photoparley

discussing photographic art

Laura Stevens

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Airelle from the series Another November by Laura Stevens.

Following the ending of a significant relationship in my life, an undoing began.

Laura Stevens

Another November is a series of staged performances enacting the all too familiar path of the broken hearted. Based on Laura’s personal experience she directed her subjects to represent her personal struggle in regaining independence and identity after a personal loss.

Laura Stevens is a photographic artist based in Paris. Her work often deals with issues surrounding relationships and has a particular leaning towards cinematic fictions. Her work has been exhibited worldwide including The National Portrait Gallery, London, The Centre for Fine Art Photography, USA, Encontros da Imagem, Portugal and The Latvian Museum of Photography.  Laura received  Special Distinction in the LensCulture Emerging Talents, 2014 and is a finalist in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, 2014.

Using friends as actors, props, locations and clothing, like in film, you have created scenes of individual narratives that all play part of a wider story. How did you go about finding each image and how did you decide how they held together as a series? In other words what were you looking for both on a micro and macro level?

Another November is a story about heartbreak. The photographs follow my own experience of losing love, but equally they could be anyone’s: the trajectory of loss, although massively simplified, seems to follow a general pattern of emotions – denial, pain, anger, loneliness – which affects everyone in unique ways. My experience was pretty turbulent which I reacted to by making this work. My principal motivation was to express all of these difficult feelings I was going through but, which, through a palatable visual form, use of multiple identities and dispersed gestures, could then be shared more easily by others. I started photographing friends of mine, at first without a clear structure or objective, but after several shoots I began to construct a series of scenes based on different situations within the domestic environment which could then help demonstrate a particular emotion. To create obvious parallels I decided that the images should be of only women, all of a similar age and living in Paris who could ultimately be seen as just one woman. I wanted to stage all of the photographs in the interiors of their homes, without any visual traces of other people in order to make the story about how one comes to terms with loss when alone. Depending upon the woman I was photographing, the look of her apartment and what was personally going on for me, these would all help determine the scene I would construct.
The series came together quite naturally; I would find a subject, see their home and understand what I needed to express. Often I would dress them in clothes of my own which added an element of identification. The scene would be pared down, eliminating traces of history and time so that the emotion of the woman became the principal element. The compositions, tones and colours of the images also helped to bring consistency and compatibility to the series as a whole.

Can you explain your choice of lighting to us please and talk a little about what impact it has on the work?

The lighting plays a principal role and is always very important in my work. Using artificial lights I can have total control in constructing the look of the scene. I wanted to create a cinematic drama which helped to illuminate the sentiments and match the imposing, sombre mood of the women. It’s a story about nostalgia so I tried to make the tones of the images relate to this.

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Kate

This series grew out of a difficult personal experience for you. How has it been pouring your personal experience into your work? Has it been therapeutic to observe these ‘evolving chapters’ of change in you by distancing yourself through the camera?

In my life as in my work, I tend to be driven by my emotions, so I think it comes naturally to me to work this way. Making Another November gave me something to focus on, diverting my attention towards something active and productive, using difficult emotions and channelling them into something tangible. Seeing them transformed into visual objects made them ultimately easier to understand. I felt that once I had managed to describe an emotion into an image I was closer to letting it go, more aware that things were changing. At the same time, continually focusing on the thing that is the most painful makes it all-consuming, tough to get distance from and hence perhaps harder to let go. Revealing your vulnerabilities in such a way as this is scary and raw, but I think you have to be prepared to be a little naked in your art.

Are your subjects bringing their own stories into your narrative as well as your own or is it a case of them playing out your personal story? What does this blend of fact and fiction come together in the work? 

The stories are my own, not those of the women, instead directing them along a narrative I provided. I asked them to put themselves into a role, to act out a scene but to also use their own feelings of loss, which are both unique and universal. Everyone can tap into this, it’s something we all go through at some point. The series was not a sociological study on heartbreak, but a journey through it; one woman’s experience.

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Carole

What is it like putting this work into the public realm in the midst of both positive and negative criticism? How do you deal with both sides of the coin?

Once the work leaves your hands it becomes somehow set apart from yourself, a distance is created even if it is very personal. It has been obviously wonderful to receive acknowledgement for this project, and a strange shock to suddenly be more ‘present’, but as with the criticism, you have to try and take it with a pinch of salt and keep focusing on the work itself and not on the regard of others, even though I seem to perceive the criticism as more valid than the praise. I have been so touched to have received emails from people with their own tales of heartbreak. It is a huge honour to have strangers entrust you with their vulnerabilities and to know that the work has somehow resonated with them.

You also work as a commercial photographer in Paris with clients such as The Times Magazine, Le Monde, The Washington Post and Forbes magazine…. shooting celebrities and public figures such as Anselm Kiefer, Caitlin Moran, Jean-Michel Cohen and Rupert Everett. Do most photographers you know work like this – working as both artists and professionals? How do the two worlds overlap or clash? What has your commercial practice brought to your personal work and vice versa?

All of my photography friends have countless, different ways of working, each forging their own method of organising their time, energy and resources. I have managed to develop a practice of working commercially which allows me to make personal work alongside it, allowing for the rhythms of each. They both enrich the other, the contrasting approaches helping to create a balance. Working commercially I am able to photograph all manner of people and situations I would never normally encounter and gives me the chance to explore and develop different techniques in lighting and directing. My personal work is fundamentally a means to express myself, and through it I have established a certain style which can help to bring you to the eye of picture editors, so it’s all a positive loop. Sometimes the desire/need for working on one more than the other at times can create a strain, but that’s when your social life takes a tumble.

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Aurélie

What are the main pressures of shooting celebrities and working for major publications?

To be good. There is enormous competition and you have to provide the imagery they need; there aren’t any second chances. And being somewhat reserved myself, telling a celebrity what to do is terrifying, but also kind of thrilling.

What would a typical shoot be like? Are you given much creative freedom or do you have to respond to a very specific location in a short space of time? How do you find this?

They are all very different. I might have anything from five minutes to one hour to make a portrait for an editorial shoot, often in their home/hotel, and create something from what I find. The briefs are often loose, so I am allowed a certain degree of freedom. They are a little in keeping with the way I photograph in my personal work too – responding to a person and the environment without lengthy planning. I love working this way, making quick decisions, trying to find a way to engage with a stranger and ask them to open up to you in a short space of time. It’s always an exciting challenge. In French, even more so.

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Emma

Living between Paris and London do you see how photography in France is different from the UK? (I’m thinking both about how it is produced and also how it is received.) How do the two cultures approach the medium?

I come from a school where I was taught to construct photographs carefully, always aware of the conceptual underpinnings, and in Paris I have found there to be a tendency towards a more poetic perspective, but it’s hard to define. The French approach to life in general has more of an influence on me than the French approach to photography. The texture and colour of life here is different and this inspires me in many ways. For me, it oozes a romantic melancholy. It’s a pleasure to be able to participate in photo circles in Paris but it’s my experience within the city which has the biggest influence. Perhaps I should move to Denmark!

Natasha Caruana

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From the series The Other Woman by Natasha Caruana

www.natashacaruana.com

Natasha Caruana is a photographic artist and founding director of the London based studioSTRIKE artists studios. Caruana was born in London, 1983. She has an MA in photography from the Royal College of Art, London and is a Senior Lecturer of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts, Surrey, UK.

Caruana’s own art practice is grounded in research concerned with narratives of love, betrayal and fantasy. Significant to all Caruana’s work is the questioning of how today’s technology is impacting relationships. Her series ‘Married Man’ documents love and life of the everyday and her later work ‘Fairytale for Sale’ explores the strange ritual of newlyweds blocking out their faces in online adverts. Her work is created drawing from archives, the Internet and personal narratives.

 

I became the ‘other woman’ on February 23rd, 2003.

(Artist statement – The Other Woman)

Some of your work is very personal and exposing, in fact it is how your career began. How did this come about? Was it therapeutic somehow; necessary?

I didn’t begin photographing until I was about to leave school when I inherited my grandfather’s Pentax K1000. Over the summer holiday I started photographing life in my town and tin cans in the supermarket. I quickly moved onto documenting new arrivals to the UK queuing outside the home office in Croydon. This was the start of the fascination with personal stories. I carried on photographing other people’s stories throughout my photography degree. It wasn’t until my final third year project when the camera turned inwards to document my own story. This viewpoint has continued and today I still draw from personal experience. My work often comes from something I’m wrestling with in my life. I strive to translate something personal into the universal.

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From the series The Other Woman

How was this work received and what impact did that have on you (personally and as an artist)?

It’s been very fascinating for me to receive such diverse responses to the work. I often get emails from other women or married men that want to talk to me about their situations. I’ve found that through my work people feel they are able to have open conversations with me… but at the other end of the spectrum… I’ve had emails from married men asking me out.

It still amazes me how remarkable the power photography has to enable shared experience.

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From the series The Married Man

What inspires you? Where do you get your stories from?

The closest answer I can give is that my work comes from the everyday. I live a very active life, meeting people, travelling, having many hobbies, having a close-knit family and friendship circle so I’m always in touch with life. An idea can come from a family dinner, an overheard conversation at yoga or car boot sale.

