Picture this: Vulnerability

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Elena Helfrecht, Jörg Colberg, Rafal Milach and others respond to the state of vulnerability through image and text, as part of our ongoing series Picture This

The camera distils a moment into a fixed image, the permanency of which contrasts to the transient nature of an emotional state. Photographs can capture humans’ vulnerability and its causes. They may act as emblems of the emotion, and have the power to provoke it in others. 

How people respond to a sense of vulnerability varies greatly; we all find strength in unsure times in different ways. For instance, climate anxiety can leave one feeling small and helpless. However, the weight of the climate crisis can also be a call to arms, giving us strength, and the ability to view situations with emotion, clarity, and compassion. If a confession of vulnerability can become a source of power against inaction and denial, how can we use it to move forward; how can we learn from this state of emotion?

We asked six photographers to respond to the theme of vulnerability with image and text. Below, Elena Helfrecht, Jörg Colberg, Rafal Milach, Rafael Heygster, Valentina Abenavoli and Cansu Yıldıran present their responses.

Jörg Colberg

“I have always been fascinated by the title of a book written by Alexei Yurchak: Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Up until recently, larger political changes appeared to only happen to other people. In Yurchak’s book, it’s those who went to bed as citizens of the Soviet Union and woke up again as Russian, Belorussians, Ukrainians.. 

As someone who grew up in West Germany, I could have spoken with East Germans to hear about the very same experience. On a high school trip there, I did, however briefly. But it would take me many years before I did so again, this time when we were all citizens of the same country, Germany.

Even so, the idea that the political system I lived in would be under attack was something other people experienced — not me. This changed with the initially slow but then accelerated rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. In principle it’s merely one of the various far-right parties in German post-war history. In reality, it’s the one which not only made it into the Bundestag (and state parliaments) but also did so with a huge vote share. I had thought that everything would be revealed about the German Nazi past, to have the country turn for the better — until that was not happening anymore. Instead, racist and anti-semitic far-right violence along with political hate mongering by the AfD have been on a steady rise.

We mostly think of vulnerability as something that applies to individuals. But it has to do with the larger social and political structures we live in. Democracies have mostly relied on the assumption that they are the ultimate and most attractive political entities. But all over the world, we’re now seeing that that’s not the case. Democracies are finding themselves under attack — at a time when there are so many other, much more pressing issues to deal with (climate change, the pandemic). So now we’re besieged by a variety of hostile forces, and it’s not clear which ones will ultimately prevail. 

There is only one solution that I see, and it’s to make our voices heard. Not speaking up cannot be an option. We have to not only feel our own vulnerability but also everybody else’s.”


Untitled © Jörg Colberg.

Elena Helfrecht

“The newborns depicted in this photograph do not exist anymore, and all that is left of their lives is this trace of light and shadow.

Last month, my mother, my grandfather, and I decided with a heavy heart to let go of his homing pigeons. He kept them for more than 60 years until he was no longer able to live in the house, in the back of the yard, where they would roam the skies during the day and return to their dovecote in the evening. They multiplied rapidly, and my grandfather used to butcher the birds to feed them to the family, keeping their numbers low enough for them to have enough space in their shelter. My grandmother used to pluck and cook them. He cared for them with adoration, in a total acceptance of life and the necessity of death. The perfect cycle.

Now, the skies are empty, and the yard has fallen silent. The flutter of their wings was a familiar background noise whenever they flew their rounds and gathered for seeds. The dust of their feathers and their toxic excrement would aggressively attack one’s lungs and eyes when cleaning the shed, and in order to keep them from pecking at each other, it was necessary to butcher regularly. Attempts to replace their eggs with fake ones turned out to be ineffective.

We decided to donate the remaining pigeon population to a local raptor sanctuary, where they got processed quickly by a professional huntswoman, so that their bodies would serve as essential food for the birds of prey homed there. The cycle has closed for the last time.”


“The Unwanted” © Elena Helfrecht.

Rafael Heygster

“When I was 10 years old, my parents broke up.  

Although I have a good relationship with both, most of my questions about their separation remained unanswered for almost 20 years. We were too afraid to talk about the topic.

A few years ago I started intensively taking portraits of my parents.  This created a new and deeper bond between us, which allowed us to talk about all the things we had been silent about for so long.

Throughout this process, I found myself confronted more and more by my inner self, my vulnerability, my hurt, and anger. To process what I heard, I intuitively photographed everything I saw during my everyday life that reminded me of my own situation.

In the end, I got answers to the questions that I carried around with me for so long. My parents and I got to know each other anew.

From this experience, I learned two things. The first being we do not need to be afraid to ask questions, nor be afraid of getting answers. The second being accepting vulnerability is a strength. We should not only accept our own, very personal vulnerability, but also the vulnerability of what surrounds us —other humans, nature, the ecosystem, our planet.”


Untitled © Rafael Heygster.

Rafal Milach

“The female body has been a field of political fight for a long time. Most recently, it resulted in the largest street protest in Poland’s history. For more than three weeks Polish women have been fighting to keep the fundamental right to make decisions about their own bodies. On October 22 2020, the constitutional court, controlled by the right wing Law and Justice ruling party, supported by catholic church hierarchs, declared abortion illegal in cases in which the foetus has a serious irrerversible birth defect. This makes Poland a country where abortion is legal only in the case of rape, or when a mother’s health is endangered. Despite Covid-19, protesters take to the streets almost on a daily, employing various protesting strategies, from car protests, blocking the streets, organising various flash-mobs, concerts and performances. It might seem irrelevant to comment on this issue from my perspective as a man. But, documenting it and building a strong visual representation of the public unrest is one of the gestures of solidarity that I can offer.”


Untitled © Rafal Milach / Archive of Public Protests.

Cansu Yıldıran

Neoliberalism is not sustainable for our world, and it is inevitable that the strict order of selfishness hurts us all in various places, injuring the organic, collective and “soft” individual. The power makes us believe that it is a shame and weakness to display our vulnerabilities. Thus, even if we do have a self beyond our wounds, it prevents us from reaching it by never allowing us to heal.

Embracing the vulnerability and disclosing it without excuse is political. In this patriarchal order, which defines non-fragility, toughness and being “strong” as a top value for men within the binary gender construct, the defense of vulnerability has always been a feminist and queer struggle. Therefore, the use of vulnerability as a political struggle against the plunder of nature and the rising climate crisis could not be reflected without being related to this context.

Just as power and power structures copied each other in every field and established the same order, resistances against it cannot be separated from each other. Here, in thist photo, you see a raw queer anger. It has been there for centuries, resisting the occupation of its land, body, society and world against the civilised, White, European, colonial new face of today’s ecology and climate struggle.”


Untitled © Cansu Yıldıran.

Valentina Abenavoli

“One, while inside, shall feel like one; the juicy heat, the procession of nows, the slow disembarkment. As it stars a multitude of you, one shall leaven the ground, crowded. 

Any assembly of beings is susceptible, satellites use the mechanism of affection, the one while alone, whole. 

When my child Eliah was just an abstraction their name was different. Them, while inside, were both male and female. The way they were was all, of a size so small the weight was imperceptible, their hazard a natural condition, once one becomes more, a separate being. 

Now is here, never to stay, we learn from authenticity, we are an erupting domino of similarities, slowly. “



"Month 9 of Appleseed inside, 135 days in lockdown", © Valentina Abenavoli.

Picture This

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.