Brozek, Poland, Europe © Rafael Heygster

On the edge of the battlefield. Rafael Heygster’s work “I Died 22 Times” questions society’s approach to war.

When he sees Len’s new pictures on the Internet, student Rafael Heygster is surprised. In the images, his friend proudly poses with weapons in front of the camera. The two had met a few years earlier: They were on an excursion to the memorial of the concentration camp Auschwitz. Len was there seeking evidence of his grandmother’s murder. Now he plays war with his friends. How does that fit together? Rafael has found a new subject.

Part 1: Airsoft games. On the one hand, Rafael does not want to tell a positive story about the war game. But neither should his protagonists be portrayed as Nazis or right-wing extremists: «Each of us has a destructive side, but most of us hide it. These people are more honest; they stand by it,» the photographer finds. For him, his images show how war is made consumable in our society. Because on the battlefields of airsoft players, there are no mutilated corpses or dead civilians. The battle becomes a fun game of cops and robbers, and the horror disappears.

Hamburg, Germany, Europe

Airsoft player Len, his girlfriend Nina and boxer Diego are sitting on a bed. Len’s great-grandmother was murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He says that “playing” with airsoft guns has nothing to do with real war for him.

Brozek, Poland, Europe © Rafael Heygster

The fleet of the airsoft playground in Brozek also includes an old T55 tank from Russia. For fun, tours are offered for the participants.

Brozek, Poland, Europe © Rafael Heygster

High school senior Eddy P. and his friends are hosting an airsoft game. Eddy has not often participated in such games.

Brozek, Poland, Europe © Rafael Heygster

In a former bunker on an airsoft game site, participants sit together and listen to music on the eve of the game.

Essen, Germany, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Airsoft player Jan – battle name «Bone» – has a whole arsenal and airsoft weapons that he keeps under his mattress. Depending on the level of detail and feature, the weapons cost three to four figures.

Mahlwinkel, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, Europe © Rafael Heygster

A macabre imitation: garbage bags filled with straw are meant to imitate body bags. They are part of a multi-day airsoft festival in Mahlwinkel.

Brno, Czech Republic, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Two female spectators watch the reenacted fights at the «family day» of a gun show. The performance with blanks and smoke grenades also involves shooting the actors. After the performance, they get up and leave the arena alive.

Brozek, Poland, Europe © Rafael Heygster

The secret highlight of «Operation End Time – Rolling Steel» is the appearance of a stripper on the last evening. Already days before the participants talked about her appearance.

Every one of us has a destructive side, but most of us hide it. These people are more honest, they own up to it.

Rafael Heygster
Koblenz, Germany, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Manuel K. works as a gardener. He has been playing airsoft for a year after a friend showed him the game. He likes the airsoft games better than video games because you also move in real.

Henstedt-Rohlsdorf, Germany, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Matthias V. is playing at a Christmas airsoft event. He has rented the arena and organizes «games» as well as workshops – based on military training.

Essen, Germany, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Jan L., a carpenter, comes from a family of hunters and grew up with guns. He is a gun person and can disassemble and reassemble his airsoft guns in a very short time.

Brozek, Poland, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Participants of an airsoft game try to smoke out a sniper with smoke grenades.

Part 2: Weapons fairs. Rafael Heygster can’t let go of the subject of war. To expand his photo series, he travels to arms fairs in Europe and Asia. One of the pictures is causing a lot of discussions: It shows young arms sellers at IDEX in Abu Dhabi. How can such young people already deal with weapons? «For me, the picture shows that the political relationships in the world are often more complex than they appear at first glance,» the photographer counters. According to Rafael Heygster, the sellers came from Ukraine, a country that has had to defend itself against Russia for many years.

With the work «I died 22 times» he wins a number of prizes, and it has been exhibited countless times. «The project helped me find my voice as a photographer,» says the 32-year-old. Since then, he has been able to make a living from editorial assignments. He often works for renowned media such as ZEIT, Stern, or SPIEGEL. In the long run, Rafael Heygster hopes to continue working on more in-depth stories.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Asia © Rafael Heygster

Employees of a weapons manufacturer wait for customers in their booth at IDEX.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Asia © Rafael Heygster

A trade show visitor looks at the display of military aircraft and warships at IDEX in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Asia © Rafael Heygster

Young soldiers march in uniforms to the «International Defense Exhibition and Conference» (IDEX).

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Asia © Rafael Heygster

Businessmen from Abu Dhabi inspect a vehicle equipped with machine guns at IDEX.

Brno, Czech Republic, Europe © Rafael Heygster

Two generals sitting together in a booth at an arms fair in Brno.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Asia © Rafael Heygster

At the opening of the «International Defense Exhibition and Conference» (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, technical innovations of the defense industry are presented in a 20-minute spectacle of pyrotechnics, actors and multimedia storytelling.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Asia © Rafael Heygster

A military band leaves the stage after a performance at IDEX.


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