I notice or find myself pondering over something, and start to explore the idea from different angles – by reading relevant material, visiting archives, looking on the internet, talking to people, and so on.

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Your works are usually exhibited as installations – using sound and text – how important is this to you and why? How do you discern what makes a good installation?

Due to the research based nature of my practice I build up a lot of material whilst exploring and shooting around an idea. I try to push and reinvest the form of the photograph, moving between different formats, techniques and technologies – from a camera phone to a disposable camera, watch camera, large format camera and the appropriated image. This is reflected in the way I exhibit the work. The installation grows out of the research process. At the beginning of the series I never set out to create an installation. It often naturally evolves and the material seems too important to edit out, so it becomes part of the final work.

Further to this I really enjoy the challenge of curating work to a specific exhibition space. I try to keep things interesting by adding or reworking material for different spaces – an installation can often be the outcome of this process.

The Married Man was quite risky.  How did you feel about undertaking this project? Were you nervous during the ‘dates’? What drove you to make this work? What did you learn?

The Married Man project was a mixture of part thrilling, part sad repetitive moments. I was drawn to the fact that the dates weren’t at all what I expected. During the initial 5 dates (research process of the project) I found the men were mostly using me like a quasi-marriage councillor. This was something surprising and was a contrast to how one would imagine an affair to be. I wanted to understand more about how men felt in marriage, what were their intentions to me? The project had the overarching question ‘how is technology changing relationships today?’ this was born from the fact I was using Internet dating websites solely set up for married men to find a mistress.

I learnt a lot about marriage and the importance of continued communication between man and wife, as it can often slip into the wife and child relationship being the most dominate. Through the series I also gained a better understanding about the act and means of photographing. I learnt to change formats and use the camera format best suited to the work… this challenged me to not just pick up what is familiar. It this instance I started to use a disposable camera. The way you photograph can also be important to the conceptual framework of the series.

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 From the series The Married Man

Can you tell us about your current series The Detective? What is it about? What are you hoping to achieve?

The Detective documents the narrative of Rebecca Jane, the owner of the Lady Detective Agency, the UK’s leading all female-staffed detective agency. The work is still in progress and I’m currently exploring the multiplicity of point of view, the fleeting moment and the extension of the photographer’s lens. I’m doing this by moving between different formats, combining images taken on a small digital camera, a watch camera, an iPhone, on Snapchat and on a large format 10x8in camera with a team of lighting professionals.

Themes of love and fantasy tinged with brokenness continue to run through your work. Are these things that we should expect to see again? What draws you back to these niche relational dynamics?

I honestly have no idea what the future holds in terms of subject matter. I can never predict when an idea will strike.

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As a photographer you move between snapshot photographs, large format imagery, iPhones. What roles do different cameras play in your research and production? How do you know what is the right camera?

I experiment with different cameras and shoot the same thing on different formats. From the results I am able to work out which camera is suited to the project and what I’m trying to achieve both aesthetically and conceptually.

What is it like working with a team? How is your role as photographer changing as you progress? Are you operating a bit like a director and how is that different?

Working in a team was great fun. On one of the Detective shoots I worked with a 10 x 8 format. Having other people on hand to perfect the lighting, manage the camera, meant I could really focus on getting the right image. I’m so used to photographing my projects alone, I did feel nervous ahead of the shoot as I wasn’t sure how it would feel having other people there. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. As it turned out having other people there meant I could talk the idea through. It also meant I could share the experience with other people. I had been photographing up in Lancashire for about a year and it was wonderful to share the landscape with others.

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Work in progress from The Detective

You recently won the prestigious BMW artist residency. Congratulations! What plans do you have for the residency? How is it going? What will you be doing day to day and how will you use the time and resources? Are we allowed to have an insight into what you might produce?

Thank you. I’m very excited to work on a new project. I’m searching for the truth behind Love at First Sight or Coup de Foudre – The Lightning Bolt. The work will explore personal experience and popular mythology, as well as investigating the subject through the work of neuroscientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.

I’ve always been fascinated by the museum’s archive so I am also working with the Nicéphore Niépce collection. It’s a beautiful and touching collection. I am giving particular attention to the amateur photograph albums and vernacular images it holds.

For those interested in knowing more about the residency I’m sharing all my research and progress onto my artist facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Natasha-Caruana-Artist/262578663789050?ref=hl

What does this prize mean for your career? (The BMW residency results in a solo show at Recontres d’Arles and Paris Photo, 2015.)

This residency is a once-in-a-career opportunity and knowing the work I make will be shown at both Les Rencontres d’Arles next year and at Paris Photo will push me to take my work to a higher professional standard, particularly in terms of presentation. It also means I’m working in an entirely new way. Normally my projects take me one or two years to complete. With the residency I have to have a project completed from start to finish in about two months!

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From the series The Other Woman

You also work full time as senior lecturer at UCA, Farnham. What does this role bring to your practice and how do you manage to do everything?

Yes I work at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. I run the second year on the Photography Degree programme. I am part of a fantastic team and I work amongst some incredible and passionate photographers/ educators.

Working full time is of course not ideal in terms of keeping up my practice, but looking at it optimistically I get to know my students very well and I  basically get to work with ideas all day. By working with the students so closely I get a lot of personal reward seeing their creative and personal confidence grow throughout the degree. It is very long hours and I’m definitely not in love with the four-hour daily commute! But by working in education it does mean I can have the holidays for my practice, and with my salary I can employ assistant Sarah Howe, she is a brilliant support and keeps everything ticking over for me during the stressful term time.

The research department and media school have been amazingly supportive towards the BMW Award and it’s incredible to be given this time away from teaching. The residency is a welcome opportunity to focus wholly on my own practice. Throughout my career I have a never had an uninterrupted period to work on my projects. I’m now two weeks into the three months and to be honest it does feel a little odd to not be running fresher’s week this year, and meeting all my new second years. I suppose the next couple of months will be a good lesson in letting go and taking time for my work.

David Favrod

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Vent divin, David Favrod, 2013

www.davidfavrod.com

This work represents my compulsion to build and shape my own memory. To reconstitute some facts I haven’t experienced myself, but have unconsciously influenced me while growing up.

My grandparents witnessed the war; survivors who finally passed away and whose memories will soon be a part of history. Only once did we speak about their experiences during the war. They told me how illness can take away your sisters; the shame; the relief after the war; and the watermelons …

But after that night, we never talked about it again. As if my grandparents gave me their memories as a whisper through the air before allowing it to disappear from their minds.

Somehow, I would say that I borrowed their memories. I use their stories as source of inspiration for my own testimony.

David Favrod

In his series Hikari, David Favrod visits an important time in Japanese history, and its impact on him and his family, through memories.  The result is a poignant and compelling narrative positioned somewhere between the personal and the universal.  Hints of opening narratives and an other worldly imagination emerged in my mind as I had the pleasure of looking at this work, recently showing at Voies Off Gallery in Arles.   Favrod’s use of high impact and visceral imagery set alongside an experimental presentation style succeeds in pulling the viewer towards it whilst simultaneously retaining a sense of mystery.

The following interview took place on 22nd September 2014.

SB: Your work is situated within a general concept – memories of your Grandparents based on a one night only conversation (Hikari), or your struggle with dual culture identity (Gaijin) – which is fascinating. How do you then come up with the individual imagery? Can you give us an insight into your thought process?

 

DF: When I want to start a new project I think about what I want to show and what I want to speak about. Before taking any picture I write the general idea and I start to draw the images on my sketchbook. That allows me to construct the series and to see if there are too many landscapes, enough portrait or still life and to have a balance in the series from these different type of photographs. For each image I think about how I can produce it. I try to find the best solution to speak about the story behind each images. And for sure I think about the series and how the images can work together. It’s a quite long process but I like to work like this.

 

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Mishiko, David Favrod, 2012

The girl with the watermelon is Mishiko, she was the sister of my grandfather. She fell ill during the second war, doctors diagnosed poor hydration. In Japan, watermelon is a very popular fruit and holds much water. So his parents gave it to her regularly. But the diagnosis was wrong; it was a salt deficiency and she died shortly after.

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Autoportrait en poulpe, David Favrod, 2009

One of my few memories of my travels in Japan when I was young are the drawings of octopus. I loved takoyaki and in front of the takoyaki stand there were always octopus drawn like that. You see the resemblance? haha!

And the bird shadow made from hands is le bunker. In my building in Vionnaz there is a anti-nuclear bunker. It’s an obligation in Switzerland that every house or building needs to construct is own anti-nuclear bunker. It’s the law. And if you don’t want you need to pay. Anyway.

 

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Le bunker, David Favrod, 2012

 

A few weeks after the explosion, scientists saw that the flash of the bomb had discolored the walls that were still standing. The bomb had left marks corresponding to the projections of objects, bodies and street furniture, like a photographic projection. The heat due to heat radiation made visible shadows on the ground. Shadows could be a man who stood at the time of the tragedy and had somehow ‘protected’ the wall from the bomb. It was the same with a ladder, a valve or pylons of a bridge.

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BAOUMMM, David Favrod, 2013

 

Although your work is strongly based in the photographic you often make use of sound (onomatopoeia) and installation to enhance your exhibits. How did this presentation evolve and what do you think it adds to your work?

