January 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
In September 1940 the German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin walked into the French Pyrenees towards the Spanish border and never came back. It seems that when the Spaniards barred his passage, he swallowed morphine tablets to elude the Nazis. He received a Catholic funeral, as “Dr Benjamin Walter”, in the Spanish border town of Portbou.
Today the Franco-Spanish border, like most in Europe, barely exists. It’s just a half-forgotten line of stones on a field, photographed by Valerio Vincenzo in one of three magnificent photo-essays on borders showcased here. Nowadays you often only know you have crossed a European border when the telecoms provider on your cellphone changes. Yet as our pictures from Israel, Korea and the Mexico-US frontier show, elsewhere borders still very much exist. The militarised fence photographed by Gary Knight in Arizona’s Sonora desert looks as if it could stand for ever.
But it won’t. Closed borders are by their nature unstable. Too many forces – similarity on both sides of the fence, trade, desire for happiness – gnaw away at them. Already the southeast Asian states united in Asean are pursuing European-style porous borders by 2015. The South American countries in Mercosur have stumbled along a similar path. There’s reason to hope more regions will follow Europe’s example. In most places, history seems to be working against borders.
In the decades before the first world war, you could generally cross a European border without a passport. The movement of people and ideas helped make neighbouring countries more similar. From 1914, European borders began to tighten. The process reached its nadir in 1961, when Berliners woke one summer Sunday morning to find that the East German regime was building a wall through town. At least the wartime restrictions that killed Benjamin had been exceptional. With the Berlin Wall, closed borders became the everyday European reality.
There is a poignant piece of footage from that day: Berliners are standing around beside the rising fence, when suddenly a man and a small dog come running into the picture from the east. The man hurdles the waist-height wire and lands in west Berlin. But his dog, leaping after him, hits the wire. A border guard grabs the animal. The man and bystanders implore him to give it back. He refuses. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Laura Kok