Frederike Helwig, Finstere Zeiten (Dark Times)
2018 / 2020

In December 2018 Frederike Helwig stood on the steps to the channel in Dover and
photographed the sea continuously for ten minutes. The resulting images show
waves crashing into hard concrete and express something of the emotional turmoil
she experienced during Brexit, a political process as relentless as the tide. In her
series, Finstere Zeiten [Dark Times], she has combined these images with text
drawn from newspapers, books, and personal experience, which illustrates the
intensity of the division and debate in Britain at this time.

Helwig was born in Germany but has lived in the UK for the last 28 years, free to do
so as a European citizen. That changed after the referendum on 23 June 2016,
when Britain voted to leave the European Union; faced with losing her right to stay,
Helwig applied for British citizenship, as did many others in her position. She was
halfway through this procedure when she shot Finstere Zeiten and, she writes: "With
the application came an unexpected emotional response of anxiety and loss of

Britain has experienced a profound moral shift over the last five years, driven by
populist politics and new technology. Attitudes towards citizenship and nationalism
that would once have seemed extreme are now commonplace; the outlook on
immigration has hardened. When Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016, she
gave a speech stating: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen
of nowhere”. She went on to verbally oppose UK membership of the European
Convention of Human Rights, and her government proposed that British companies
be made to list their foreign employees. May’s statements and these proposals have
been compared to Nazism by commentators such as former MP Vince Cable and
human rights lawyer Philipp Sands.

Symbols modelled on Nazi insignia have also shown up in protests in Dover, a
working-class town in which immigrants have literally arrived on the beaches.
Helwig’s interest in nationalism is shaped by her German roots, by the country’s Nazi
past and the mystery of how her grandparents’ generation came to support the
regime. She aims to document and point out moral undercurrents and shifts, initially
almost imperceptible but capable of taking a society in a different direction. In
Finstere Zeiten she records the UK’s rapidly hardening attitudes towards immigration
and contrasts them with something more open-ended.

The title comes from a book by Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, which argues
that “of all the specific liberties which may come into our minds when we hear the
word freedom, freedom of movement is historically the oldest and also the most
elementary”. The images focus on the sea, an ever-moving body that flows from
place to place. The channel isn’t owned by a single country and, while it serves as a
frontier, it’s also always facilitated travel. Next to this amorphous, constantly moving
water, the concrete steps look artificial. They look like a human intervention in
nature. Diane Smyth, 2021