 

I can’t say I use sound in my process right now. I just represent sounds. A lot of the memories of my grandparents during WWII were sounds. During the bombings they went to underground shelters. It was dark. The memories they remain from their events are the sound of explosions, the sound of planes, people crying, … So, my question was : How can I introduce sound in my picture? It’s why I decided to use onomatopoeias (that were found in manga/comic) and to paint them on the prints. Yes the installations are a very important question for me. How the installation can use the space to tell the story. I always start from the space and I construct every installation for each space (gallery, museum). So my installations evolve for each exhibition. Each picture is only one size. However I allow myself to change the size of an image when I use murals, this allows me to balance an installation or create a new correlation between 2 superimposed images. Depending on the space and the choice of images, I work on the composition. I reason in terms of sequence and the relation between the images with a choice of spacing and alternating formats. This creates a dynamic viewpoint of the installation, not only horizontally but also in the space. The viewer comes closer to look at a small work, and then moves back to see a larger one, and so one.

 

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Pour Sadako, David Favrod, 2012

 

How important is mystery to you? And why? Do you want the viewer to bring something to the work? Do you have any nice examples of this happening?

 

Mystery is very important in my work. Indeed it’s really important for me that the viewer brings his or her own history to the work. I don’t explain in the exhibition the stories behind each images there is only my statement in the entrance. So the viewer has the general idea but I hope they will ask themselves to create their own story with the different images. I have a nice example of this happening this summer. In July I had an exhibition at the Voies Off gallery during Les rencontres internationales de la photography in Arles. During a dinner we started to speak with Christophe Laloi (director of the gallery) and two friends about my last work « Hikari » and the exhibition. After a moment Christophe started to speak about the history of his family during WWII in Europe, so he began to question himself and his own heritage.

 

Are themes of identity, culture and memory continuing themes for you? What is next for you?

 

Yes the theme of identity, culture and memory are very important for me and are certainly continuing themes for my next projects. I guess my education and all that I lived through when I was young, all the experiences I had, affect in a way the man I am today and so also how I take pictures. I’m working on several projects now. 2 long term projects one about the yokais (japanese monsters stories) and one about Pierre Favez, the cousin of my father, an alpinist who died in the Lhotse Shar (Himalaya) in the early 80. But now, I’m currently working on a new project called Le son des vagues noires (the sound of the black waves) which is a mix between manga (comics), stories about the ocean, fictions,… I’m really in the beginning of my research but I’m very excited by the process and how I can create and show a new typology of images and a new idea of sequencing. (A mix between photography and the manga / comic).

 

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Son magnifique champ de fleurs, David Favrod, 2012

 

 

I’m interested in your influences and your education. What teaching methods have stayed with you and impacted you from ECAL?

 

I have a lot of influences: my family, novels, painters, films, photographers,… I studied at ECAL for 6 years (1 preparatory, 3 for the Bachelors and 2 for the Masters). The production of images was very intense with a lot of workshops and imposed thematics. For sure the best years was the 3 last where I was totally free to produce what I wanted to do.

 

You have achieved a lot of success with both your work Gaijin and Hikari.  How do you define success?

 

At this stage of my career, the success for me it’s to have the luck, as now, to be only focused on my projects without worrying about if I need to do commercial works to live. Just doing what I love. And for that I would like to say a big THANK YOU to all the people that help me. From my family to my friends and all the people that believe in my projects and give me exposure, prizes, exhibitions. Thank you very much!

 

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Raid B-29 du 18 juin 1945 sur Kobé, David Favrod, 2013

Iuna Vieira

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Iuna Vieira, with her collegue Mafalda Rakos and graphic designer Raphael Reichl, decided to make a photographic response to the fractured and heated situation in Israel and Palestine.  The three young professionals travelled throughout Israel and Palestine meeting people, hearing their stories and documenting them in what turned out to be the poignantly sensitive and humane multi-award winning publication 3rd Generation.

Iuna, interviewed here, talks about her experiences of her time in Israel (Mafalda Rakos produced the Palestinian side of the book) and how the project came together.

SB: Tell us about the origins of this idea. Three 18 year old friends decide to go to Gaza?! How did this crazy idea come about? What did you set out to achieve?

IV: First of all, we didn’t go to Gaza, we went to Israel and to the West Bank. Back then it didn’t seem like a crazy idea at all, rather like a logical next step.

I went to Israel in the summer before starting 3rd Generation (2011) joining an international summer course from the Organisation “UWC”. There was no personal connection or any particular reason I wanted to know more about this part of the world, just pure interest. After I returned I kept comparing how the media showed the conflict with what my new Israeli and Palestinian friends had to say. Around the same time my classmate Mafalda and I had to choose a topic for our diploma work and we decided to focus exactly on that: thoughts, opinions, feelings and experiences Israelis and Palestinians of our age associate with the conflict. We wanted to show a human, individual and personal view on the conflict and to share the ability to see it through the eyes of someone our age that lives with it on a daily basis.

What did you learn on your journey? What surprised you about your findings?

Mainly I got to know great and inspiring people who impress me with what they have to say, weather I agree with it or not. Secondly, I developed a deep passion about the Middle East as an area, especially Israel and Palestine. Becoming so emotionally engaged in a conflict that is not even mine surprised me the most. While travelling, making interviews and taking pictures I also learned something about myself: I am not a photographer. At least I am not only a photographer. The research, listening to personal stories, asking the right questions… All of those became equally important as photography to me.

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How did your family feel about this?!

Well, they were not impressed. We kind of pulled the ‘We are 18 and do what we want card’ and they quickly understood that the decisions had already been made. On one hand they trusted us and they knew that the trip was very well planned but I guess they were also relieved when we returned. At least my grandmother was.

Did you have any frightening or particularly memorable experiences?

Couch surfing in an Israeli settlement located in the West Bank or ‘Judea and Samaria’ as they call it was something I was terrified of. All the stereotypes we, as Western-Europeans have in mind – right wing extremists, Jewish-fanatics, radical Zionists. In the end those days I spent working in Ariel were maybe the most remarkable ones. The students I met were great individuals, extremely hospitable and a lot of them feel misunderstood by western media. They had a great need to share their thoughts and to tell their stories. That was when I taught myself to truly listen to an opinion that is the complete opposite to my own without judging. I want this skill to be key to whatever I might end up doing in the future.

3rd generation

How did the book design come about? What do you feel it adds to the concept of the work?

The credits for that go to our great graphic designer Raphael Reichl.

The idea is that the two books, one symbolising the Israeli and the other symbolising the Palestinian side, are separated but still connected. The linen that holds them together is the fence, the visual border between one book and the other. The landscape pictures between the chapters go over both books, illustrating the most essential connection between them and between Israel and Palestine: the land.

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The text seems important to the final outcome of this project.  How did you record the words?  Edit them down?  Can you give us an insight into what was going through your minds as you put this all together?  Did you agree on that aspect of the publication and how did you figure it out if not?

The text is a very essential part of the book. We recorded our talks with our protagonists; most of them were spontaneous conversations rather than interviews. I changed very little of those original recordings for the book. I didn’t feel any need to write additional personal texts because in my opinion the photographer has enough influence through the editing, the sequencing, and the decision on which parts to use when; everything is equally important.

It was clear from the beginning that 3rd Generation is about each individual story as a whole, thus we needed both: text and photography. The main and most basic concept of 3rd Generation is to ask young Israelis and Palestinians to speak up and to tell their own story. Through the pictures you can see our perspective of their realities while the text gives you their perspective told in their very own words.

You are such a young photographer! How did you know you wanted to be involved in photography so seriously? What are your aspirations and what have you learnt so far?

That is a good question! I usually hate it when photographers write something like “I started to photograph when I was 9 years old..” in their bios. If we are honest, the kind of photography produced by a 9 year old is most probably crap. I would say I tried to photograph when I was really young and I was very lucky to live in Vienna where I had the opportunity to visit a school, ‘die Graphische,’ offering professional education in photography and media-related subjects starting from the age of 14. During those five years at school I got deeper and deeper into the subject and quickly focused on reportage and social documentary photography. Together with school or friends I visited photo-festivals like the ‘Lumix – festival for young photojournalism’ in Hannover, Visa pour l’image in Perpignan or the Vienna Photobook Festival, all of those were a great inspiration and showed us that we were far from achieving what those exhibitors achieved. The Lumix was the first Photo-Festival I visited, I was 16 years old and it is where all my childish dreams about becoming a famous photographer started, so I would really like to exhibit there one day, but that feels really far away right now.

Photojournalist or artist? What is the main distinction for you and where would you like to be positioned? 

None of those. I would like to be a ‘concerned photographer’, to use photography as the intermediary between the subject, society, and politics. There is a quote: “To know one must imagine” by the french art-historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman and I would want that to become my approach to photography.

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What impact is your new school having on the direction of your career?

