Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Nothingness in a refugee shelter

The bureaucratic impersonality of ‘H8’ as the name for a refugee shelter sums up the anonymity of the place and the state of nothingness that its residents are reduced to.


Lamin Cham, December 2017 (Lamin is waiting for his friend Mohammed to make his way together to the supermarket 4 km away). Serie “Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing” , 2015-2018. © Sibylle Fendt

Sean Sheehan


When it finally closed at the end of 2018, H8 had been in operation for more than twenty years. Its location: the Holzbach Valley deep in the Black Forest.

Sibylle Fendt first went there in 2015, as part of a research and photography project.

The subject was Germany’s handling of refugees and, although she visited shelters all over the country, Holzbachbachtl was the place that engraved itself into her mind.

Over the course of three years, she made repeated visits and stayed for days, at a time, talking to the refugees and photographing their interstitial plight.

The word she heard most frequently was ‘nothing’, hence the title of her book of photographs: “Holzbachbachtl, nothing, nothing”.

The Black Forest scenery was unfolding around her but for the refugees it had no meaning. “They built themselves dens”, she notes, “small shelters covered by fabrics, in which they drank tea, smoked and used their mobile phones to keep in touch with relatives and friends”.

Most of the time, Fendt was made welcome by the refugees but every now and then, depressed by a lack of hope and feeling a sense of shame, they wanted to be alone.

Hasibullah Gholamnabi, September 2016 (Hasib received this robe for the Feast of Breaking the Fast from his parents by mail.) Serie “Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing”, 2015-2018. © Sibylle Fendt

She would ask herself what would she do if she had to leave her home and try to build some kind of life in a different part of the world. She wonders if she would do something more than sit around, waiting: “I find the question presumptuous and remain baffled. So I spent time with them and tried to simply let time pass by and find meaning in the here and now or in the nothingness and take pictures that reflect this.”

Her 168-page book, in German and English, has 78 colour photographs and they convey the haunting state of being suspended in a void, deprived of autonomy, where waiting is the only option.

Decisions that will change the refugees’ lives will be made elsewhere, by anonymous officials, and in the meantime months pass by and turn into years.

One of the photos shows a mobile phone outside a window; there is no reception in the house and this is the only way to be sure of receiving an incoming call.

Another photo, taken in September 2016, shows Hasibullah Gholamnabi in the robe he received in the mail from his parents for the “Feast of Breaking the Fast”.

Lamin Cham is photographed in December 2017, dressed in a jean jacket and a hoodie, waiting for his friend Mohammed to make their way together to the supermarket 4 km away.

Aso Dizayee, September 2016. Serie “Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing” , 2015-2018. © Sibylle Fendt

Aso Dizayee crouches by a stream, staring into the water, reflecting on his own reflection.

When H8 was finally closed, the remaining inhabitants were moved to other shelters.

The waiting continued. There is nothing else to do.

“Holzbachbachtl, nothing, nothing”, by Sibylle Fendt, is published by Kehrer.

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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