FACES OF EUROPE by Carsten Sander

FACES OF EUROPE by Carsten Sander  _ Interactive behind the scenes

Tallinn/Estonia, mileage: 28.000. The photo art project FACES OF EUROPE is in countdown as I start my journey as a travelling companion from Estonia via Finland and Sweden to Denmark.

What drives Carsten Sander to take portraits of one thousand people in the remaining twenty-seven EU countries and to combine them in highly diverse exhibition formats? How do the people in the respective countries react to the notion of the European idea? And why does the master of photographic staging decide to set up this project in a non-staged way?


The answer to this and many other questions was revealed to me during this great adventure, while I was “looking over the shoulder” of Carsten Sander.

One of the most important pieces of equipment creatively fitted for this project is the bus which is waiting for me at Tallinn airport. It is an all-in-one means of transport, photo studio, press office and bed for the night.

The most important protagonist on site after Carsten Sander is the cameraman Adrian Bocîrnea, who records the interviews and impressions of the countries for the short films and the planned documentaries and processes them for the media.

Carsten Sander (l.) and Adrian Bocîrnea

In the background, press agents and representatives of the Berlin Foreign Office are busy making contact with the respective embassies and coordinate appointments. In addition to the people, who are spontaneously canvassed locally, such a project also needs well-known faces from the world of culture, business, sport or politics to be able to give a diverse portrait of a country. And these then are contacted by the embassies and invited to participate in the project which forms part of the cultural programme of the German EU Council Presidency.

Like in Tallinn. The attendance list reflects the range of the protagonists and promises an exciting day.

Original-attendance list (organised and compiled by the German Embassy in Tallinn)

On arrival at the meeting place – despite the usually short time available for every individual shooting – the first thing to do is create a relaxed atmosphere by talking to the people who are going to have their portraits taken, build up confidence, arrange the staging, “tease out” the individual’s personality and then press the shutter precisely at the right moment (see video).

The centred position and a neutral facial expression in particular are vital for the staging. Thus, the photographer’s instructions are repeated over and over: “Please stand straight and upright, look straight into the camera, relax and DO NOT smile!” Supressing any facial expression proves to be particularly difficult. There is a lot of laughter during the shooting. It usually only gets a bit more serious during the live interview which takes place afterwards. It is amazing how openly personal narratives are discussed and what the relationship with the EU membership is. Freedom to travel, training opportunities, free trade relations and, particularly, international exchange are mentioned as ground-breaking for the development of Estonia and also for the personal development. Kaido Höövelson, for instance, tells us how he first went to Japan, which became the basis for his career as an internationally successful sumo wrestler, before he became an actor and finally a politician and breeder of his own cattle. Could it be more bizarre?

Kaido Höövelson alias Baruto Kaito

Seemingly tirelessly, Carsten Sander devotes the same attention to every single person even after working non-stop for six hours. His unflagging enthusiasm for the project, which is bordering on obsession, is obvious. Yet – does the absolutely identical scenario not ultimately get boring?

Sander: No. Even if nobody believes me, it is not and does not become boring! Each encounter and every conversation keep being inspirational. In fact, the constant repetition enabled me to develop a technical routine which resulted in increasing meticulousness within the photography. I no longer need to think about it and can therefore concentrate completely on the person whose portrait I am taking. Because it is about that person, or rather: about reflecting their inner truth. Everybody knows the feeling we get when a camera is pointed at us. We automatically adjust to the situation and mood. So, you get the typical party face, the business face or the sad face and so on. It is my job to wait for the moment when control is lost. During this process I access the innermost being of a person. In the course of time and due to the constant repetition, myself and my object arrive at a casual acceptance of each other. That means, it has become a part of myself, which makes the work easier, as I do not need to explain or question anything. The parameters set by me in advance which need to be adhered to, guarantee equal treatment of every person.

E.B.: It sounds also like an inner balance you have found for yourself. I expect this also helps you to bear the continuous need for flexibility during the organisational processes?

Sander: Yes, it does indeed also help on that level. From the start of the tour I have constantly needed to change plans. On every one of the so far eighty days I am required to again keep calm because every day something unforeseeable will upset our planning.

To prove a point, his cell phone rings. The Estonian TV broadcaster ETV would like an interview. Quickly everything gets put away and off we go. A quick make-up, and the roles are reversed. Now Carsten Sander is the interviewee. To demonstrate the photographic processes, the presenter Jüri Muttika is also having his portrait taken. With great excitement I watch the TV report at night and the final photo. It is amazing, but despite the neutral facial expression of the portrait I do recognise the humorously ironic facial traits of the journalist, which not only characterised the conversation but presumably also essentially determine his personality.

Carsten Sander interviewed by Jüri Muttika from ETV (Estonian TV broadcaster)

On the ferry to Finland we go through the encounters of the day. Who reacted how? But most of all: Did we, generally, feel a more national or rather a more European consciousness? Today’s unanimous conclusion: National pride, yes, in parallel with a distinct allegiance to Europe – and to Germany!?! I hardly dare to say it.