When you grow up in a certain system you start to question it once you start to grow up, right? I grew up in and with photography and I’m currently experiencing a kind of ‘late puberty’ when it comes to that. For the past six years photography has been the only thing on my mind. During the realization of 3rd Generation I began to feel that this one medium is not enough for me anymore. I began to think very critically about photography’s impact on global issues like conflicts, poverty and injustice. I want to learn. Learn how to ask the right questions, learn Arabic, learn how to write and how policy works and then, in the end, I want to learn how to combine those skills with photography. That is why I chose to move to the Netherlands and to study International Studies.

To follow news of 3rd Generation go to the Facebook page here.  To see more of Iuna’s work see here.

Iuna Vieira was born in Vienna, Austria in 1994 and graduated from Vienna’s School of Media – Department of Photography in 2013. Since 2010 she has been focusing on social documentary photography, and started working on long- and short term projects in Austria and abroad. From 2011 to 2013 she implemented the book-project ’3rd Generation’ about Israeli and Palestinian youth within the Middle East conflict, along with two colleagues. The book won various contests, such as the second prize in the Fotobookfestival Kassel DummyAward 2014 competition, Jugend Innovativ’s First Prize in the Design category, the 2nd Prize for the Self Publish Riga Dummy Contest and was shortlisted for the  European Publisher Award (2014). The photo-book is part of “Schönste Bücher Österreichs” (Austria’s Most Beautiful Books) and was exhibited in various countries. In 2013, she spend four months in Brazil volunteering, implementing a project, and working as a photographer for an NGO. She attended various international Photo Festivals and Portfolio Reviews (such as the Lumix, Visa pour l’image in Perpignan and many more) and exhibited her work in group exhibitions in Vienna and on a solo exhibition at Encontras da imagem International Photo Festival in Braga, Portugal. In September 2014 she enrolled at Leiden University in The Hague, The Netherlands, majoring ‘International Studies’ mainly focusing on the Middle East. In her work, she aims to show a close, personal insight into the lives of those who live in harsh situations caused by politics such as conflicts, poverty, or injustice.

Maria Kapajeva

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Baiba from the series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

www.mariakapajeva.com

Originally from Estonia, Maria Kapajeva is an up and coming artist wholly dedicated to her work.  As a researcher for Fast Forward, a photography symposium coming to Tate Modern in 2015, a tutor at UCA Farnham and visiting lecturer elsewhere her personal work is also thriving.  She talks to me here about the changes she has made to her life in order to follow her passion for photography and the themes that fuel her drive.

It seems like you see a project in every situation you find yourself. How did you develop your artistic vision? Would you call yourself an opportunist?!

I don’t know if I am opportunist but I do use opportunities. Both those that come to me and those I create for myself. When I moved to the UK from Estonia nearly 8 years ago I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, except take pictures. My passion to pursue photography meant I left all my comforts back home, such as a good job with a good salary and my own flat. I started everything from scratch in a new country where, together with my studies, I had to earn money to survive and pay bills. But I was ready to launch myself into it.

I think I was lucky to come to The University for the Creative Arts (Farnham) as a student. The course there gave me so many opportunities both during my studies as well as after. I do appreciate the people I am surrounded with there (now as a tutor and researcher). It is a privileged experience to be at a university where you can meet people from around the world, get access to all kinds of books and see artists work you could only dream of and meet great professionals and talents. I think this experience transformed me as an artist as well as a woman. Actually I don’t think I ever was an artist and I am still not sure if I am, but it shows me that there is always something to learn – the possibilities are endless and it is very exciting for me. I would never have felt the same working in an office.

Can you say a little about how your ideas have developed over time? It seems like you are moving into more and more personal work, putting more of you into the concepts. What has this been like?

I think there are two ways of working as an artist (at least I see these two): one is you start from a technique and develop / master/ transform it. The second way is to start from an idea and find a technique for it. I think most of my works take the second path. So, I don’t think I pick up ideas, but rather they find me. But saying that I do understand that the questions I have and try to visualize in my projects are all connected to my personal interests. I don’t see myself working on an abstract idea if it does not relate to me somehow. At the same time, although some of my projects are quite personal, it is not my intention to involve myself in it as the main character. However it is my work, so I am in it of course.

I find the hardest thing nowadays for me as well as for other artists (I can see it happening a lot with the students I teach) is the massive volume of information we all confront. We need to learn how to select the right subject and focus on it. Otherwise we will easily become overwhelmed and never manage to produce any work. It is hard to find our way through that and I am personally still in the process of learning how to do so.

I think what excites me most is that there will always be something new to learn, discover or question. So, I am not afraid of losing inspiration or ideas but I am worried about my capacity to reflect on them. Let’s see how it works out.

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From the series Interiors

You have made three series around the theme of arranged marriages and specifically online platforms for Russian brides.  How did this interest come about and what drove you to make work about it?

Well, I could say it started from my first visit to India in 2008 but, to be totally honest, the idea of marriage has been with me since I was a teenager. I grew up in a culture where marriage is the most important and essential step in your life. Going to India I felt, like nowhere else, very conscious of my single status. Every time I met new people there, they asked me straight away if I was married and why not. So, I decided to turn my self-consciousness about my status into a project about young educated women of that country who I met during my visits.

It fascinated me that most conversations in India always ended up in discussions about marriage or weddings. Marriage is an incredibly important tradition for people in India. It is one of the last expected tasks for the parents to give their children, so they cannot fail as their future depends on it. (Often parents live with their adult children who take care of them when they retire and get older).

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From Marry Me

So, that is how my project Marry Me started. I didn’t have a strong opinion about arranged marriages. I was curious if the reality is so dramatically different from how we see it in Europe. Distance always breaks perspective, doesn’t it? So I managed to interview and photograph 20 young educated women who were of marrying age and who had their own concerns about the Indian tradition of arranged marriage. I produced 20 black and white portraits which I then hand-painted. While I was doing research on the subject I discovered that a hand-painted photograph in India is used a lot as a tool to make people look more wealthy in the photos or more attractive to the grooms and their families if it was a woman’s portrait. So, I used that idea and decorated my models. I left their reflection in the mirror unpainted to reference the original imagery. The portraits are accompanied by extracts from the interviews.

After that project, I worked on a few ideas and somehow my research lead me to the representation of Russian women on the internet. I found one collection of pictures of women posing half-naked in their domestic interiors so they became a basis for my project Interiors. I saw that these women were trying to be noticed by men via their profile; to stand out.  Ironically most adopted a pose which made them fit the stereotype of their culture even more. Even in these pictures I saw a culture where women are seen as part of the domestic landscape in a variety of roles (sexy wife, dutiful mother, housewife, cleaner etc) but not much more.     

The digital manipulation in these images is a visualization of the women trying to stand out but ultimately blending into the domestic interior.  It also protects their identity.

interiors3 From Interiors

Russian Brides was quite a logical step for me after that. I have always been interested in representation of ‘the other’ and communication, or rather miscommunication, between cultures and how easily we operate within stereotypes. I think it came from my personal background of being Russian in Estonia. Somehow I realized that my ideas about cultural stereotypes, marriage and the re-evaluation of women’s position in contemporary society all came together in the phenomenon of Russian Brides. So when I discovered that I thought about doing something about mail-order brides and the whole new amazing world of matrimonial websites opened to me. I spent months and months doing research on them. That is why I wasn’t satisfied to produce just one piece for this topic. At the moment I have 3 different bodies of work related to the Russian Brides phenomenon (I Am Usual Woman, Birch Trees of Russia, Fifty/Fifty) and I am working on one more.

What did you learn most about these women? How has it helped shape who you are as a woman today, if at all?

Interesting question. I think I learned and understood more about the complexity of communication between various cultures and what a huge role mass media plays in it. It forms and cultivates our stereotypes about each other, and ourselves and it deals with very basic and primitive models of behaviour, especially when we talk about capitalism which is based on the idea of sales.

We tend to like to be ‘different’ (often means ‘better’) than ‘others’. Stuart Hall, a multi-culturist theorist, talks about stereotypes. He says that they are usually formed not only by what is perceived as real but also what is fantasy about the Other. Mass media uses stereotypes so well they cultivate our fantasies supporting the stereotypes so we can benefit and feel better about ourselves. Obviously people are more complex than that and they never fit into “Hollywood happy-endings” or ‘Cosmopolitan’s How to…’ models.

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I am Usual Woman

I used standardised imagery of Russian brides for my two projects with the purpose of critiquing and questioning them. In I Am Usual Woman I made a quilt (in collaboration with my mother who is a patchwork artist) from a selection of website images which recommend how women should be photographed to ensure the best matchmaking! The pattern of the quilt is a popular design called Double Wedding Rings and is a traditional wedding gift to the bride from her female relatives. In the video piece Birch Trees of Russia I put together a selection of women’s profile images in which they state belonging to Russian culture posing next to the very well-known symbol of Russia – a birch tree. I found it fascinating that almost every woman on these websites had the same sort of image.

I think I was playing a game of ‘reversing stereotypes’ a term used by Stuart Hall when he writes about being trapped in a ‘stereotypical other’ and the need to overturn and subvert it. I do this by contradicting these images with a song which is sung by a male singer about women as birch trees, waiting for him to come back to his homeland. It was in an ironic tone that I put together images of women who dream of leaving their motherland with a male who feels secure in the fantasy that women will always be there waiting for him.

