Sleeping Next to Stonehenge
If German photographer Julia Nimke hadn’t already trusted in serendipity, her recent experiences in Great Britain would have made her a believer.
“By the time I got to Stonehenge,” says Nimke, “the parking area was already closed. How can a stone monument be closed? I couldn’t take photos, I couldn’t find someone to read the folktale. The guy at the gate asked if I had a place to sleep that night. I said not yet, so he told me about a small road where I could park my van. It was right next to the fence around Stonehenge. A hippy named Rudi was there, too, in a van outfitted like an Indian temple. He had a deep voice because he was smoking cigarette after cigarette and was the perfect guy to read the story of Stonehenge. And I didn’t even have to pay the 20 pounds to go through the gate!”
That was just one of the many times fate was kind to Nimke during the three weeks she spent driving around England, Wales, and Scotland. As part of a year-long project, Nimke is documenting regional folktales by traveling to spots associated with the tales, finding local people willing to be recorded as they read the stories aloud, and capturing them and the areas in photographs.
She began the project this summer in Germany. At first hesitant to approach strangers, she soon gained confidence. “I began with a person I had photographed a few years ago. He was into it, so that was a nice start. For the second tale, also in Germany, I spontaneously went to an old lady I didn’t know. I explained the concept and she said yes.”
Great Britain was next on her list because the island is home to so many legends. In three weeks, she collected the audio recordings and photos for nine tales. “It doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but every tale takes a lot of time. I had to get to the folktale’s location and then find people connected to the area. I had to make sure they understood the idea of the project and that I was not a crazy woman. When I photograph people, especially portraiture, making them feel OK about joining the project is the most difficult part for me. And for some people, reading a tale is even more intimate than being photographed.”
Once she found willing subjects, Nimke largely left them to their own devices, photographically speaking. “These people in remote areas were so full of character. That was already enough; I didn’t have to say, ‘Do this or that.’ Most of the portraits were very direct—in a way, they look like family portraits.”
BUT WHY FOLKTALES?
Nimke believes that folktales mirror the local culture in subtle ways. “For example,” she says, “in Great Britain, the landscape is so amazing and huge, and people would use their fantasy to explain the natural phenomena. They made up stories that said rock formations were giants or devils, and these stories were told mouth to mouth. I like that there are different versions of a tale. There’s no one truth. I like having something that’s not so rational.”
That’s a clue to another reason why folktales appeal to Nimke: They mirror her own art, especially her fog-shrouded landscapes, which would be suitable homes for a mythical giant or two.