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Kotti Forever: Capturing the dynamism of Berlin’s most iconic intersection

With Kotti Forever, Joel Stevenett and Ioana Nicolae distil the chaos of Kottbusser Tor one photo at a time.


Walk through Kotti at any time of day or night, and you’re bombarded with energy; it’s always alive, buzzing, vibrating. A true microcosm of Berlin’s multicultural makeup, the area’s ever-changing blur of colour and noise is next to impossible to capture – but photographer Joel Stevenett and his project partner Ioana Nicolae have managed just that.

It’s like a puzzle, where we’re trying to photograph all the different people that belong to this universe.

After leaving his native Canada for Berlin in 2017, Stevenett was drawn to Kotti, a spot where he found only one rule: if you could tolerate the hustle and bustle of this infamous traffic circle, there would always be a place for you in Berlin.

In 2020, Stevenett teamed up with Romanian-born social worker Nicolae, and the duo began their portraiture project Kotti auf Ewig (Kotti Forever), an ode to Kottbusser Tor’s everyday hubbub. Shot on a four-by-five plate camera, the resulting photo series represents the diversity and dynamism of the area with authenticity and style, and encompasses arresting portraits of people on the street, at work, and in their homes, capturing both the transience of Kotti and its deep-set roots.


What was the inspiration for the project? 

JS: I wanted to do a modern version of Face of our Time by August Sander. His idea was to photograph people that were representative of the 20th century at the time. I really like how our project is the antithesis to that: what does being German even mean anymore? There’s so much immigration now. The message is basically, everyone is everywhere all the time. There is no ‘real German’, especially in Berlin. Hearing people say that Kotti is the least German place in Berlin, and that Berlin is the least German place in the country – I like playing with that idea.

How did you come to choose Kotti as the subject area?

JS: I was wanting to defend the place, in a way. I was sick of the headlines, the very superficial, lazy journalism. Obviously, there are crimes here – there are crimes everywhere – and I wanted to show the other side of it.


How do you approach a day of shooting? 

IN: I usually ask Joel, ‘What do you feel like doing today? What are we going to focus on?’ We watch people for a bit and then start walking. From the first sessions, we knew that we were both attracted to the same types of people. Joel is the artist; he has an eye for what you see in the photos. I’m the talking-to-people part. In the beginning, I was a bit more like a bodyguard: he needs his space, I take the information. Then I realised that I want to ask questions – why are you here, what is Kotti to you… things like this.

There is no ‘real German’, especially in Berlin.

JS: Initially, the idea was to take as many photos as we can on the street. But the street is just one layer. The businesses around [Kotti] are another layer. For me, the homes are the final layer. As we gain people’s trust in between the different layers, we’ll eventually be able to go into some of the homes.


Do you watch for something that catches your eye, or is there something you’re looking for in particular?

JS: It’s a mix. When we’re walking, we see people that catch our eye whom we might want to add [to the project], like, ‘Oh, we don’t have that type of person’. For example, we knew we didn’t have someone who worked at the Deutsche Post. Last week, we finally got someone!


IN: Sometimes people say no. But this person was so open and nice, it was such a pleasure to talk to her. Some people give you such good energy and everything that you want to have in the project.

What are some of the project’s biggest challenges?

JS: There’s always people who we haven’t photographed. I’m currently on the lookout for German people who are in their sixties or seventies. We’re also always looking for Turkish people. We see 50 percent Turkish people at Kotti, so I would like to represent them in the project as 50 percent.

Mert and Fikret

IN: The reason why the Turkish community is such an important part in the project is because they have been sent to live here, they built this whole community. You see them everywhere, but you can’t always photograph them. This is probably the biggest challenge. It’s like a puzzle, where we’re trying to capture all the different people that belong to this universe.

Do you feel connected to the people you photograph?

IN: A lot of the people that we meet have beautiful, interesting stories. The question is, are they in the mood to talk about it or not, and are we asking the right questions? Leon [pictured] is one of them, he was just such a character, a part of the community. The first time we saw him, he was literally up on a pole.


JS: We see the same people over and over again. We photographed a mother who was pregnant for the first time, against an orange wall. Then we decided that we would like to start taking her photo every year, or every two years as a mini project. I liked the idea of new life here, which she represents. But I would also like to represent death somehow.

How do you perceive Kotti after years of photographing it?

JS: It’s the only place in Berlin that’s truly international. It reminds me of areas in London, Toronto, LA or New York. For me, this place is not German, there isn’t the weight of history there. Maybe that’s why everyone’s so focused on it. It’s this crazy place, and it’s alive.