one day at a time

day 313: memories

memories © Verena Fischer 2012

memories © Verena Fischer 2012


This picture was taken at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf in one of the buildings of the school of humanities. For 3 years I spent every day in these halls, went to lectures and seminars, studied, worried about upcoming exams and met friends in passing. I think I had a couple of seminars in this room, or was it the one next door? The picture was taken from the door of the room. After the seminar I would go out this door to the right, down the corridor and along a quite big hallway, up the stairs and into the cafeteria. There I got in line for a bad coffee and then walked on towards my next lecture. I actually wanted to take a picture out there in that hallway. I remember it having the oddest feel to it, maybe because of the way your steps sounded – I can’t quite remember it anymore. However, after taking the picture in the seminar room I went out the door and to the right, down the corridor and suddenly stood in front of a barrier.

It turns out that most of the buildings in which I studied are closed now due to refurbishment. When the university was built in the 70’s apparently PCB was used in the process. Since this chemical is toxic it therefore has to be removed now that its effects are known. I already had seen a barrier on the floor above, but somehow I did not connected the dots. I somehow imagined that the floor downstairs might still be accessible. So, when I stepped outside the seminar room, the barrier strangely enough still caught me by surprise. It was as if my body had to find out by itself that it could not walk along its usual paths.

Even if there are no new barriers, it is always strange, when you come back to a place, where you used to be every day without even noticing your surroundings. Suddenly after years everything seems meaningful again, you see it in a new light and you cannot help feeling somewhat estranged. Even if I could have gone up to the cafeteria to get in line for a coffee, it probably would have still felt wrong, since I do not know any of the students who study there now. The student parliament elections are happening now and none of the faces on the posters looked familiar to me; even some of the party names were completely new. Before exploring these buildings again I had a cup of tea in a café that did not exist while I studied there. Then I stood outside a building that had not been built yet either. These are the moments when you feel uprooted, different, out of place. And still, the barrier caught me by surprise.

I was a very committed student, studied two degrees at the same time, protested against university fees, knew many people from different study programmes and also worked there for a while. I even made my first tango steps in these very halls, so these buildings really were somewhat part of my home in Düsseldorf. Now that my friends finished studying and that my old stomping grounds have turned into a major building site, I feel that the corridors and hallways, the lecture theatres and seminar rooms seem somewhat less and at the same time somewhat more haunted by ghosts. They are familiar and yet not really.

One could say that my home lies somewhere behind that barrier, in the dark and unknown space of my memory. Maybe, if I could go stand in line for the coffee, I could sever the ties and say: “This is not my place anymore. I do not belong here”. However, the barrier cuts me off from that possibility and home lies just beyond. In my memory it’s Sunday afternoon in this hallway and the lights are turned off in the adjacent corridors. I walk and my steps echo. It is hot and I sip from a bottle of luke warm water. I turn into one of the corridors without looking for the light switch. I open doors and let them close behind me until I have moved to the adjacent building. Then I stand and wait in the darkness of another corridor. I am waiting for something to happen, for someone to appear, since I dreamed of it the night before. Then after a moment or two I sigh and go outside. The bright sunlight hits me and the rest of the memory turns into the overexposed whiteness of an approaching headache.

Were the ceilings in the hallway high or low? How did my steps sound walking along that hallway? Could you normally hear the buzz from the cafeteria or was it quiet? What did the light look like on Sundays when most of the lights were turned off? Did the door of the lecture theatre on the right creak?

If only I could remember …


5 responses

  1. liramusic

    I read with interest. Something sad, though, a “bad” cup of coffee. One would wish that it was a good cup, at least now. And as a photographer, don’t you suppose all sorts of things represent other things in life, whether it’s a doorknob or hall or window. And as photographers, we deal in these feelings, yes? I think so. I’m not sure. You’re not taking pictures; maybe you’re taking feelings. I don’t know.

    June 23, 2012 at 1:55 am

    • Well, the cafeteria used to handle all the students of the humanities and the place was always packed between lectures. With minimal amount of time, it was probably impossible to serve good coffee to all these people. As bad cups of coffee go, it was still on the drinkable side though. And maybe, just maybe, I have too high standards for the coffee I drink anyway. I probably wouldn’t touch that brew nowadays.

      I think you’re right about the feelings. At least that is how I approach it. The photographers I admire all say to be invested in your subject matter. If you don’t care then people will notice. Obviously you can’t keep that up all the time, but I at least try. I guess, what I’m really trying to capture is not only the picture, but also the ‘mood’. I find that very difficult, but sometimes I manage. Thanks for your stopping by 🙂

      June 23, 2012 at 8:11 am

  2. This photo very much feels like a memory… nice capture, Verena.

    June 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm

  3. A haunting image, and story, Ms. F…
    You’ve really nailed that feeling of never really being able to go home… or at least the home we remember / have created in our minds…

    June 25, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    • Thanks! I’m glad you feel that way. I think we all experience that feeling of having lost our home, be it when our friends left to go to university or when we go away ourselves. ‘Home’ is such a difficult concept.

      June 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

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