Photography and Design in a German Culture Context

Story by Alexandra Kuenning

Photo by Yiyi Fei

Taking place in Berlin over four-and-a-half weeks, Photography and Design in a German Culture Context combines a country’s traditions with the arts.

“Photography and design are two things I love,” Sharon Chan, a second-year interaction design major, said. “I wanted to travel and I’ve always heard Berlin was an amazing place. It’s both old and new and pretty much a mecca for artists.”

The dialogue, currently in its third year, was originally developed and led by Andrea Raynor, a professor of photography at Northeastern. It was then passed on to Dana Mueller, a professor of photography, and Nathan Felde, a professor of design. Born and raised in Thuringia, East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mueller found the going back to be eye-opening.

“I think Berlin is probably one of the most diverse cities I’ve ever seen or experienced,” Mueller said. “I was struck by how visible the history still is; it’s like an open wound but at the same time it’s grown into its own even though identity is still an issue. That’s all visible and you feel it and the excitement of the younger generation settling there.”

During the program, students can choose to take either Documentary Photography or Design Process, Context + Systems. The first of these classes expects students to engage in a photographic project using the environment around them. A final photographic portfolio and written assessment are required to complete the class. Previous experience in photography is also expected.  

“I’ve been serious about photography for about four years, but I’ve never tried to weed out all of the distracting tourist traps and adventurous attractions in order to design and complete a project from start to finish,” William Bryan, a fourth-year journalism and media and screen studies major with a photography minor, said. Presenting my work after five weeks was immensely satisfying.”

The second choice examines the basics of design and emphasizes the importance of the audience and context in creating a meaningful piece of work. A more introductory course, it easier for other majors to take.

“I decided to take the design class because I thought it would be interesting in an engineering context,” Arjun Ramaswamy, a third-year bioengineer major, said. “ I wanted it to be a trip that I could meet people outside my field.”

In addition to these courses, all students must take German Cultural History, which focuses on the creative context of contemporary Germany. Students must complete required readings and create a written thesis based on their choice of topic. Class visits to museums and galleries, walking architectural tours, visiting lecturers, and field trips to other cities are also part of the course. In 2015, locations included the Bauhaus, Dresden, Potsdam, the Sachsen Concentration Camp, and the Berlinische Galerie.

“For two of our trips, we had a tour guide called Helmut who was 80 years old. He knew so much. He was also the fastest walker; imagine a group of college students struggling to keep up with this old man,” Mckenna Shuster, a third-year interaction design major, said.

The various excursions were highlights for many of the students. In fact, when asked, the only addition most would make to the program would be to have more time to explore and immerse themselves in the culture. This connection between education and experience is Mueller’s favorite part of the dialogue.

“The synergy of being in this quite unique place and being able to create an experience for a younger group of people is quite meaningful and many times life-changing for them,” Mueller said. “It’s not necessarily that we know that that will happen but being able to be apart of that and provide that experience is quite wonderful and gratifying.”