The technique of cross-stitching and quilting is very intriguing. Can you tell us more about the cultural significance of the technique and what it means for you personally?

Well, to be honest I never ever thought I would be working in these techniques. When my mom saw the images of my embroidered tapestry (Fifty / Fifty), she said ‘Oh, I remember when you were a kid, you refused to learn stitching and knitting when I tried to teach you, but, well, now you are doing it’. So, it is strange for me.

I grew up with the understanding that stitching and knitting was a daily task for women. My family almost never bought any clothes because my mother designed and stitched them all. I did some stitching but mostly knitting in my childhood and I never consider these skills as THE skills I have, if you know what I mean. It’s like to fry an egg for yourself – you are so sure that everyone can do it. So, when I was doing these two pieces, I was amazed how many people commented on the skill aspect of them.

When I researched these techniques, I realised that patchworking and cross-stitching could be found rooted in many cultures. There are many different patterns and motifs but as techniques they are universal. I guess it can relate to the global side of the Russian brides phenomenon. Another factor which was very important to me is the amount of my own labor I had to put into it. Historically the stitching and embroidery were mostly done by women (in the European and Russian side of the world at least). For instance in Russia women were never allowed to paint icons for churches, this was done by men only and it was the most privileged work for an artist.  Women were allowed to embroider clothing for the church people and domestic items. In most of the cases they were unrecognized for what they were doing. We know the names of painters but we don’t know names of embroiderers. As part of my research I went to see the Bayeux tapestry in Reading Museum (a 19-century British copy of original Bayeux tapestry from 11th century which is preserved in France). The interesting thing I found on the British copy is signatures of all the women who did the stitching under each part they embroidered. There are 35 women in total and we know all their names – what a celebration of the craft masters!

I was inspired by that and decided to create quite a generic image based on a story of one woman and stitch my signature on it as statement. The tapestry is displayed as an installation piece and goes together with an audio lasting 13 min – a story of a woman who married English men and what she went through for it. The embroidery process was a test for myself. I decided to do it and have fun with it. I wish I could still say it was fun but the reality was different! I really slaved for my art, it was physically and mentally hard to do every evening and weekend for 6 months. It nearly killed my back!

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Bringing us up to date is your current and ongoing work A Portrait of the artist as a young woman which I find to be an effectively simple strategy in presenting the complicated view of what it is like to be a woman in today’s society.   What is your main aim with this work?

I honestly don’t know the aim of this work. I just felt like taking portraits of women I have met in my life who I admire as individuals and professionals in whatever they specialize. It just happened that they are all my peers and they are all immigrants as I am. It might be some sort of reflection on my long-lasting connection with the ideas in ‘Russian brides’.

I also feel that immigration, including my own, can be a positive thing. I believe that in most cases when people want to move somewhere else it is because they are not happy in their home countries for various reasons. It is never an easy decision to leave your own country.  At the same time, travel is so much easier nowadays than it was even 20 years ago, so why not try? It is a big step for everyone if they decide to do it and I absolutely admire what these women have achieved by making that choice. It’s not easy to be Other and become someone in a foreign place.

It is very important for me to photograph these women in their own environment; studios, homes etc. I believe their own spaces add to the story and it is a collaboration in that sense.

It is interesting that one of the comments I got from the recent show in the United States at The Harn Art Museum (Gainesville, Florida) was that these women look too feminine to be presented with the feminist statement as I put with them. I found it an interesting comment which relates again to the stereotypes we build up about each other and ideas about how ‘they’ should look. Anyway, it is ongoing project, let’s see how it goes.

What is your experience of being a female photographer in this industry? Do you think we are in a good place and does anything need to change?

I never thought of my gender until I came to the UK nearly 8 years ago. I grew up with the idea that between men and women marriage is the most important step in their lives. After that both man and woman work full time, the man is always the breadwinner, but the woman takes care of the house and children and she would probably sacrifice her interests for the sake of the man or the family.

When I came to the UK the whole world of feminism opened up to me. Back where I am from feminism is still understood to be a backlash from women, who must be single, unsatisfied, with no children and who are angry with the rest of the world because of it which is why they call themselves feminists.

I never thought I could be discriminated because of my gender. At the same time, all my projects about marriage are about re-visiting the idea of marriage for myself and other women in contemporary society. I guess it’s not about being a female photographer but just being a woman. I still sometimes feel a pressure (sometimes from others but mostly from myself) or obligation to get married and to have children because it is supposed to be THE main task for women in this world. I think producing my work helps me to understand myself better and clarify what I really want in this life.

Teaching at the university, I am happy to see that more and more women tend to come for degrees in arts and make a careers in academia. I don’t know how it is in other countries but it is definitely a change in the UK, this can only can be seen as positive thing.

*Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman is currently showing as part of the group show Walls at Pushkin House in London until June 2014.

Joachim Schmid

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Archiv 321, 1993 from the series Archiv

Joachim Schmid (b. 1955) is a prominent German photographer who has based his photographic career on using other people’s pictures.  In a genre referred to as Found Photography Schmid provides witty and perceptive insights into our collective fascination with using photography to document our existence. Using vernacular photography he found either in fleamarkets or online Schmid makes collections of repetitive imagery.  He now has 96 books each with a different edit such as Food, Hands, Hotel Rooms etc.   By curating the pictures into themes he takes a critical look at our relationship with photography throughout the last few generations and how we continually repeat ourselves by taking the same pictures.

After meeting him at the Tate conference on Vernacular Photography he talks with me here about his series Archiv and Other People’s Photographs.

Did you start collecting other people’s photographs before you saw the repetitive patterns or is that what made you begin collecting?  Was it a chicken and egg situation?

It is a chicken and egg situation indeed. I was curious about snapshots, I started looking at them and for them, and looking at many of them is of course more revealing than looking at a few. If you look at many photographs – that’s true not only for snapshots – it’s nearly impossible not to notice recurring patterns.

As opposed to other people roaming the flea markets I never saw myself as a collector. I wasn’t interested in carrying together a selection of fine and outstanding photographs or a complete collection of photographs of vintage cars or everything with a swastika or a naked people or whatever. My emphasis was the average snapshot as a cultural practice, and the basic idea was a visual survey of snapshot photography in 20th century. Later I also included other forms such as postcards, studio photos, etc.

I accumulated a lot of photographs because I needed them as the raw material for this project. So collecting isn’t the accurate term for what I was doing, I prefer to call it gathering. In anthropological terms a gatherer collects stuff for their own consumption.

Can you remember the first time you saw the repetitive patterns?  What struck you?

There was no first time. An artist’s career is not a series of “Eureka!” shouts. Finding things is usually the result of very tedious processes, it’s preceded by wasting quite a bit of time. There’s not much “inspiration” but stamina and sometimes a bit of good luck. Slowly striking things emerge. For this project it was the fact that we all take very similar photographs but we never learned how to do this. Our parents don’t tell us, we don’t learn it at school, and people all over the world do it nevertheless. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the resulting snapshots do what people expect them to do, and that’s all there is.

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Archiv 670, 1996 from the series Archiv

Have you read Italo Calvino’s Adventures of a photographer?  Your work reminds me of it in how it uses people’s obsessive relationship with photography to make an interesting story.  Do you resonate with the idea that photography leads to madness?  How do you save yourself from that? (Perhaps you don’t!)

Yes, I did read Calvino’s story. One of my professors at art school gave me a copy, and I loved it immediately. It’s brilliant how Calvino describes the fascination of photography that turns into obsession that turns into insanity. It’s a transformation that seems to be inevitable, at least in literature. However, looking at the practice of many photographers there are clear parallels, both in snapshot photography and among professionals. Calvino didn’t pull this out of the hat, he must have studied the subject for a while.

I assume reading his piece must have left an imprint in my thinking about photography. The last part of the question is difficult to answer. We don’t have such a clear definition of madness any more. To make things more difficult, the answer of a man who is suspected of being mad isn’t a useful diagnosis of the man’s condition. It’s a perfect Catch 22 situation.

At the Tate conference you talked about how the audience interacted with your work in a very different way when it was presented to them in a book rather than a slideshow.  This tactile and involved presence of the viewer brings with it a pensive quality rather than the numbing / detached quality of a slideshow or internet site where the viewer has no control.  How has this worked to your advantage in what you hope to achieve as an artist?

My first works with images drawn from the web were presented as digital slideshows. A digital presentation seemed to be the obvious way to present digital images. I was happy with the results but I noticed soon that it is difficult to get an attention span of more than a few minutes for digital presentations. Then I tried books. People look at them much longer, page by page, going from book to book. I have seen people who spent two hours looking at books. I never saw anyone looking at a monitor for more than ten minutes. We talk about the same images, the same quantity. So the decision was easy. A project like Other People’s Photographs consists of more than 3,000 photographs, and of course I want them to be seen. You don’t get much out of it if you just look at five percent of it. I don’t know for sure why books seem to be more attractive but I am happy to follow the audience’s preference, in particular if it matches my own preference. Books have a number of advantages, they don’t depend on electricity, they don’t emit error messages, and so on.

With the fleamarket work (Archiv) you felt you were always a generation behind, before Flickr etc.  Now in a very immediate world, do you find yourself looking back at those collections?  Do you see them in a new light now?

