Plant an Israeli flag in front of the thatched-roof house that was once Hermann Göring’s holiday resort on the affluent German North Sea isle of Sylt. Add the caption: “More Jewish Settlements on the Sylt Strip.” What do you get? A typical Daniel Josefsohn. One of the most important German photographers passed away this week at the age of 54. Obituaries in most major German newspapers herald him as one of the country’s greatest, on par with his world-famous contemporaries, Jürgen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Daniel Josefsohn was German, but also Israeli; a talented artist, and a charismatic, over-the-edge personality – all in one. And that, in Germany, made for an unparalleled concoction, because here, there is no such thing as outrageously Jewish.
He was born in Hamburg to Jewish parents who emigrated from Israel in 1961. In the first monograph dedicated to his art, ”OK DJ,” published in 2014, he is quoted as saying he never understood why his parents decided to start a Jewish family in Germany just 16 years after the Holocaust. But then, Josefsohn became very German, rising to fame in the post-cold-war, hedonistic nineties with a photo campaign for MTV. His own face, labeled with the bold-letter title “Lazy Ass” was part of that campaign. He was, first and foremost, an enfant terrible with roots grown one hundred percent out of the culture of that time – a punk rock provocateur whose visual language always went way beyond the commercial photography or commissioned work that it was on the surface.
The Israeli flag featured in many of his photos. He carried it around, attached to the wheelchair he had to use after he had had a stroke in 2012. It adorned the wall of his studio, and it also flew from his fire escape outside. Was he a nationalist? Not really. He constantly played with his Jewish and Israeli identity, using the flag both as a stage prop and a provocative symbol, in a way that nobody else in Germany dared to — or maybe even considered. Maybe because nobody else dared to admit that the Israeli flag can even BE a provocative symbol in this country.
As a German, Josefsohn belonged to the generation who came of age in the seventies and eighties. They did not have to directly confront parents with their World War II history – that had already been done a decade earlier. Accepting the burden of historic responsibility went hand in hand with a certain kind of liberation, a spirit that informs his work.
He would ride around Berlin on his bike accompanied by his Red Setter “Jesus.“ The DJs, the restaurant owners, the clubbers, the actors – everyone knew him. I met him in a bar many years ago, and ended up with a small crowd of people at his studio that night. I blew what was probably the only chance I will ever get to have my picture taken in a burka. “I ordered them especially from Afghanistan,” he told me proudly.
But many of his motifs mischievously refer to imagery deeply rooted in German culture. Such as a famous actress clambering up a huge Mercedes star, or a Helmut-Newton-hommage of four tall naked women, ruptured in its fascist aesthetic by the Stormtrooper helmets they are wearing.
The Stormtrooper helmet, by the way, also appears on a photo he took of himself at the Wailing Wall. In an interview, he is quoted as saying that was an easy one to shoot compared to Tiananmen Square in China – where he quickly had to run away from the site, wearing the helmet, because security officials were advancing.
Daniel Josefsohn was in-your-face about everything. “I was certainly the first Jew,“ he said, “to climb onto the roof the Bayreuth Festival House“ – home to the opera festival founded by and showcasing the controversial anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner. A photo of Josefsohn shows him hugging the Bayreuth tower, which he called “Hitler’s penis.”
And that’s why he enjoys an unparalleled credibility where all things Jewish and Israeli are concerned. His boldness made him unabashedly political, his anarchism forestalled any tedious discussion, his sense of humour added charm. It’s why the obituaries talk of him lovingly and respectfully, almost like a lost family member.
Josefsohn knew what it’s like to be an Israeli, he knew the fabric of that deep German sensitivity towards Jews, and he knew what it can mean to be a Jew in Germany: three very different experiences. And that’s why, next to a place in the photographers’ hall of fame, he deserves extra credit for finding a visual language that serves to release tension from that ever-tense relationship between Germans and Jews, Germans and Israel. For being very much out in the open about a relationship that very often has unspoken, disconcerting undercurrents. Goodbye, Daniel Josefsohn.
Miriam Dagan is a TV journalist and writer living in Berlin, Germany.