#11 youth
Stefan Sirtl / Maren Zeidler

An Armchair Hits the Road

This summer Stefan Sirtl will embark on a unique trip. He will travel through Southeast Asia by bicycle – accompanied by a red armchair on a trailer. The idea sounds crazy, but the Freiburg student already has one armchair trip under his belt. Last year he made it clear across Central America. The armchair returned with a few minor injuries and Stefan with a lot of photos and wonderful stories. We have asked him to tell us about it.

Stefan, you have probably heard this question a lot: what gave you the idea of taking an armchair along on your travels?

In 2011 I visited a good friend in Heidelberg. She and I used to travel together. One Saturday morning we were coming home from a good party and I saw how Julia's red armchair caught the morning sun. I had just bought a new SLR camera and was taking pictures of all and sundry. We thought it would be interesting to carry the armchair out into the morning sun and have Julia sit in it and read the paper as people bustled past. Unfortunately it did not work because everyone stopped and wanted to have their pictures taken with the chair too. So we changed our plan. By the end of the day we had 200 pictures of perfect strangers and 200 email addresses. We sent everyone a copy of his or her photo. In the evening we sat together and thought: we should travel again. We wanted to find a common thread to turn the trip into a project – a bicycle didn't pass muster, nor did a horse... and we were left with the red armchair.

Ideas often remain just crazy ideas – but you actually realised yours. Logistically and financially that could not have been particularly easy.

True. And we were both complete laymen – we had never implemented a project before. But we both really liked the idea and went all out to make it happen. I set up an internet site and we looked for sponsors. Heidelberger Polsterei, an upholstery shop, jumped on board immediately. That is where the chair always goes when it needs repairs. Another sponsor paid the chair's airfare and we did a lot of photo campaigns in different cities to raise awareness for our project.

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Did you set a goal for your trip ahead of time? Or was it initially more about travelling in general?

As time wore on, the project just kept expanding, so that by now we have had a few exhibitions and we published a calendar in 2013. But that was not planned. At first we just wanted to travel to see how people reacted.

How did people react?

Positively across the board! Initially they were rather surprised and always laughed. But almost everyone was willing to join in. The only people who did not like the armchair very much were the bus drivers. They often cursed us as they lashed the armchair to the roof. Even at the borders we crossed it was no problem. We had expected that the chair would be taken apart at every crossing, but that didn't happen. When the border guards asked us what it was, we answered "an armchair with wheels". And they waved us through.

So you retrofitted the chair for the trip?

Yes. We had an axel with two tyres that was easy to put on and take off. It kept breaking though. Right at the beginning we had to spend an entire day in Granada looking for a new axel – but anything is possible in Central America, including finding an axel for an armchair.

Who are the people in your photos?

Many of them are common people we photographed in Central America. We also tried to involve people from the other side of society in our pictures. To this end we spent an entire day in Cancun at a marina. But none of the yacht owners wanted to sit in an armchair; they all had appointments or had to leave. That was unfortunate, of course, but I don't really know what the reasons were.

The less well-to-do people were much more relaxed. Initially we worried that poorer people might feel ashamed, but not at all. It was quite the opposite in fact: everyone joined in right away. We photographed fishermen in Mexico, for example. Afterwards they invited us to their wooden huts. Naked children were running around everywhere. You could see their pride when they introduced their families and served us maize from their own gardens. It really left an impression on us.

"The red armchair makes it very clear: people are somehow all alike, and yet very different."

Did you offer people something in return, like sending them their photographs?

We never offered anyone anything in return. But after taking a picture of the fruit vendor, for example, we purchased some of his fruit, and things like that. We did try to get email addresses. But it didn't always work because many people still don't have an email address. We often got an email from a distant relative and sent the photo that way. I would love to bring people their photos personally. I might do so in a few years.

You also support a women's initiative in Nicaragua – how did that come about?

We were, as you mentioned, in Nicaragua, where we sat down in the marketplace to wait and see what would happen. Two tourists with a red armchair, backpacks and guitars always attracted attention, of course. A variety of people stopped to talk to us. One was Martha, a bottle collector. She asked if we wanted to come to the landfill to photograph the bottle collectors and draw attention to the situation of women in Nicaragua.

When we got there the next day I was initially a bit uncomfortable. I didn't want to simply photograph the people there in front of this mountain of rubbish. But the bottle collectors came up with the idea of putting the armchair on the mound of rubbish. Everyone wanted her photo taken and queued up. We published a calendar, as I mentioned. The profits will go to an aid organization in Nicaragua that works with the women bottle collectors. This is how we are trying to give back for the wonderful day we had in Nicaragua.

The next trip will take you through Southeast Asia. Do you think the second trip will be different from the first?

I think it will be completely different. We will travel by bicycle for two months and so be able to leave the main thruways. That was not really possible on the first trip since we were dependent on the bus routes. This time we can travel to the smaller villages – that is what we are really interested in, the people well off the beaten tourist track.

And how will you communicate in Southeast Asia?

If you have time and patience, it is not that hard to get to know people even if you don't speak their language. And the armchair idea is pretty simple; it can be explained with just a few gestures. Still we are looking for people who speak Vietnamese or Thai and could provide us with some sort of letter or sign that would explain our idea.

So Siéntate is heading into round two. It looks like the project has really grown over the years.

Yes, that's true. Its purpose has grown as the project has. At this point it is also a bit about increasing understanding in Germany. Still Siéntate is not intended to be an educational project or instructional in any way. I want to show how things are and no more. One thing has stayed the same throughout, and it is what inspires me: the diversity of human beings. The red armchair makes it very clear: people are somehow all alike, and yet very different.

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