The longer I worked on Archiv the more I became aware of the project’s limitations. One was the limited number of photos I had at hand. Now there’s unlimited supply, more photos are uploaded every minute than I can look at in a day. The other problem was the fact that I was behind my own time, often more than one generation. This aspect got more dominant with the passing of time, and it facilitates a nostalgic look at the photographs. That’s not intended but is hard if not impossible to avoid.

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Archiv 547, 1993 from the series Archiv

There is something romantic and flaneur-like about wandering around to discover these fragments of other people’s lives rather than ‘sitting like a monkey on a computer’ as you put it elsewhere!  Does this process make a difference to the work at all?  Does it make you see differently?

Digital photography changed a lot, and online photo hosting even more. Looking at photos in a site like Flickr has little to do with looking at a box of snapshots in a thrift store. Despite all the obvious losses the new situation has a number of obvious advantages. It’s much more efficient because I have access to a continuously increasing number of photos, and there’s the search engine. The search engine is probably the new thing that changed our behaviour and our attitudes more than anything else. Sure, there are awful moments sitting in front of a computer, and I try to escape the situation regularly. But then when I go out and find something I may want to work with, the first thing I do back home is putting it in the scanner. For my type of work the new technology is clearly more suitable, more efficient.

Do you wish people would stop photographing in the same way and be more original or do you find some comfort in this behaviour? 

It’s not my job to tell people what to do and what not to do. I am curious about popular uses of photography. If the photographs I find are repetitive I work about this aspect and if they are not I work with their particularities.

What hole do you think it would leave in us if we all stopped photographing our cliches?

I guess this is not going to happen. If millions of people are happy taking the same pictures again and again they won’t stop. The photos seem to do the trick they are supposed to do. A few academics see a problem or two but that doesn’t matter for the people who take the pictures. So I don’t wish to waste time thinking about that hypothetical hole. I prefer to spend my time with problems that exist.

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Archiv 317, 1993 from the series Archiv

Can you offer any answers to the question you raise in your work: Why do we all take the same pictures?

They work. We know that raising kids is not a bed of roses but if you look at the photos people take of their kids the world is just fine. Not much crying, no diapers, no throwing up, no measles. That’s what people want. A happy marriage but no divorce. One of three marriages does end in a divorce in modern society but this is not reflected in popular photography. People will rather try a second marriage than a new approach to photography. I guess it’s more comfortable to base your life on the assumption that things will be all right. Living with the idea that things may well go wrong is closer to reality but not very popular.

As photography is winning the battle of being accepted as an art form I imagine it is easier for you now than it may have been in the past to be accepted as an artist and as a photographer.  What do you think is a problem today that photographers might need to fight for over the next 20 years?

I think we have to face some facts hardly anyone talks about. One of them is overproduction, not the overproduction of photographs but the overproduction of photographers. There are hundreds of art schools in Europe, each of them churns out another bunch of young artists every year, and most of them don’t stand a chance on the art market. A limited number of galleries, a limited number of collections, shrinking budgets of public collections, and a constantly increasing number of artists. There’s obviously a problem with the art business. The editorial business doesn’t look any better, the number of magazines that commission photographers decreases with the advertising budgets going online.  The education business is booming.

Photographers have to reinvent their trade, self-publishing, artist run galleries etc. are signs of a new economy. That’s fine but not enough, photographers have to start fighting for their rights. One of them is getting money for exhibitions. There are more exhibitions than ever, and everybody working in this business is being paid, the people who paint the walls, the people who put up the lights, the frame makers, the printers, the security guys, the cleaning crew, not to forget the curators and directors, the person writing the press release and everybody else, except the person providing the artwork.

What’s more mad? Working for free or ignoring the facts of modern society?

Sophy Rickett

Objects in the Field

Objects in the Field
2013

In 2012 Sophy Rickett was awarded one of four Artist Associateships at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge (IoA).

During the residency she produced a new body of work, Objects in the Field, so-called to appropriate the lexicon of terms used by astronomers and astrophysicists that refers to stars as ‘objects’ and to the sky as ‘the field’.  The project consists of several series of photographs, a monitor based video and a text, each of which reflects in some way upon her encounter with Dr Roderick Willstrop, a retired astronomer based at the IoA.

During the 1980s, Dr Roderick Willstrop, designed and built The Three Mirror Telescope, a camera telescope, in the grounds of the Institute of Astronomy.  Operational for just twelve years, the telescope produced 125 black and white film negatives before it was modified to capture digital images in 1991.

Here Rickett describes how her practice as an artist combines, but also to an extent clashes, with Willstrop’s practice as a scientist.

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Observation 123
1997/ 2013

Before we begin, can you briefly explain to us the technique used by Dr Willstrop to obtain these large format negatives with the Three Mirror Telescope?

Dr Willstrop designed the Three Mirror Telescope (3MT) during the 1980s.  It was operational for about 12 years before it was taken out of active service in 1997, just after the Comet Halle Bop image (featured in Observation 123, above) was made.  For the first two years of its life, before being modified to capture images digitally, it was an analogue camera that worked using three mirrored lenses that reflect the light from the stars internally, focussing them onto a specially customised section of b/w negative film to create a photographic image of the night sky.

Dr Willstrop’s work with the 3MT seemed to come to a standstill sometime after 1997 when he became Chair of the Libraries Committee.   When I met him, about 12 years after he retired, he was preparing to have the negatives archived.

Then could you tell us what you did and how you feel your treatment of the image builds upon his?

Hardly any of the negatives had ever been printed, and if they had, it would only have been as a very small section; none of them had ever been printed full frame.  So the set of 125 negatives were a starting point for me – both technically, as I started making my own prints of them, but they also informed the way that I began to think about the project.

The project tells the story of my encounter with Dr Willstrop and the 3MT.  It looks at my attempts to find ways of aligning our very different practices, as well as my work as an artist with his as a scientist.  But in the most part I fail.  So the work came to be about a kind of symbiosis on the one hand, but on the other there is a real tension, a sense of us resisting one another.  The material in the middle stays the same, but it’s kind of contested, fought over.

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Observation 111
1991/2013

What makes you say “in the most part I fail”?

Well when I first met Dr Willstrop I was interested in exploring areas we had in common, mainly relating to process, for example we both worked through the night and usually on our own.  We also share an interest in the night sky, and perhaps  some sense of landscape, although I don’t think that he would ever describe his work in those terms and it was that tension that I began to find more and more interesting.  Other parallels began to emerge over time, to do with photographic processes, but also to do with using lenses to extend the limits of our vision, which in turn took me back to memories having my eyes tested in a hospital corridor when I was young, and all the language around that.  So in the end it seemed to go full circle for me, and made complete sense, but in relation to Dr Willstrop and me, I’m not so sure, so the failure would be to do with a kind of misalignment between the way we think about our work.  Insisting that the project had bridged our two practices, or brought them together in any real way would feel like a platitude.

Dr Willstrop sees the photographs as scientific research and you see them as art objects, highlighting the multifaceted realm of photography and its purposes. In the midst of this contention did you feel completely free to use the negatives for your personal artistic purposes?

Our connection unfolded quite gradually – we’d met many times before I found out about the negatives.  To begin with I was interested in the camera telescope itself, which still stands in the grounds of the Institute.  He also has several smaller models of it that he still keeps in his office.  Developing the work, and gaining his trust happened in tandem – an ongoing process – part of a dialogue that kind of solidified and that made more and more sense over time, maybe over the course of 6 months or so.

To answer the question more directly, I haven’t, and I still don’t, feel completely free to do just anything I want with his negatives – even once I had begun with the printing and also writing the story I would check with him that he was happy with what I was doing, that I wasn’t mis-representing him or his work in any way.  He was quite adamant that what I was doing was of no scientific value, because the stars would have changed position relative to each other since the negatives were made, and a part of me was a bit disappointed about that – I would love to have given him something back in some way, something that was meaningful or useful for him in his work, but I think he feels that it’s a bit late for that now.

But I still communicated, consulted, checked with him at every stage.  I wanted his voice, his presence to be acknowledged; an intrinsic presence in the whole project.  In the show at Kettle’s Yard, I titled every work, and Dr Willstrop provided captions – so again, there is a sense of these two voices speaking over each other, addressing the same theme, but slightly in opposition.

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An idea (test for a guiding probe)
1986/2013
(Installation at Kettle’s Yard, Sep 13th – Nov 3rd 2013)

Are there aspects of Dr Willstrop’s scientific research that inspires and influences you as well as overlaps with your research as a lens based artist?

I admire the completeness of Dr Willstrop’s commitment to his work; the steady application of industry that he has maintained for over sixty years.  His work, and his connection to the stars has provided this continuity that has endured for his whole life, going back to when he was five, and his father gave him a telescope so they could look at the night sky together.  There’s something in the way that this fascination has provided a bed-rock to his whole life that I really admire, in some sense linked, not so much to what he’s done, but to how he’s done it.

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Objects in the Field (text)
2013
Pamphlet distributed freely to visitors to exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, 2013

N.B Rickett also produced a text, where a factual description of her encounter with Dr Willstrop and the 3MT is inflected with more subjective impressions and memories from her childhood connected to optics, seeing, and the fleeting nature of the encounter. 

