Borderlines: photography special

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.

I grew up with the Iron Curtain. The other side seemed as mysterious and exotic as Tahiti. Then, on November 9 1989, the East German politburo member Günter Schabowski announced, possibly unintentionally, during a televised press conference, that the border would be opened immediately. That night people danced on the Wall. Not everyone came out. One East German later told me that when he saw the TV news, he hadn’t reacted at all. He could not believe the Wall had fallen, and so he assumed it hadn’t.

The German photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer, some of whose pictures of frontiers appear here, says the fall of the Wall “was the most exciting and positive political event I’ve ever witnessed”. I thought so too, which is why in 1990 I went to study in East Berlin. Phones were scarce, so I used to walk 15 minutes into West Berlin to use the nearest call box. But over the months I watched the differences wane. The 100 bus resumed its pre-1945 route across town. I made friends with East German students, and discovered they were rather like us. The Berlin Wall was an extreme example of a general truth: people on either side of any border fence usually have huge amounts in common. On both sides, frontier people are shaped by the same forces of climate, landscape and (often) local dialect.

In 1990 I also spent a month in an East German village 500m from West Germany. At borders, you always wonder what fate placed some people on one side and some on the other. Wandering through the woods by the village one afternoon, I found out: hidden under some bushes was a small, square stone marked “K.P.”. A few yards west was another stone, marked “K.H.”. The 19th-century border between the Kingdoms of Prussia and Hanover had served again for the Iron Curtain.

Poland-Lithuania border, Lake Balandis near Berzniki, Poland, 2010. Here, the border goes across the lake just behind the two bathers

After the Wall fell, the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt said, “Now what belongs together is growing together.” He meant Germany, but his words were true of all Europe. In 1992 I stood on an apartment balcony in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the sort of courtyard you find in Berlin or Amsterdam. I was behind the Curtain, but almost everything felt familiar. An Indian told me he had the same feeling when he first visited Pakistan: it was like coming home, he said.

Now Europe is the most open it’s ever been. While Vincenzo was taking his pictures he crossed European borders more than 1,000 times. Only once, at the Austrian-Czech border, did a patrolman ask what he was up to. Vincenzo says, “I did not even have to show him my ID; I showed him the pictures of my project, which was enough for him.” Even the Polish-German border, once the fearsome Oder-Neisse line, has effectively gone. Poles and Germans have a bloodier past than Israelis and Palestinians, but house prices have proved a stronger force than history: many Poles now live on the German side, where property is cheaper. Perhaps the European Union deserved its Nobel Peace Prize.

The one town in Europe where you can still see old-fashioned border fences is Belfast. The Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill neighbourhoods are separated by a Peace Wall, but walking around each place, I was struck by their similarities: murals, memorials, churches, poor people wearing football shirts. The photographs of Belfast suggest a divided city à la Berlin, but that’s not right. In the open city centre, Protestants and Catholics work or study together. Belfast isn’t utopia, but it’s much better than Jerusalem.

Europe’s border fences are now on the outside of the bloc: between Spain and Morocco, or Greece and Turkey. Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, the Greek deputy foreign minister, says: “Let it be known: no one is welcome here. Our detention centres are hell? Well, let the story travel: tell everyone you know that our detention centres are hell. This is our last possible strategy, to let the news travel back that life in these centres is hell.”

Yet people still come. I know a Filipina worker in France who wants to pay human smugglers $10,000 to bring her husband and son into Europe. She left her son when he was one and, because she lacked the papers to travel home, didn’t see him again until he was eight.

Switzerland-Germany border, Waldheim restaurant in Büsingen, Germany, 2008. Thanks to the dotted line provided by the owner, customers at this restaurant can choose which country to sit in

Knight’s pictures of the Mexico-US border look like hell too. But in fact, reality is less bleak. The proposed fence across the border, begun in the years after the 9/11 attacks, ended up covering only about 600 of the 2,000 frontier miles. Then it was quietly abandoned as expensive, ineffective and silly. This is the most-crossed frontier on earth. Mexican-US trade hit $500bn last year, up fivefold since the North American Free Trade Agreement took force in 1994, notes Erik Lee, a border expert at Arizona State University. Yes, many poor Mexicans die while secretly crossing the desert at night. Yes, Arizona’s then state senator Russell Pearce pushed through the infamous law requiring police officers to check the immigration status of suspected illegal immigrants. However, even hardline US immigrant-hunters tend to want cheap Mexican labour to build their house, or crave a weekend’s hedonism in Tijuana. As with most borders, people on either side need each other.

Lee’s colleague Joseph Garcia says American politics are now tending towards a more open border. Pearce lost office in 2011. The Republican party, chastened by last November’s election, has begun flirting with Latinos. Meanwhile, Barack Obama wants increased cross-border trade. Politicians may still talk macho about the Mexican frontier, but as we saw in Europe, the sturdiest borders can suddenly evaporate.

Much like the Berlin Wall, the Rio Grande river separates two groups of people with lots in common. Many inhabitants of Mexico’s frontier towns work for American companies, watch American TV, and become so Americanised that Mexican governments have worked hard to “Mexicanise” them, for instance by subsidising traditional Mexican festivals. The two sides also have a long history of exchange: Mexicans traditionally go north for the harvest, then return home for the holidays. Along this border, you can’t always tell who is a Mexican and who a Yanqui.

Such mutual similarities tend to eat away at the highest border fence. They are most obvious at the Korean-Korean border. The fact that North and South Korean border guards can blare insults at each other, and be understood, is why the border will disappear when the north’s regime does. Similarities exist even across the Israeli-Palestinian fences. You see this most clearly in food: these are two peoples raised on hummus, whose methods of slaughtering are so alike that one London Muslim told me that when he couldn’t get halal meat, he bought kosher instead. Regimes build walls partly to obscure similarities. The Israeli government and Hamas each needs the other side to be The Other.

Israel’s wall will only grow. But the temper of our times – the decline in wars for territory, the rise of global trade – means that the future will probably look more like the Polish-German border. In Vincenzo’s words, it’s now “just a wooden walkway leading to the Baltic Sea”.

Europe’s disappearing borders

Since the signing of the Schengen Agreements in 1985, the borders of most of the European continent have been fading from the landscape and from people’s imaginations, writes Valerio Vincenzo. The agreements are a giant leap in the progressive unification of Europe and the emergence of a European consciousness. Today, with 26 countries belonging to the Schengen Area, 16,500km of borders can be freely crossed. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union has ratified the historical importance of this almost imperceptible but radical change in Europe.

With the help of a GPS navigation device and detailed maps, since 2007, I have conducted eight trips along these erased borderlines. I calculated that I crossed the borders more than a thousand times without having to show my papers. Even if these pictures have been taken thousands of kilometres apart, they all provide an image that is far from the stereotype we tend to associate with the notion of a border.

Gary Knight: Homeland security

Kai Wiedenhofer: Conflict zones

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