In early April 2016 I arrived in Vienna Austria and planned to stay until the end of August. I was there for personal reasons; personal reasons that would plague me throughout my trip, and eventually resulted in an early departure at the end of June for Venice where I would recuperate. Except for a short excursion to Berlin, and then later to Auschwitz, I stayed in Vienna the entire time. Perhaps to distract myself from my personal woes I became quickly invested in the politically charged climate I found all around me. The presidential election ways days away, and though few were willing to talk about it, there was heightened neo-nazi activity. This activity primarily centred around the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), Austria’s own far right party. The FPÖ, unlike most alt-right parties, has enjoyed waves of success in Austria since the 1980s, when it distanced itself from its overt Nazi sympathies. However, they had never held the office of the Presidency. Aware that I was potentially witnessing the rise of the first alt-right leader in an EU country, I began obsessively making pictures.
These pictures are far from any form of objective photojournalism. They are messy, and personal, and more focused on providing a feeling than factual information. A more hardened photographer may have pursued photographing the militarily clad goons who stood in subway cars, their muzzled German Shepherds snarling. I, however, restricted myself to their deeds, the desecrated election posters of their opponents, and to their opposition, a group of far less intimidating people brought together out of fear of an FPÖ presidency. Ultimately then, these photos are not how it was, in the way National Geographic will show you how it was. No, these are the photos of a person, fighting with their own personal problems, as they attempt to document the buried stuff deep in a nation’s psyche. This isn’t about the events, this is about the zeitgeist.
While most of the photos in this series are explicitly political, some, like the above, are meant instead to represent the emotional air that hung over the city. The blurred man’s nature is not known to us, who would he vote for, who will you vote for, these questions were thick between people. When it came to voting day the FPÖ came in first out of the four parties. In Second was the Green party who, like the FPÖ, never had contended for the Presidency before. The two major parties, that had ruled Austria in a “grand coalition” since the end of World War Two hadn’t even come close. The FPÖ, however, did not have enough votes to take the Presidency, and a second round of voting was declared. In the month that followed, nothing could escape the political. A gay rights activist came to me in tears after discovering that their grandparents were going to support the FPÖ. In Austria, where elections are private affairs, and politics not celebrated openly, families found themselves torn apart.
The Green Party candidate quickly found himself the target of the Alt-Right’s mass hate. Antisemitism became a prominent form of slander, as his ads became vandalized with what the FPÖ’s supports considered the most heinous of insults, “Zionist”.
Security began to noticeably increase, as did anti-police sentiment. The political discourse and pamphleteering that in North America is primarily reserved for online interactions, became part of the very architecture of the city.
Various fractions could be seen tearing off their enemies’ propaganda. Soon marches and counter marches were organized. They became prominent features of the city, erupting in the main thoroughfare of a city that up until 2016 had maintained the quiet disposition of a capital whose grand opulance recalled a former glory that could no longer be reconciled with the nation’s now modest political importance.
Above, their signs read “No Nazi in the Hofburg”. Below, the man’s sign reads, “Hofer is a neo-nazi stooge”. Both were taken at a central anti-FPÖ rally, itself composed of a combination of factions, including an group of elderly Turkish men who sought to use the press coverage to argue for intervention against Erdoğan’s regime.
The event culminated with a speech by a holocaust survivor who said that the current political climate reminded him of his youth, and begged those listening to resist the FPÖ. The crowd hushed for him, and though his stature was small, and his voice week, he conveyed onto the crowd a quiet horror.
Behind him, an Austrian and an E.U. flag waved over the crowd, as the gloom of the day seemed to threaten them. Although beer was being passed around, and various folk and pop artists took the stage to a few muted cries and applause, there felt little anyone could do. The march that had brought this band of people to their final position at the Memorial to the Victims of Persecution of Nazi Military Justice had been routed through side streets by their police escort, and while many argued as to whether it was for their own protection, or an attempt to quiet them, it was agreed all around that it was not a good sign. Friends could be overheard talking about the best strategy to leave the country by. Others debated whether an internet history of past activism was reason to fear under what they presumed would be the next Austrian president. One group of older German men said that the feeling on the streets reminded them of the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On the day of the election the quiet was broken, not by violence, but with a mass bustling towards the polls. People’s walking pace seemed to have increased tenfold overnight, as at midday everyone in the city seemed to have somewhere they needed to be. I, a Canadian citizen, could only stand by and watch. After observing those on the street, I decided I had better find a place to watch the election from. In the typically Austrian manner, this proved harder than a Canadian, used to election watching parties, would think. Eventually I gave up and walked towards my favourite haunt, the overly opulent for its reasonable price, Café Landtmann. There to my shock, I found the waiters glued to a TV on their patio, watching the results come in. I ordered a beer to cool down, as a heat wave had come over the city, and joined them.
The results proved tight, however, the Green party pulled through with a slim victory with 50.35% of the vote, against the FPÖ’s 49.65%. But the city could not relax. FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer near immediately requested an inquiry into the results, triggering a new election that was held that December. Further, parliamentary elections were around the corner, and the FPÖ sought to further their new political power there as well. For myself, I did not fare as well as the Austrian people. Emotionally exhausted I fled the country for warmer climates, and spent much of the next year working towards a self understanding and self-care that I found myself in need of. Still, Austria is close to my heart, and I can only hope, under their new conservative government, that they resist the tendencies the FPÖ laid bare for the whole country to see.