The story (also featured in the accompanying pamphlet) beautifully connects the new work with memories from your past, linking not only optics and photography, but fragmented moments, feelings and experiences.   The scene shifts in the last section of the story away from the Institute to you being on a train, witnessing an event that at first glance might seem completely unrelated….

Yes – as my time at the IoA started drawing to a close, I tried to find out more about the 3MT; how the science had evolved from where Dr Willstrop had left off, and whether anyone had continued to work in that field, or with any of the processes or techniques he developed.  At the time I was unable to find reference to any specific legacies of the work that was done on the 3MT, though I found out later that one of his research students has been working on a similar design with a group of scientists in Arizona.  I couldn’t find anything more substantial than that, but then I was only looking in the most obvious places, mainly the internet, search engine searches, that kind of thing.

I realised how little I knew, how little I understood about his work, and how so much of what I’d done was based on assumption, supposition, instinct; the opposite of everything that Dr Willstrop, as a scientist stood for, and that’s what the anecdote in that paragraph you mention seeks to address.  It recalls something I saw years ago, when I was sitting on a train as it pulled out of a small seaside station in Devon. A young boy was standing on the sea wall smiling and waving at the train, but the waving stopped abruptly when he was drenched in water by his companion who threw a boulder in to the water that made a big splash.  In an allusion to the incompleteness of my interpretation, the partiality of my account, I write that I see ‘just the beginning of what is to pass between them, a fragment of story as it begins to unfold’ before the trains speed up, ‘and then I have gone’.

Can you say a little about how this whole process connected with you on a personal level?

When I first arrived at the IoA, I’d been thinking a lot about ageing, and more generally about the advancement of obsolescence.  I’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to find out about de-accessioning – that is the process of an object loosing its status, maybe by being removed from a museum.  I hadn’t been able to find anything theoretical, and everyone I spoke to about the bureaucracy of it was quite dismissive; there didn’t seem to be anything written down.

It was as if there were instances of it everywhere, for example at the Institute of Astronomy they had just recently digitised huge sections of the library, and had a few years earlier all the analogue darkrooms had closed, but I had arrived just a little bit late to witness or record those interesting shifts.

I was feeling a bit lost so when I met Dr Willstrop, it was as if a light went on.  I liked the way he spoke, the way his fingers handled the lenses when he explained how they worked, the way he combined this very high level technical language with much more intimate reminiscences that took him back to the 1930s when he was a child.

I also liked that we had the photographic process in common – we talked about film stock, about the merits of FP4 in relation to HP5 or something.  And I remembered back to when I was young, thought about things I’d not thought about for years, and I realised how much of it was linked, all these different threads, different periods of time, all woven together, tangled in to the very same story.

In the video work Afterword (Grinding a Lens for King’s College Chapel), Dr Willstrop can be heard reading your story; another device that brings him into the work, both literally and metaphorically.  

The story is central to the work, and I wanted to find ways of conveying that.  Having him read the story, and then feature it as the soundtrack to the DVD seemed like a good way of doing that practically, but also it suggests a kind of blurred authorship.  At times it is not clear whose story is being told, with a suggestion perhaps that they could be two separate narratives combined.  Different voices, different points in time, collapsed in together.

By pairing images with both Dr Willstrop’s factual information and your own poetic diary, you provide a dialogue, which is open and then is surprisingly closed.  It demonstrates an intriguing clash, often contradictory, between how you read the image and how Dr Willstrop sees it.  This refers again to the different functions of the photograph and its openness to interpretation.  What do you hope this element of confusion will bring for the viewer?

So maybe there was this connection between us, or maybe that connection was all my invention – but whichever it was, he went to great lengths to try to make me understand the science.  Some of the time I’d find it really hard going, and would feel quite lost and confused.  I wanted to evoke a sense of that in the finished work; a sense that in some way we don’t completely fit together, that we are not occupying the same ground, and that there is a kind of resistance between us and the work that we do.  I’m interested in the sense that the material in the middle – the subject – doesn’t ever change materially – but that the interpretation of it is highly contested.

What is it about collaboration that you enjoy?  How would you advise artists to enter into collaborations?

My first collaboration was with the composer Ed Hughes, which resulted in the film installation Auditorium (2007) and the most recent one, Album 31, which is a commission by GRAIN at the Library of Bimingham with Bettina von Zwehl is currently in progress.  I really enjoy the dialogue that comes out of the collaborative process, the feeling of being challenged, of finding the right kind of balance.  It’s also more fun; I like the camaraderie and the shared ownership; the sense of being in it together.

I approach collaboration like any other project really; I try to keep an open mind, and not to project forwards too much, or continually try to anticipate the outcome.  I think it’s good to concentrate on the process, to let the process lead the way and to stay open to different possibilities, to the unexpected…

How does Dr Willstrop see the images, now they are large scale on the gallery wall?  In other words what does he think of your interpretation?

There was a great moment a few weeks ago during an ‘in conversation’ event between the two of us and the director of Kettle’s Yard Andrew Nairne. Andrew turned to Roderick and asked him what he thought of what I’d done … it was the first time that question had been put to him so directly. ‘I’m very grateful to Sophy…’ he began – and a sense of relief started to flow over me, before he continued ‘… for making the digital scans. They have made some of the over exposed areas of the negatives just so much clearer…’ So what he makes of the aesthetics is still unclear – although at the private view, he seemed quite happy!

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 Objects in the Field (Installation at Kettle’s Yard, Sep 13th – Nov 3rd 2013)

If you would like a free copy of the above pamphlet please email Sophy on sophy@sophyrickett.co.uk

Sophy Rickett works with photography as well as video installation and text. Solo exhibitions include Chateau de Lichtenberg, Alsace; Arnolfini, Bristol; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill; Brancolini Grimaldi, London; Ffotogallery Cardiff. Group exhibitions include Museum of Modern Art, Moscow; Centre Rhenan d’Art Contemporain, Alsace; Galleria Civica, Modena, Italy; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Il Museo di Trento, Italy. Her work is included in several public collections in Italy, France and the US including Musée des Beaux Art Nantes, Pompidou in Paris and the Federal Reserve in Washington. In 1995 a monograph was published on her work to date by Photoworks/Steidl. She is currently working on a collaborative project with artist Bettina von Zwehl, which has been commissioned by Library of Birmingham and Fotogalleriet, Oslo.

Viktoria Sorochinski

017From Anna and Eve by Viktoria Sorochinski

Anna & Eve is a long term narrative project that I started to work on in 2005. This project (as well as most of my work) dwells in between fantasy and documentary. Even though, all the scenes are staged, they reveal a real relationship of a mother and her daughter. Anna and Eve were particularly interesting to me because the boundary between the child and the adult woman was blurred to an unusually high degree. This was primarily due to the mother’s young age (23); it seemed at times that she was more of a child than her 3 year-old daughter. It was often hard to tell who held the power and control between the two, and who was learning the essence of being a human in this world.

Viktoria Sorochinski

Perhaps anyone who is a parent can identify with this feeling of power play within the parent/child relationship.  Yet the dynamic portrayed in Anna & Eve brings with it a unique and unsettling role reversal which forms the basis of the success of this project.  Drawing upon the fantasies and soliloquies of Eve (the little girl) Viktoria has created a fictional world of illusions, other worldliness and mythology which seems to encompass the mother and daughter, uniting them against the rest of the world.  They appear set apart from usual definitions and expectations of childhood and motherhood.  Like fairy tale heroines they remain contained in their own creation, locked away from the constraints of normality, co-existing together, dreaming.

Viktoria Sorochinski achieved her MFA at NYU in 2008.  She has exhibited widely in both solo and group exhibitions since then and received numerous awards including Discovery of the Year at the 2012 Lucie Awards.  She is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago and her monograph Anna & Eve was recently  published by Peperoni Books.

She is currently based in Berlin but we met in Braga.

Do you ever get the sense that meeting Anna changed your career forever?

Well, it’s really hard to say, because I met them when I was still doing my bachelor’s degree. I do think of it as a very important encounter in my life. Certainly working with them has changed my artistic vision and even determined in a way my interest in the family dynamics as a subject of exploration. When I met them I was still very “fresh” in my mind and full of inspiration in general. I think that it was a lucky coincidence all together – the right encounter in the right time so to say. I also met them at the time when Anna was feeling a little bored without art. Her education is also artistic and with the birth of Eve she didn’t have time to develop her own career. When I started photographing them, I felt that she was also very inspired and engaged because of that.

When we are alert to these encounters the potential for something amazing can be realized.  How would you advise artists to stay alert to these moments?  How do you know when they happen?

You know, this is a very tough question, because it has to do with intuition, which you can’t really explain to anyone. When I met with Anna and Eve for example, I had no idea that it will go for so long and certainly that this project will bring me success. However, I new that I found something very inspiring, and I was very exited when I started photographing them. Later when those feelings didn’t go away, but were becoming even more pronounced, I felt that I want to go on as long as it will be possible. Also, just before meeting them I was in the moment of search and artistic dissatisfaction. I was ready for something sudden to happen, and it happened. I think when you are internally looking for inspiration you become more alert and receptive to those possibilities that are around you. I guess the secret is to have your eyes always wide open and searching, then there is less chance to miss something important. Although, I realize that it might be hard to do when you are already fully engaged with something creatively.

