There is an image from German photographer Karolin Klüppel’s project Mädchenland in which a young girl is submerged entirely in a pool of water, holding her nose and staring directly into the camera lens from beneath the surface. Surrounded by cavernous rocks, she floats among the dark reflections of the trees. The water above and around her is glasslike and almost imperceptibly still. The whole image conveys a strength and serenity that embodies many of the communities that Klüppel has travelled across the world to find.
Klüppel began Mädchenland – or Kingdom of Girls – in 2013, after finishing up an artist residency in Goa, shortly after graduating from art school. While there, she had begun wondering where she would head next when she read about the Khasi – an indigenous ethnic group of around 1.2 million people – most of whom live in the state of Meghalaya, in northeast India. Klüppel made plans to head for Meghalaya straight from Goa, and ended up in the village of Mawlynnong, near the border of Bangladesh. "Meghalaya and nearly all its inhabitants belong to the Khasi tribe," she says, "so there are many villages in this area and I knew there would be better chances for me to get into close contact with people in smaller villages."
What makes the Khasi particularly remarkable is their being one of only two indigenous tribes in India that are matrilineal – that is, adhering to a social system in which people are identified by their mother's family line. Klüppel explains some of the specific ways this social structure plays out in day-to-day life: "Women are very respected in the Khasi culture. To disrespect a woman in this culture means to harm the society. Daughters are often more wanted than boys, and a family with just sons is considered to be miserable, because only daughters can assure the continuity of a clan." She adds that the Khasi don’t acknowledge arranged marriage, which accounts for an overwhelming percentage of marriages in the rest of India. "When a woman and a man fall in love with each other, they just start to live together in the same house – usually the house of the woman because men rarely have property – and that simply means they are married. Most of the Khasi converted to Christianity and nowadays many couples decide to marry in church." Divorce and remarriage is respected too, she says, and in Shillong – the 'hill station' or larger town near these villages – many young women decide to live alone.
Klüppel grew up in small-town Germany, near the city of Kassel. When asked if she has always had the particularly independent spirit that her work demands of her, she describes herself as less of an outgoing person, and more of a careful character. "I guess I always did my thing, though," she says, "and when I travel these days I also feel like someone else – more free and self-confident. Maybe because I have to." As a socially engaged photographer whose job is to seek out stories from across the world, travel is an important component of what she does, and she says she has had to train herself to be comfortable with what this means – namely, months away at a time, adjusting to new environments, potentially dangerous situations and strenuous or abnormal financial considerations. How does life back home unfold alongside a career like this?
The answer, for Klüppel at least, is that it changes as time goes on, and naturally it becomes more difficult to head off on open-ended journeys of discovery. "I produced Mädchenland a few years ago when I had just graduated from university," she remembers. "At that time, I felt very free in my decisions because I had no family and no real responsibilities. I was only responsible for myself and my own wellbeing. Now, if I travel I don’t stay away from Berlin, where I am based, for too long, and I also have to calculate the costs more than in the past. Of course, when I was staying in India for so long there were times of homesickness, but it helped me during those times to remember that I could return at any time – I only had to stay as long as I wanted."
Sickness is another story, and Klüppel recalls a time she became incredibly ill with a bacterial infection and a high fever while in India. "My host family took me to the hospital and some of the community from Mawlynnong stayed with me there for three days until I could return. The doctor even lent me the money to pay my bill!" It was tough, she felt weak and far from home, but also touched by the care she received. Gender-based violence is a very real threat too, and Klüppel acknowledges the dangers of being a woman and doing what she does. "Sadly, as a woman in countries like India, you do need to be more careful," she says, but she also doesn’t believe this should be at the cost of photographing certain stories or experiences. Female photographers are often asked or expected to produce stories with a feminist angle, and maybe it is easier for women to approach other women and to tell their stories, but Klüppel is also clear that she thinks it’s important that the same topics are photographed by "men, women and non-binary people", believing that multiple perspectives are crucial to understanding the true texture of any given experience.
The first time Klüppel visited Mawlynnong, she stayed for six months. "During that first trip I really had no idea I would be staying for that long, but the project was going so well, and I was having such an amazing time living among the people I had met there that I just kept extending my stay, and I even travelled to Nepal to get another visa." After six months at home, Klüppel headed back to Mawlynnong for a further three months to finish the series. Each time, she stayed with two Khasi families she had become close to. "One of the families had four children, and it was a lot of fun to be part of that for an extended period of time," she says. She points to a photograph of a little girl standing on a stool in her kitchen in a floral dress, with her hands covering her face, cartoon-like eyes painted upon them, and diffused light streaming in through the doorway behind her. "That’s Grace, one of the children from the family I lived with. She was 7 years old and her personality was just amazing. She has three little siblings and has to take care of them quite often, like when her mother goes to the river to wash the laundry. Grace is mature and caring when she has to help her mum with the childcare and household duties, but she immediately turns into a young girl again when she has some free time to play with her friends." Klüppel’s photographs of Grace pull this playful thread of her character out in tender and touching ways. The same can be said of her other photographs too, and the gentle, very human way she interacts with her subjects can only be a result of staying with them for long periods of time, and getting to know their personalities inside out.
"In Khasi culture, women and girls have a special standing in society and I noticed that this exceptional role produces a great self-confidence. I didn’t want to do a classical documentary body of work on their culture, but I still wanted to try to capture this outstanding role somehow," she explains. "I decided to make a portrait series of the girls because I was so impressed by their self-assured appearance and thought that this must be how matrilineality becomes visible. I also wanted to show the girls' everyday physical environment, including where they live and how they play. Some pictures are staged and some are not. I spent a lot of time with the girls and that’s how ideas developed."
Since making Mädchenland, Klüppel has travelled high up into the Himalayas, and immersed herself in the lives of the Mosuo – another matriarchal community living in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China. Here, she met the heads of Mosuo households – always women, and always the ones to make decisions – and learned of their fight to preserve their culture and traditions in the face of outside influence and the corrosion of their reputation. Where once they were left in peace, the Mosuo are now often falsely portrayed as being promiscuous, and increasingly exploited as a tourist attraction by the Chinese government, Klüppel tells us.
The danger of drawing the wrong sort of attention to communities who have previously lived away from the public eye is something that Klüppel must remain acutely aware of as she travels into the heart of these communities. The key, for her, is in how she goes about representing them, with honesty and sensitivity, and "by capturing the quiet and dignified rhythm of their daily lives". "I also record a culture that is in danger of vanishing," she says. That is important work too.
Considering what the communities she has lived with have taught her about her own personal experience, Klüppel says: "What really impressed me, and what I miss very much in Germany, is how much the Khasi, and indeed Indians in general, care about their family and friends. Human relationships are so strong there, which seems reasonable, because of the poverty and the little support from the government. If you do not help each other, you are lost. In the Khasi society, people don’t feel lonely in the same way, because people just need – and have – each other. Whereas in my own society, loneliness is something that a lot of people suffer from. Every culture has its trade-offs." What advice does Klüppel have for other young women heading out into the world to make work? "Creative work is hard work, so stay focused, be ready to fail and to stand up again."