Sander: This is exactly what we have been hearing throughout this tour, something I definitely did not expect! As you know, the never-ending ‘Geschichtsscham‘ (shame of one’s history) was the catalyst for my ‘predecessor’ project Heimat Deutschland – Deine Gesichter which was felt by almost everybody who mentioned his nationality abroad and which was visibly overcome most recently in 2006 with the hosting of the World Football Championships. Suddenly one dared to show the German flag again.

E.B.: Unfortunately, right-wing populist tendencies have emerged in more recent times, so that once again the uncomfortable feeling of shame of one’s history is regaining ground, which had, in fact, only just changed. At the same time, we keep reading and hearing increasingly of separatist tendencies in Europe and all over the world. Presumably it is not a coincidence that the idea for FACES OF EUROPE emerged at this time?

Sander: No. The idea is directly connected with that. That is the reason that I am so delighted with the positive resonance. Against the historical and also the current political background I never expected such hospitality, particularly not in countries like Poland or Romania. Apart from that, I found the countryside there extremely overwhelming.

E.B.: Talking about the countryside. Or, rather: Country and people. Now that you have been looking at so many people’s faces – in your opinion, is there something like a physiognomy which might indicate the origin of a person? Do you recognise the Dutch, the Spaniard, the Pole, the Estonian and so on?

Sander: I do, indeed, discover something specific to a country in the faces – particularly around the eyes, the chin and, of course, the complexion. But, because of migration, there are more and more mixtures, which makes an attribution almost impossible, but makes the face more exciting. Generally, it is the fascinating diversity of people which I want to express.

Our next destination is Helsinki. The meeting place is the square in front of the Oodi, the central library opened as recently as 2018, which does not only display an impressive architecture but also an equally impressive concept, as Patrick Schachtebeck, the commercial and cultural aide of the German Embassy, tells us on our arrival.


“Oodi” Central Library in Helsinki

He too compiled a list of guests which successively, from one encounter to the next, enables us to get to know the country better. Whether it is the children’s books author Timo Parvela or Antti Martikainen, the manager of an unusual shelter for the homeless, or Foreign Secretary Pekka Haavisto, ex-prime minister Alexander Stubb or the footwear designer Minna Parikka, the YouTube-Stars Elina and Sofia or the pig breeder Timo Heikkilä – each encounter reveals a special story.

f.l.t.r. upper row: Timo Parvela, Antti Martikainen, Pekka Haavisto, lower row f.l.t.r.: Alexander Stubb, Minna Parikka, Elina und Sofia, Timo Heikkilä

Driving across town, to the meetings in Espoo and Turku, show breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

From Turku, the ferry takes us to Stockholm. The next attendance list arrives in an email post-box, organised by Clarissa Blomqvist, the chief press officer and head of Public Relations of the German Embassy in Sweden. And again: Nothing but diversity. Three personalities immediately stand out: The 96-year-old Walter Frankenstein, who survived the holocaust in Berlin, ice hockey coach Daniel Broberg and – do I read correctly – Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA? I had EVERY LP, my room was plastered with ABBA posters and I really could join in EVERY song. It is a strange idea to meet him live today.

The individuals mentioned give an idea of the change of mood. We listen to the incredible and touching story of Walter Frankenstein, before Daniel Broberg gives us a “cool” account of the world of ice hockey. Finally, Björn Ulvaeus arrives with his poodle and answers the question regarding the  reason for the ongoing success of his song compositions with: “Work discipline combined with a bit of talent”. The twinkle in his eye at least shows us that – despite his modesty – he is aware of his extraordinary talent.

F.l.t.r.: Walter Frankenstein, Daniel Broberg, Björn Ulvaeus

F.l.t.r.: Walter Frankenstein, Daniel Broberg, Björn Ulvaeus

After this eventful day it is the same again as every evening: Processing images, preparing the planned exhibitions and developing new exhibition concepts. Every location creates new preconditions, which challenge Carsten Sander to develop continuously new presentation formats. For example, regarding the light projections on the front of the Auswärtiges Amt in Berlin, that is planned in connection with the Festival of Lights, or Talking Heads, the open gallery format only just recently worked out.

Projection of FACES OF EUROPE at the front of Auswärtiges Amt in Berlin during the Festival of Lights

This format envisages light pylons for the presentation and projection areas outside which will be complemented by live audio recordings of the respective interviews.

Animation der Open-Gallery Talking Heads

While the idea of FACES OF EUROPE – to depict the individual as part of the community – is already present through the stylistic approach of photographic non-staging, this form of presentation also allows the visitor to become interactively involved in the project and thus in the larger whole, the European idea.

Looking back, I ask myself what significance the interaction actually has for the project as a whole. Every action of the past days, regardless of whether it was an organisational activity, communication, the shooting itself or the presentation of the FACES OF EUROPE, was determined by interacting activity. Isn’t it then exactly the interaction that the project calls for, which ultimately leads to the big picture – the European idea – not only being visualised but also being put into action?

We are Europe!

Further Information

Website FACES OF EUROPE: https://www.facesofeurope.eu

Exhibition calendar: https://www.facesofeurope.eu/exhibitions/

Website Carsten Sander: https://carstensander.com

Report about Carsten Sander on ATELIERBESUCHE.COM: https://atelierbesuche.com/carsten-sander/