Sometimes you have to leave your home in order to see it with fresh eyes. For Arne Piepke, this meant buying a one-way ticket to Norway with his best friend and
departing the quietude of rural Sauerland,
Germany, for an unforgiving climate, with only a
backpack and a tent.
It was during this gap year, in 2015,
after graduating high school and before his
photography studies at the University of Applied
Sciences and Art in Dortmund, Germany, that
Piepke began to document the histories of the
environments and the stories of people he
encountered along the way.
“As a young child my interests were mainly
determined by my father’s [interests],” Piepke
says, which were primarily rooted in music.
“Photography was something that no one did in
my family; I found it for myself.”
During this time, Piepke observed two themes
emerging in his work: identity and community.
His search for belonging in the world and a
desire to reconcile unquiet feelings about his
past led him home later that year.
One hallmark of his rural German upbringing
were marksmen clubs, or Schützenverein, where
local residents take up target shooting in a social
setting and host festivals dedicated to the sport.
Fascinated by this subculture, Piepke began
the project, “Glaube, Sitte, Heimat”—which
translates to “Faith, Custom, Home”—the motto
inscribed on the marksman flag. Over the course
of a few years, he shot more than 15 three-day
Schützenfest events throughout small villages in
Germany, some with as little as 300 inhabitants.
“I had mixed feelings about the marching
and the guns, something which you don’t often
see in Germany,” Piepke explains. “I wanted to
explore it deeper.” He says, however, that he
decided to make the series more exploratory
rather than political. “Why do people keep rituals
and customs, and how does it shape their social
behavior and identity?” he asks.
This kind of sophistication is evident
throughout Piepke’s work. He isn’t naïve
to his inability to be purely objective as a
documentarian; in this series, he points to his
subjectivity by emphasizing the theatrics—
and absurdities—in marksmen culture (for
example, the proclamation of a king and queen
during the festivals).
“Because [documentary photography] is so
fragmentary,” Piepke says, “I believe the right
context and honesty of the photographer is very
important.” One way Piepke remains honest is
by revealing his presence in the images. ”Being
honest with the protagonist, the viewer and the
medium itself” brings humanistic value to the
work, he says.
For Piepke, photography has been both a
tool for anthropological discovery and his own
catharsis. It also stems from being in touch
with his inner voice, he says, to make long-term
projects that aren’t necessarily market-driven.
An example of this sentiment is his series,
“Up There by the Trees,” in which he renders
trunks and branches with the same stoic
reverence he gives to his human subjects.
Piepke made the series in his hometown
to confront his own psyche and the mental
illness he was diagnosed with eight years
ago.“ It helped me understand the triggers of
my disease and to deal with the ambivalent
relationship to my roots,” he says. “I could
visualize things that were difficult to put into
words.” He sees this series as an essential step
in his healing process. “I used the camera not
only to document, but to create an intimate
insight into my feelings.”
He approached “Up There by the Trees”
as a documentarian, but opted for stylistic
choices that included bright flash and black-
and-white film. “I like it when documentation
and abstraction flip over and are not clearly
definable,” he says. Further, the monochromatic
“manipulation” and the “aggression” of the
front flash, he says, are emblematic of his
relationship to his hometown.
Piepke, who takes inspiration from
documentary photographers such as Rob
THIS SPREAD: Images from Piepke’s series “Glaube, Sitte, Heimat,” which he shot over several
years at more than 15 festivals hosted by local marksmen clubs around Germany.