayed and me the photographer are able to experience this process. The moment the picture becomes visible creates confidence regarding the singularity of that image and the magic of the moment.

The portraits show my personal perspective on the phenomenon of unauthorized graffiti writing and reveal the implied issue of writers’ social condemnation and prosecution. One writer told me: “To me, graffiti means always hiding, deceiving work colleagues, relatives, and neighbors. After all, you are doing something illegal and have to protect your family. That’s why I haven’t shown my face and want to remain anonymous. The condemnation of graffiti isn’t just alright with me; it’s a large part of the attraction.”


Unfortunately, the first edition of Burning down the house is already sold out. But there are a few Special-Editions of the book still available via the photographers website.


Norman Behrendt

Norman Behrendt (Berlin, Germany 1981) is a Berlin-based photographer best-known for his non-conventional portraits of the Berlin’s graffiti artists. He studied graphic design and photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam.

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