To live his life as an artist, photographer Corey Glass must stay in exile

After he escaped the war in Iraq and failed to gain political asylum in Canada, Corey Glass found his calling in Berlin.

After he failed to gain political asylum in Canada, Glass found his calling in Berlin

(Corey Glass)

Corey Glass's story sounds, at first, like many other artists' stories. It begins with a kind of awakening, then many and rough setbacks, and now a full-fledged practice. But the difference is that in order to live his life as an artist, Corey Glass must stay in exile.

At 33 years old, Glass, who was born in Indiana, has a thriving on-line photography practice specializing in hybrid analogue-digital works that sell to private collectors, and participates in international exhibitions. But he can't go home to the United States. Glass is a wanted man. Nor can he go to the country of his choice, Canada, the place he first sought political asylum. For now, he lives in Berlin under the auspices of an artist/freelance visa.

Glass took a dramatic turn when the United States declared war on Iraq 13 years ago. As a volunteer National Guard ("I joined," he says, "because I wanted to help people after tornadoes and floods hit, not to go to another country and kill people"), Glass was immediately called up to invade Iraq. The loophole in his National Guard membership that allowed him to be shipped off to war is one he claims he was never informed of nor agreed to, and one he and peace activists say was implemented "under the table" with the passing of the Patriot Act.

Glass did a six month tour of Iraq, attempted to resign, was refused, then sought a leave, was granted it, and never returned. This is where Canada comes in: like many war resisters and conscientious objectors before him, Glass sought asylum in Canada. He lived in Toronto for eight years while waiting for his claim to be processed and was almost deported back to the US five times.

(Corey Glass)

Meanwhile, the Harper Conservatives, according to the group War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC) was busy "[singling] out US Iraq War resisters". WRSC further claims that the Immigration Minister at the time, MP Jason Kenney "issued Operational Bulletin 202, a directive to immigration officers to especially target US asylum seekers" and that Kenney personally "interfered with the independent decision-making process" — a charge also made by Amnesty International. Glass was faced with a stark choice: turn up to a Canadian Immigration detention centre and be deported the US, where he would face a harsh prison sentence, or, as he puts it, "run for it".

Glass fled to Europe and after many adventures landed in Berlin, where he was granted an artist visa. Meeting with Glass for a cheap beer on a sunny afternoon in the pram-crammed, scruffy-casual Prenzlauerberg neighbourhood where he lives and works, I notice that the slight and shrugging Glass is invisible even to the aggressive sparrows diving for our bar popcorn. This guy is wanted by the mighty governments of Canada and the United States? He's about as threatening as a balled up sock. Glass just wants to take pictures.

And he takes hundreds a month. His speciality is the forgotten or overlooked spaces of his adopted city – dirty, broken corners of Berlin that were once full of life but are now overgrown with weeds and graffiti tags.

"I relate to these spaces because I relate to the crap that must have happened to people before they became abandoned," Glass says, "but I don't go looking for messed up places, I only really see that I've photographed particular ones once I go back and start looking at what I've shot. I like the ones where I can imagine people in them, using them again, and that I guess relates to me because I want to live peacefully, so that I can grow again too. But there is something about the way spaces that were once really busy can be transformed into places everybody just walks past."

(Corey Glass)

When I tell Glass that I look at his work and I see that he infuses these mundane spaces with saturated colours, and that this combination appears to express a longing for a return to their former glory, to life itself, he admits that his images are melancholic.

"If you leave things alone long enough, they become useful in other ways. A dilapidated former shop becomes an ad hoc park; a grown-over corner of a building is somebody or some animal's refuge. So, yeah, that is also me, because I'm also rebuilding myself, and, yeah, it makes me sad that people don't look around them more and see the potential of things, not just what is immediate."

Glass is also an urban spelunker, and Berlin, particularly the east end of the city, is full of forgotten places. "There's an abandoned hospital and seven kilometres of unused rail tracks I'm going to photograph this summer," he tells me, and then laughs, "that is so me! But I'm not a lonely guy at all; I'm just someone who sees the potential for loneliness to be seen as a starting point, a fresh start."

Fresh starts are all Corey Glass has, or wants.

Postscript: The Liberal government pledged to rescind Operational Bulletin 202 during the last election. According to activists, however, the edict remains in effect.



RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist. Vaughan is the author of many books and contributes articles on culture to a wide variety of publications.