Mon 23 December 2022

Images of the Minett

Identity disputes

We don’t always like or even recognise ourselves in photographs. In the 1980s, for instance, the workers of the Minett did not seem to accept the way they had been portrayed in the photo book “Liewen am Minett” (1986). They accused the photographers of “corrupting morals” and seeking to showcase exceptionally dirty backyards and the ruins of humanity. Photography became a venue for debate and negotiation of regional identity.

“Liewen am Minett” was arguably the first social documentary photography project in the region. It was supposed to document life in the Minett during the industrial crisis in the 1980s, particularly life and landscapes that would soon no longer be found. However, the workers themselves publicly disagreed with the way in which they were portrayed. “Liewen am Minett” started a lively discussion and became an event in itself, a context for debates about the identity of the region and its people.

The story explores and analyses these debates by means of various approaches, including interviews with the photographers from “Liewen am Minett”. When the photo book sparked heated discussion and criticism in the media during the 1980s, they remained silent. Some 35 years later, in a mini documentary, they talk about the concept of the book and comment on the public debate. They are joined by photographers from the next generation to discuss the transformation and documentation of the Minett today.

The book also became a platform for questions about the importance of visual media – photographs – in shaping the ways one sees the world and oneself in it. Questions about the photographic representation of life in the industrial region of Luxembourg led to an exploration of the meaning of photography in general, to a re-evaluation of objectivity in social documentary photography, and to the development of a new aesthetic language.


Minettsmap 1980s

In the 1980s the Minett is full of life. The roads in Esch-sur-Alzette are teeming with cars, young people are dancing to the beat at the Disco Forum in Dudelange, protesters in Schifflange are marching against both unemployment and the Cattenom nuclear plant. At the same time, the Minett is already halfway into the industrial crisis. The Minettsmap – an interactive map with photographs from the 1980s – offers us a glimpse of these times through the lens of an outstanding collection by two photographers, Jos Rinaldi and Fred Bisenius.

In the 1980s, two photographers were exploring the industrial region of Luxembourg by camera. Jos Rinaldi, a mechanical engineer/technician at ARBED, and Fred Bisenius, a social and cultural activist, were documenting the life, work, leisure and landscapes of the Minett. Their black and white photographs both aestheticised and dramatised the views of the Minett, its landscapes, nature and industry during an era of industrial decline. Both Bisenius and Rinaldi respected their photographic subjects and used their cameras to expose humanity in every possible way.

In the 1980s the Minett is a unique place. It is still reaping the fruits of the economic boom in the decades after the World War II, the so-called “golden age of capitalism”. At the same time, it is already halfway into the crisis. The largest industrial group in the country and the region, the ARBED steel conglomerate, is plunging into decline. A tripartite agreement among the government, industry bosses and the workers’ union is sought to ease the pain of redundancy for steelworkers through early pension schemes and alternative employment opportunities. Social mobility is changing the “little Italies” of the Minett towns into abandoned districts or homes for new generations of migrants.

In this period during the 1980s, as the Minett is on the verge of transformation, two amateur photographers are exploring the region by camera. They don’t know each other and their paths do not cross while they are walking the same streets and looking at the same sights of the Minett. They will go on to create a large photographic portfolio of the Minett in the 1980s. It offers a unique gateway into the life of the 1980s and instantly transports us back in time to the streets of the industrial towns to observe the world through the lenses of two photographers.


Men with cameras

In the early 20th century, photography became increasingly popular among workers’ groups all around Europe, and the camera was often seen as a “weapon” of the working class. Despite the fact that photography in the Minett had been very popular since the early 1900s, working men with cameras were more interested in perfecting their technique than using photography as a means of activism or social impact. Towards the 1980s, however, this began to change.

The workers in Luxembourg’s industrial south started using the medium of photography at a relatively early stage. Around the 1900s, amateur photo clubs started popping up all over the Minett region. Indeed, it is quite impressive to note that almost every town in the Minett had its own photo club: from Dudelange to Differdange, Esch to Bettembourg, amateur photo enthusiasts got together to arrange dark rooms and organise joint activities, workshops and public viewings.

However, although the people of the Minett developed such an early and widespread interest in photography, the photo clubs themselves never really used the camera as a “weapon” of the working class. The Minett amateur photographers were mostly focused on perfecting the technical side of the craft rather than seeing it as means of activism or social impact. It was only towards the 1980s, with the industrial crisis, that photography began to take on a new meaning.

The example of the “young wolves” at the Fotoclub Diddeleng in Dudelange and the Fotokollektiv Schluechthaus in Esch illustrates these new developments. The “young wolves” group resented industry-related hierarchies and rejected the role of competition juries in determining aesthetic standards for photo clubs. At the same time, the group of socially engaged photographers that established the Fotokollektiv Schluechthaus promoted a vision of photography that went far beyond its technical potential and promoted the ideas of the workers’ photography movement.

“Biller aus dem Minett”

What did the Minett look like in 1960? To answer this question, we could of course turn our attention to postcards and photo collections preserved by institutions and individuals. Another option would be to investigate Biller aus dem Minett, a long-forgotten photo series published between 1959 and 1960 by the Luxemburger Wort, which offers a unique view of life in Luxembourg’s industrial region.

Between 1959 and 1960, the national newspaper Luxemburger Wort published a photo series dedicated to the Minett. The so-called Biller aus dem Minett (“Images from the Minett”) were intended to serve as a platform for amateur photographers, allowing them to show everyday aspects of life in Luxembourg’s industrial region. Today, the approximately 150 Biller are a collection of historical interest, documenting life in Luxembourg’s industrial region shortly before the economic downfall.

With the Biller, the Luxemburger Wort wanted to convey an ideological message. For the Catholic newspaper, it was crucial to represent the Minett as a region where religion still played an important role and where various traditions still had deep roots. At the same time, however, the Biller show a fascination with progress, modernity and industrial development. Around 1960, the Minett indeed found itself at a crossroads: steel companies still determined the pace of life, but it would not be long before the emancipatory and “post-materialist” ideals of the 1960s would start to become influential. Torn between a celebration of tradition and an endorsement of change, the Biller depict a region whose identity was indeed subject to a continuous flux.

For Minett Stories, we have scanned the entire collection of Biller as they originally appeared in the Luxemburger Wort. The story of the photo series is told in a video, while an accompanying essay offers an in-depth exploration of the themes and motifs found in the photo series.

Images copyrights
Fred Bisenius