„CLOSED CITIES & THE BOX“: Our interview with photographer and designer Gregor Sailer about his new project focusing on a World War II secret

Ras Laffan - Excerpt from "Closed Cities" by Gregor Sailer.
Ras Laffan – Excerpt from “Closed Cities” by Gregor Sailer.

His new project is called „The Box“. Austrian photographer and designer Gregor Sailer takes a look at one of World War II’s secrets. Secret places, halls and production-places that have been installed in large caves under the earth. Back in the days of the war.

The National Socialists regime wanted to save their industry and administration by bringing them under the earth.

Photographer Gregor Sailer captured what is left of one of those places. The transatlantic diablog spoke to him about the ideas behind the project.

In September 2015 World War II has ended 70 years ago. What’s your personal look at the event?

We are the last generation whose grand-parents have experienced World War II. Personal stories of being captivated, of bombings and of trauma bring the war closer to us. Although it’s impossible to understand it like someone who has experienced it.

Another aspect is that architectural relics are still present until today.

Your project „The Box“ focuses on one of the darker secrets of the war. Which secret did you concentrate on?

Even in the early years of the NS-regime in the 1930s, plans were made to save people and the industry. After a German war factory in Peenemünde was destroyed by British bombs in 1943, the German government decided to reinstall those factories below ground.

Hidden valleys, tunnels, mines, caves and quarries were given code names and have been developed by forced laborers, war prisoners and concentration camp prisoners.

For my project I chose „Messerschmitthalle“, a Tyrol mine that is still not open for public. It’s the factory where the “Messerschmitt”, the world’s first jet fighter, has been produced. Until today there’s still no infrastructure around the mine. It’s located 2.000 meters under the surface of the earth.

“The Box” relates to another one of your projects, called „Closed Cities“. What is it about?

My long-term project “Closed Cities” observes gated forms of towns in Siberia, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Chile, Algeria and Argentina. The term “closed cities” has its origin in the Soviet Union where many secret cities existed before they were opened and marked on maps.

But even today there are created urban zones all around the world that are sealed hermetically. They are places to mine resources or military places, refugee camps or gated communities of the rich.

The name “The Box” comes from the inofficial name of Soviet facilities that were forbidden areas for foreigners – like their secret offices for the developement of weapons or space technology.

How do you approach topics? And where do you find places for your photographs?

In the beginning there is an interest in a topic. Political, economical or social aspects are very important to me. Then I work on focal points and do research to find places that relate to the topics. I start to look for topics, more than I start to look for places.

What has brought you to photographing?

I take photos since I’m ten years old. At the age of 17 I created my first series of photos. It was much more expensive to take photographs back then.

My university education then helped me to raise my awareness. And so focal points evolved. Like architecture and documenting photography. But also experimental filming.

For ten years now I’m a freelance photographer. It’s a hard competition out there. But it’s also wonderful and fulfilling.

Gregor Sailer woking in Siberia.
Gregor Sailer working in the Western Sahara.

Is there any photograph that mirrors yourself best?

That’s hard to say. Oftentimes I work on long-term projects where every photo has to be as strong as the whole series. So I can’t reduce my point of view to only one picture.

But speaking of my project „The Box“, it maybe is the first photo. The one with the light-frame. Also because of a hard time I had while creating it.

Where does your special interest for places and landscapes come from?

Mostly I’m interested in the traces and signs of people there. Time and space play an important role in that.

Where and when will we see your work presented in public next time?

I just finished an exhibition at Germanischen Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany. The next one will be in Innsbruck. My next exhibitions that will mainly concentrate on the „Closed Cities“ are planned for Barcelona, Budapest, Moscow, Rome, Paris and Ottawa. In the last three years my public work was very intensive. Now I like to focus on working on new projects.

Tell us some more about the form in which you present your project „The Box“. The title also influenced the publishing form, right?

„The Box“ not only is about the Soviet Box, the secret industry factory „Messerschmitthalle“, but also about a subjective blackbox. And the cave is like a time capsule. Or like a storage medium.

The photographs of my project are published in a bookbinder-box. Like they were levels of a mine. The box itself stands for the hall in the Tyrol mountain where the „Messerschmitt“ jet fighter had been produced.


A few remaining copies of Gregor Sailer’s “Closed Cities” are still available here. More information on how to grab a copy of “The Box” via this link.

More about that:
Gregor Sailer’s official website
„The Box“ at The OMC Gallery



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