Mika Sperling – Brothers and sisters

By in Books, Interviews on 23. June 2016

Mika Sperling born in Norilsk, Russia, moved to Germany with her parents when she was a baby and grew up in Darmstadt. Last year she graduated in Darmstadt with her work “Breeda en Sestre -Brothers and sisters” under the mentoring of Andrea Diefenbach. Now she studies in the masterclass in Bielefeld.

Could you describe your work “Breeda en Sestre”? What was your main interest in the story?

In my work “Breeda en Sestre – brothers and sisters” I document the ethnical minority of the Mennonites. My family and I also descend from this group. I started with this project in 2013 in Omsk, in Russia, in two German villages. In this villages the Mennonites beware their low German dialect and use it in their daily language. Anyway they are still highly embossed by the Russian culture.

This was my first journey to Russia and I didn’t know where my project would bring me to. The exotic impression and the curiosity about my origin brought me to this country.

During that time, I documented all my expressions and feelings in my work “Fatherland”. When I moved back to Germany I decided to come back to Omsk to explain the live of the Mennonites.

I wanted to show their traditions and lives. But not in a traditional documentary way, more in a collection of moments which are more “in between”. The viewer shouldn’t see on his first impression which kind of people, kind of life, I show.

In the moment when you work on your project you don’t really know what you photograph – you just do it because it feels right to do it. But when someone looks at the pictures after that and you can see on their reaction that they see what you wanted to show – everything comes together. It’s important for me that my pictures surprise me and don’t show what I expected to see.  


For your work “Fatherland” you traveled back to your homeland for the first time. What did you feel during that journey?

It was my first trip to Russia to the birth region of my parents. Now I also wanted to visit my birth region Norilsk. First it felt very strange to be there but it was a feeling what you could only experience once. It could be comparable with the feeling of being adopted and then to move back. You never had any points of contact with this place, besides the influences from your parents and the language. But then you start to understand your parents better. Also little things like my mother’s fear of dogs. I was able to see the graves of my grandparents and started to feel as a big part of something.

It was quite easy for me to connect with the inhabitants. The people were very open-minded and friendly, so I made a lot of friends there. In Germany it was also easy. Only in Canada it was difficult because of the long distance from Germany.


How did you get in contact with the Canadians?

After I travelled back to Germany I started to get in contact with the Mennonites of a little town called Bebra. My sister is also part of this little community. They are still speaking the low German dialect there. In a meeting for adults I introduced myself and they gave me the permission to attend them. Many of them we’re very shy. I got the feeling that they stay longer in their teenage years because of their different education and attitude towards sexuality. In the church sexes are separated. So are birthday parties till the age of 20. Sex before marriage is a taboo. It’s simply a different approach in this society.

After I travelled back to Germany I’ve visited the Mennonites of Canada. Everyone from Breda got relatives there. The immigration still goes on. The first immigrants came 15 years ago, the seconds 7 years ago and today there are still people moving. Through my relatives I got in contact with them and lived together with a family in a village far away from the center.


How strong did you feel the cultural differences between the German-Russian villages in Russia, Canada and Germany?

There are big differences between the countries. In Russia live is often more simple. There isn’t enough money to build big houses. But they also estimate this lifestyle. A lot of them visited Germany before. So there is still a connection between them. In my conversations with them I often asked why they don’t move to Germany. They told me that the live there is too loud and narrow for them. Often it’s not possible to live together with animals and have fresh air and space. The mentality felt very calm and clement. They respect you even if you decide to leave the church.

The atmosphere in Germany felt very free as well. The people visit their church by choice and really enjoy going there. Even if you were born in a religious family they don’t see you as a religious person by birth. You are embossed but you have to find to your faith on your own. I’m an unreligious person but I was welcome.

Almost every adolescent I talked to started studying for an academic degree or will do it after finishing their job training. In my point of view, it wasn’t always like that and it’s a good development.  

In Canada exist a lot of different communities. Also a lot of Baptist people live there. The people immigrate for different reasons. Some people want to have animals and have bigger fields. Others want to be by their immigrated families and another reason are the lower costs for a big family.

There a lot of different groups: The old Mennonites which immigrated from Mexico 100 years ago and the ones who came 15 years ago. After a while they split in different groups. Because of shortages of space or disagreements.

The communities of Canada are very modern. The adolescents are still less enlightened, but because of the live in Canada they are embossed differently. They meet in hip cafes and because of the long distance they are always on the road in their cars.

How long did you work on this project? Do you want to continue it?

I think this theme will never be closed for me. This was the first chapter and slowly I’m ready for the second. For example, I’ve met a family here in Germany which I photographed in Russia. They are now living here.

Now I will travel back to Russia with my sister and visit the villages there. It will be more an experimental work about my relationship to my sister and how it will change after the journey.


How long have you been in the villages?

2013 I’ve been there for a month, in each village 2 weeks. After that I was again 3 weeks in Russia and 5 weeks in Canada. The Germans I’ve visited in this 2 years every month for 3 days.


You’ve visited your country of birth again after a long period of time and you had no personal contact to these relatives before. Did it change after you met them? Are you now “brothers and sisters”?

“Brothers and sisters” got 2 meanings because they call each other “brothers and sisters in the faith”. The other meaning originates from my own brothers and sisters, 3 of them are active in this community. But yes I feel very close to them. They will always be my brothers and sisters. Especially when I’m together with them. Because I feel that they see me as a sister as well, although I’m not religious and maybe on the wrong path. But we’re bonded by blood.

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