Material Witness

Susanne Kriemann on how photography documents radioactive landscapes

This visual essay is part of a series highlighting the commissions and conversations generated by The Lives of Documents—Photography as Project exhibition. Curators Stefano Graziani and Bas Princen asked Susanne Kriemann about her approach to documenting the material and archival histories of radioactive landscapes. Some of her works and research are reproduced here alongside her reflections on how photography can act as a material record of changing environmental histories.

I like to think about the documentary image as a material witness that extends the status of the photograph as an art object. When I place radioactive material on a sheet of film, I imagine the photograph as a meadow subject to pollution. Polluting materials that naturally imprint the surface, such as radionuclides or other heavy metals, radically alter standard notions of photographic and exposure time. Thinking about the photograph in this way changes our understanding of the documented subject and the “receiving” body of the photographic support.

I’ve been working in the former uranium mining areas in Thuringia and Saxony in Eastern Germany for ten years, where large uranium deposits were found in the 1940s. They became highly contested political sites after the division of Germany; the region, initially under American control, was exchanged with the Soviet Union for a quarter of Berlin. We can only guess what might have happened in the twentieth century without this exchange. This is only one contextual aspect of my ongoing project Pechblende, which explores connections between photography and radioactivity.

This complex history of these areas is told by many people in very different ways: miners and scientists, poets, writers, environmental activists, and photographers. Since 2016, I’ve collaborated with geologists and biologists from the University of Jena who are researching and experimenting with remediating these heavily polluted former uranium mining landscapes. I find it inspiring to think about my photographs as cumulative processes combining the “phytomining” plants, archival materials, and radioactive stones.

Susanne Kriemann, autoradiographs. © Susanne Kriemann

In the context of the mining activities in Saxony and Thuringia, thousands of photographs were produced over the past eighty years. Geologists, technicians, activists, and locals, have looked through the camera, released the shutter, and stored negatives or files. If approached as a living, dynamic archive of the past which informs the present and future, these images capture a complex understanding of what has happened in the region. I think the photographic materials make the work. I feel I communicate the archive to others, photographing things that are not readable in documents written about or compiled over these places. For example, I work with pigments made from plants harvested on former mining grounds. I also work with a printing technique that uses pigments that I made myself from these plants. Since they are natural pigments, the lifetime of such a print might be short and maybe remain visible for only a few years.

In photographic printing, some pigments are light-sensitive, disappearing quickly, while others can preserve an image for one hundred years or longer. I make this visible in my exhibitions, showing some images that disappear while others are sharp, but they’re both images of the same object. In a way, I’m involved in a broader archival conversation on how to preserve photographs.

My approach leads me to rethink the definition of the document. Did I take the picture, or was the photosynthesising debris caught on the sole of my shoe or fingernails responsible? In my work, I think the documentary brings together different ways of witnessing these landscapes and the stories told about them to produce a multidimensional image. When collaborating with a radioactive rock, who is doing the work? I’m facilitating contact between the analog film and the radioactive rock for a certain amount of time in the darkroom or cellar of a museum; the rock does the rest. In this case, who is the author? Sometimes my tests take forty-eight hours, or a week, or over one hundred days, but the rock has been “doing” radioactivity as long as the earth has existed—what does it mean to record a tiny moment in the life of this rock?

Susanne Kriemann, Photograph from artist’s fieldwork on a former radioactive mining landscape

When we talk about nuclear, all these images of mushroom clouds or yellow and black signs come to mind. But the first thing that miners tell you is that “natural” radioactivity is everywhere, all the time. It’s always part of our air. There are many ways to understand radioactivity. I’m interested in low-level radiation, which is not immediately sensed on the Geiger counter yet imprints itself over long durations in water, soil, air; it makes its way into every element.

The spectacular ways we think or talk about the nuclear also distance us from it. For example, in the collaborative publication project 10%: Concerning the Archive of a Nuclear Research Centre, thirty-six people looked through a digital and analog photographic archive compiling 220 000 images photographed by in-house photographers, documenting all the various layers and activities of of a nuclear research center. We see people celebrating anniversaries, signing contracts, adjusting machinery, watching explosions. Yet, images depicting radioactivity made visible through autoradiographs are absent. In my project, I selected images and juxtaposed them with photographs from the archive, such as an aerial photograph taken during the construction of the nuclear reactor in the middle of a dense forest. I compared this to a photograph by Wilhelm Knobloch, who was, until recentlym Germany’s oldest environmental activist and a forester in this forest. He cycled around the nuclear research centre every day from the 1950s, observing and documenting the damages the scientific endeavours did to the forest.

I want to bring subjects closer in my work, to play with the threshold of what we know about big subjects that horrify us. For example, a wild carrot growing on the former uranium mining fields has a superpower because it has absorbed some radioactive particles, but I don’t die or get sick when I touch it. By photographing it, I create an archive corresponding to research on the fields conducted in a laboratory at the University of Jena; the grassy fields are a meadow and an open-air lab at the same time. The photograph becomes complicated when people understand what occupied the location before the meadow appeared—this carrot is different from other carrots. Photographically, this tension is not visible but conveyed through knowledge imported from outside the frame of the photograph. The uncanny aspects of the nuclear come to mind when viewing these photographic documents.

Susanne Kriemann, “We Are Become Forest,” in 10%: Concerning the Image Archive of a Nuclear Research Centre, ed. Susanne Kriemann, Judith Milz, Friederike Schäfer, Klaus Nippert, and Elke Leinenweber (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2021)


Sign up to get news from us

Email address
First name
Last name
By signing up you agree to receive our newsletter and communications about CCA activities. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information, consult our privacy policy or contact us.

Thank you for signing up. You'll begin to receive emails from us shortly.

We’re not able to update your preferences at the moment. Please try again later.

You’ve already subscribed with this email address. If you’d like to subscribe with another, please try again.

This email was permanently deleted from our database. If you’d like to resubscribe with this email, please contact us

Please complete the form below to buy:
[Title of the book, authors]
ISBN: [ISBN of the book]
Price [Price of book]

First name
Last name
Address (line 1)
Address (line 2) (optional)
Postal code
Email address
Phone (day) (optional)

Thank you for placing an order. We will contact you shortly.

We’re not able to process your request at the moment. Please try again later.

Folder ()

Your folder is empty.

Please complete this form to make a request for consultation. A copy of this list will also be forwarded to you.

Your contact information
First name:
Last name:
Phone number:
Notes (optional):
We will contact you to set up an appointment. Please keep in mind that your consultation date will be based on the type of material you wish to study. To prepare your visit, we'll need:
  • — At least 2 weeks for primary sources (prints and drawings, photographs, archival documents, etc.)
  • — At least 48 hours for secondary sources (books, periodicals, vertical files, etc.)