Migration as Avant-Garde

Photographs 2008-2017
Artist monograph & video installation

In Migration as Avant-Garde, Michael Danner examines the new ways in which migrants are pursuing their hope for a better life. The term “avant-garde” stands for progress and the way of a pioneer. Driven by the desire to give their lives meaning, and guided by their own integrity, migrants bring new perspectives and points of view to our society. The origin of his work was the reading of the 1943 essay We Refugees by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Migration as Avant-Garde is a fruit of the 2018 Kassel Dummy Award



In Migration as Avant-Garde, Danner introduces the people that make up migration, as well as those that influence, prevent, channel, or impact a migrant’s humanity. This includes, first and foremost, the emigrants themselves who initially choose to cross a border, as well as the societies that make up their final destination; among them the border police, agents of the state, and mass media.

Danner's photographs are accompanied by quotes from the political theorist Hannah Arendt, historical image documents of refugees from public archives, as well as UNO satellite pictures from crisis regions. These depict an even wider spectrum of actors, which are interlaced to create a complete system.

Danner allows us to observe and interpret what we see in Migration as Avant-Garde. His work creates areas of tension between our fears and hopes, and leads the viewer to questions about history and identity. The work also investigates the function and construction of images that are a part of how we perceive the world. This work is not a final assessment of the topic, but rather creates space for dialogue and should encourage a social debate that goes beyond the actual subject.

Michael Danner untersucht in seiner fotografischen Arbeit „Migration as Avant-Garde“ die neuen Wege, die Migranten in der Hoffnung auf ein besseres Leben beschreiten. Der Avantgarde-Begriff steht für eine „Vorreiterrolle“ und die Idee des Fortschritts. Unter dem Einsatz der eigenen Unversehrtheit und angetrieben von der Sehnsucht ihrem Leben eine Perspektive zu geben, bringen sie neue Sichtweisen und Denkansätze mit in unsere Gesellschaft. Als Ausgangspunkt für seine Arbeit dient ein Text der Philosophin Hannah Arendt aus dem Jahr 1943.

Danner macht in Migration as Avant-Garde die Akteure sichtbar, die Migration konstituieren und in unterschiedlicher Weise erfassend, verhindernd, kanalisierend oder humanisierend beeinflussen. Dazu zählen in erster Linie die Auswanderer selbst, die in die Migration eintretend eine Grenze überschreiten, wir als die Gesellschaften, die das Ziel der Auswanderer sind, die Grenzpolizei und Sachbearbeiter der staatlichen Organe und die Massenmedien.

Danners Fotografien sind Zitate der politischen Theoretikerin Hannah Arendt und historische Bilddokumente von Flüchtlingen aus öffentlichen Archiven sowie Satellitenbilder der UNO aus Krisenregionen beigestellt, die das Spektrum von Akteuren abbilden und zu einem Gesamtsystem verschränkt werden.

Danner erlaubt uns in Migration as Avant-Garde zu beobachten und zu interpretieren, was wir sehen. Seine Arbeit erzeugt Spannungsfelder zwischen Ängsten und Hoffnungen und stellt dem Betrachter Fragen zu Geschichte und Identität. Sie hinterfragt die Funktion und Konstruktion von Bildern, die Teil der Wahrnehmung unserer Lebenswelt sind. Seine Arbeit stellt keine abschließende Bewertung der Thematik dar, sondern schafft vielmehr Raum für einen Dialog und soll zu einer gesellschaftlichen Auseinandersetzung anregen, die über das eigentliche Sujet hinausgeht.




Design Anja Kaiser
Hardcover 20×31cm
120 pages
With historical image documents of refugees and
UNO satellite pictures from crisis regions

Verlag Kettler, Dortmund
ISBN 978-3-86206-718-3
EUR 45.00

Migration as Avant-Garde


In memory of Alan Kurdî

The United Nations counted the number of people who had migrated to be at 258 million, internationally, in 2017. Of those, 65 million people have been forcibly displaced, and 26 million are refugees, some of the highest numbers of this kind recorded to date. However, settling elsewhere isn’t unfamiliar to most of us. Many people have had the experience of leaving the place where they grew up. Some may only move as far as the next town; others will need to leave to get an education or for work, many are forced to flee due to conflict, persecution or natural disasters. The will to live, to think independently, and construct new paths in the hope for a better future is an establishing factor of humanity. Migration is inherently intertwined with the history of humankind.

Crossing borders and stepping into the unknown can involve danger and fear. Migrants face exploitation, xenophobia or feel isolated because they have lost what we take for granted: shared language, social recognition, relatives and friends. They bring new perspectives and points of view through which host communities might feel challenged or threatened. Change inevitably leads to conflicts that societies must face, challenges that through confrontation can begin a dialogue. Investigating the construction and function of images can allow us to rethink our preconceptions on the issue of migration, an investigation which particularly applies also to such images in the media. We can create a space with the aim of continuing this dialogue, learning to empathize, and asking questions about our shared responsibility on such global issues.

Embracing the new by welcoming people from other countries can strengthen our societies by making them more diverse and flexible, we benefit from the drive and force to start new lives, which migrants bring. This experience can re-connect us to ourselves, to our own history and identity as well as it connects us to the newcomers. Our differences teach us that ultimately, the line between us and them is very thin: We are all migrants.

The photographs were taken between 2008 and 2017 in Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Morocco, Romania, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey. I accompanied the Frontex agency on their varied missions and the German Federal Police, I had access to the LAF formerly known as LAGeSo of the Berlin city authorities, visited refugee camps in Tunisia, emergency shelters in Berlin and Ceuta, in Berlin civic actors AWO, Berliner Stadtmission, VHS and the Wichertstrasse supporters‘ circle, Samos Volunteers in Greece, in Tunisia the UNHCR, the ICRC, the Benevolus relief organisation, and Amnesty International, and joined an excursion by the Students’ Forum of the Tönissteiner Kreis. Without access to these individuals and organisations this work would not have been possible.

I want to thank Ahmad, Ali, Anas, Hamed, Huda, Merawi, Mojtaba, Nemat, Rajaa, Shonam, Waleed, Yasa and Zainur originating from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria for the insights into their lifes and for letting me take their portrait; UNITAR-UNOSAT for letting me use their satellite imagery, Institute for Design Research (IF) at University of Applied Sciences Europe, Fotobookfestival Kassel and Stiftung Kulturwerk - VG Bild-Kunst for their monetary support and most of all my close friends and family for continued encouragement while developing this work over the years.

Michael Danner, 2018




Installation: 17 minutes 21 seconds, three screen HD video with stereo sound
108 Photographs from Europe and North Africa, 2008-2017
Composer / Sound Designer: Robert Wolf






C/O Berlin
Solo exhibition

Fotofestiwal, Łódź
Migration as Avant-Garde, large scale projection

MAKK Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne
+ Fotobuch-Quartett - 5 photobook enthusiasts discuss 4 photobooks

Fundação Ibere Camargo, Porto Alegre
+ Migration as Avant-Garde as part of the group exhibition 'From Diaspora: Identity, Hybridism, Difference' at Festfoto Brazil 2019

Odesa Photo Days 2019, Odessa
+ Migration as Avant-Garde as part of the group exhibition

Filter Photo, Chicago
+ Migration as Avant-Garde as part of the Context 2019 group show curated by Ariel Pate

Foto Wien 2019
+ Photo Book Exhibition & Award, Vienna

NRW Forum, Düsseldorf
+ Düsseldorf Photo Weekend / Photo Book Salon, book signing event of Migration as Avant-Garde

‘Beyond the Ring’ - 6th Talk in the 5th Series
+ Artist talk on Migration as Avant-Garde curated by Ethna Rose O'Regan

Fototreff #27, Berlin
+ Artist talk on Migration as Avant-Garde

Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne
+ Photoszene-Festival Cologne, artist talk

The PhotoBookMuseum, Kassel
+ Fotobookfestival 2018, artist talk

Galerie vom Zufall und vom Glück, Hannover
+ In Your Face, Scope Hannover 2018 festival, large scale projection

Kunstforum at TU Darmstadt
+Perspectives – Strategies of Photographic Actions, Darmstädter Tage der Fotografie festival, large scale projection

PhotoIreland Festival, Dublin
Fotobookfestival Kassel
Triennial of Photography, Hamburg
Istituto Europeo di Design, Madrid
FotoLeggendo Festival, Rome
Organ Vida – International Photography Festival, Zagreb
Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne / Photoszene-Festival Cologne
NIDA International Photography Symposium, Vilnius
Aarhus Photobook Week
Zentralbibliothek im Kulturpalast, Dresden
The Tokyo Art Book Fair
+ Photobook touring exhibition

Lothringer13 Halle, Munich
+ME:WE - Fotodoks Festival

Kunstquartier Bethanien, Berlin
+Give & Take exhibition

3 channel video installation: Fotodoks Festival 2017, Lothringer13 Halle, Munich

3 channel video installation: Fotodoks Festival 2017, Lothringer13 Halle, Munich

3 channel video installation: Fotodoks Festival 2017, Lothringer13 Halle, Munich

DGPh Talk: We Ourselves Call Each Other Newcomers (or Immigrants). Eva Leitolf, Michael Danner and Thomas Dworzak in conversation with Franz Dobler

ME:WE Fotodoks catalogue




In the first place, we don‘t like to be called „refugees“. We ourselves call each other „newcomers“ or „immigrants“.

Our identity is changed so frequently that nobody can find out who we actually are.

We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.

Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples - if they keep their identity.

Essay We Refugees, first published 1943 © by the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust


Hannah Arendt, We Refugees

Philip Ther, Die Außenseiter: Flucht, Flüchtlinge und Integration im modernen Europa

Forschungsgruppe Transit Migration

Dominik Eichler, Projekt Migration

Now is the Time of Monsters