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From Anna and Eve by Viktoria Sorochinski

Tell us about the first time you met.  The first time you went to their house.

The first time I met Anna she was without Eve, it was in Montreal in some Russian cultural event. When I saw her, I honestly thought she was a 15 years-old teenager. I started to talk to her by coincidence and I was shocked to find out that she was actually exactly my age and that she also had an almost 4 year-old daughter. She told me that her daughter was very special, but you know that every mom thinks this way of her child, so I didn’t really take it very seriously at that moment. Then shortly after I saw both of them together, and I had my camera, because like I said I was searching for new inspiration at the time. When I saw Eve’s gaze through my lens I suddenly realized that she really is special, and that I should try photographing her, or maybe both of them together. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do exactly in the beginning. When I stepped into their house I had an impression that I entered a different world. I was even more inspired immediately. They had this strange bohemian atmosphere in their house, which I haven’t encounter anywhere before. I felt like it was already part of some fairytale, I was almost hypnotized by it. The beginning of my work with them was particularly exciting because I was discovering something new every time. The fact that they interacted like two sisters between them was so strange, so intriguing. Anna was talking to Eve as if she was supposed to understand everything on the level of an adult, and the striking thing is that she really did understand.

Through Eve you have connected so powerfully with the inner world of a child;  something so delicate and seemingly difficult for an adult to enter.  How did you allow yourself to immerse in this world?

To be honest I’m not one of those people who feels exited when they see any child. I never really thought of photographing children until I met Eve. In her I could sense something otherworldly, as if through her gaze I could connect to the universe itself. It was astonishing to me. Especially when I started photographing her, because I realized that as little as she was she was capable of understanding on some subconscious level what ever I was trying to do. I didn’t even have to struggle to explain her anything; she was so natural. Then, when I started to get to know her deeper I discovered her reach world, and almost felt that it was my mission to bring it out. I felt that her parents were requiring from her to be much more of an adult, and her incredible child’s world was staying in the shadow. I believe that children, until certain age, possess a kind of knowledge, that we as adults forget. We just loose this pure connection with our inner self and the universe. I was talking to her a lot, trying to discover her as much as I could. I even started to film her on video at the same time as I was photographing the two of them. I think this allowed me to connect to her better, and Eve seemed to be also inspired by my interest in her.

How much of your own childhood did you use as inspiration? 

I don’t think that I was consciously incorporating my own childhood in this project. At first I was really taken by Eve and her relationship with her mother, I didn’t really make a parallel in my mind between them and my own family or childhood, because it was rather different. However, later when I started to analyze I understood that in some subconscious way Eve was reminding me of my own childhood fantasies, and memories. For example, when I was a child I believed that I came from another planet and I “knew” that one day I will go back there. So when Eve came up with her story “My Planet” (which you can find in my book) it really has resonated with me on a very deep level. I think that from my childhood in this work comes mostly the aesthetic and metaphorical approach. And again to be honest I discovered it for my self only later, when I realized how much my vision has to do with the Russian folklore. From my childhood years spent in Russia I remember very vividly that my favorite leisure was listening to vinyl records on which fairytales were recorded. I really liked to look at the cover with an illustration and to imagine the story I was listening to. I also really liked when my parents would read us (me and my sister) fairytales or other books.

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From Anna and Eve by Viktoria Sorochinski

Fantasy, fiction and imagination are so vivid in childhood development.  How you have portrayed them in this work is a wonderful expression of that time in human development where the expansion of the mind is vast and accelerated.  

With this in mind how did you set about taking the pictures?  Did the stories form pictures in your own mind which you then recreated or did you recreate Eve’s descriptions?  Can you give some examples of where your imaginations combined to create the images?

My work has always been quite intuitive. I never worked from any particular stories, I was rather daydreaming. Sometimes I had vivid images that came up in my mind while I was thinking about Anna and Eve and so I would sketch these ideas before coming to them. However, most of the times these ideas were shifted and modified when I would see them in real life, because their everyday life and interaction would merge in my mind with my own fantasies and then new ideas would emerge spontaneously. I’m having really hard time to trace the particular inspirations for each image because this process vas very organic. When I worked with them I was often in a dreamlike state of mind, where it was hard to distinguish reality from fiction and what comes first. Although, I do remember one example very clearly, where Eve’s imagination was combined with my own, it was in the photograph titled “Eve’s Kingdom”. I decided to do this portrait when she told me about the story that she started to write at the time. It was the story about her planet where she lived with her friends. Later I asked her to finish writing it, and it is now titled “My Planet”. So when she told me about it, I said to her that I will make her portrait as the queen of her planet and we will include all her friends – which were her toys. She immediately started dressing up; she seemed so excited that I decided to not interfere at all in her outfit. When she was finally dressed, she brought all her “friends” and I asked her to sit on her chair and to look at me as she would look being the queen of her planet. It was the perfect gaze, what else could I add to it!

Ambiguity is important to you.  What strategies do you use to avoid making your work too closed.  How do you recognize open and closed narratives?

See, for me it was not even a question from the beginning. I never imagined precise stories, which had a beginning and an end. They were always open even in my own mind. I was trying to capture certain feelings or psychological tensions, which could potentially begin from many points and could lead to several narratives. Something that I consciously was trying to avoid is giving references to a particular time and place. I was trying to choose clothes that didn’t have a clear fashion or contemporary look, I was avoiding objects that would point very clearly to the contemporary living space or a particular country. I wanted my images to be detached from time and space as much as possible. I wanted my subjects and sometimes the metaphoric objects to be the main center of attention

How do you hope your work will affect the viewer? What have been your favorite responses?

I hope that the viewers will be able to connect with my images through their own imagination, fantasies, or memories. I hope that they can find something to grasp on even if the situations or the symbols that I’m using are not necessarily familiar to them. I like when people tell me that my images reminded them of something very personal. Sometimes they tell me their own stories, which I really appreciate. I also really enjoy hearing contradictory responses to the very same image. These kinds of responses reinforce my idea that everyone sees things in very different ways, and this is also why I think it’s important to have enough ambiguity in the work to allow this to happen.

Over 7 years you must have had many sittings and images.  How did you navigate the editing process?  What decisions did you make to form the final body of work?  For example what didn’t make the cut and why?

My strategies have shifted over time, because in the beginning I didn’t know that this project would go on for so long. I first was trying to come up with little series within the project. They were somewhere between 7 and 12 images. Within those little series I was trying to hold on to the same stylistic approach and to make sure that none of the images repeats the same idea and that all together they allow for narratives to be formed. Then, later, I gave up on the idea of having several series or chapters, because I felt that when the photographs from different periods where somewhat interleaved they formed a more dynamic and layered picture all together. I’m quite a perfectionist when it comes to my work, so when selecting images I take into consideration every little detail. There are some photographs in the project that I even reshot several times, because I could see the potential that wasn’t fully executed or there was some small details that was interfering with the reading of the image. In this process of course the images often were turning into totally different ones. Usually when I see a successful image it stands out by its self even if there is another dozen of similar ones that could be also quite good. For me it is important that all the elements fall in place. I think it is like magic, it either happened or it didn’t. And I truly believe that when something really good is born it is not only because I did a good job as a photographer or because my subjects were so great, it is of course all that but it is also the magical moment that comes from the universe.  Sounds very romantic… but I believe it’s true. In any case I’m very particular and tough with myself when it comes to editing. Although, there are some images that I liked, but didn’t show them until much later when I could see this project as more complete. I think the hardest decisions were when I started to work on the book. I think there is always a tendency to put more work in the book than is necessary. I also went thought this phase, I reedited it several times, and in the end my strategy was to exclude all the images that seemed weaker then the rest and also all the ones that didn’t add anything new to the overall narrative.

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From Anna and Eve by Viktoria Sorochinski

It is impossible to find out who you really are.  Mirrors are always crooked or somehow otherwise blemished.  Even if someone manages to find an absolutely pure mirror, his eyes will still play tricks on him.  And it’s not possible to simply peek inside.  Alas, this is each person’s mystery.

Eve

Included in the book are some of Eve’s texts.  They are extraordinary and she seems like an amazing girl.  Do you think, as a photographer working with people, that the subject is intrinsic to the work?  How do collaborations work best between a good subject and a great photographer to get the best from both parties?

I do think that subject is essential to the work. However, I think that the most important thing is the vision and the inspiration that the photographer gets from the subject. I think that the most successful combination happens when the subject trusts the photographer and is able to relax and open up in front of the camera. I think that the human connection also plays an important role here.

What have you learnt about ‘success’ on your photographic journey so far?

I have learned that success is a combination of several elements: it’s first of all hard work, your intention and determination, and of course a certain amount of chance. But I think that we as photographers are in a luckier position than artists working in other mediums because there are such a tremendous amount of possibilities and opportunities to expose your work to the professionals in the field. We just need to use those opportunities wisely. However, unfortunately, financial sustainability also plays an important role, because all those amazing opportunities also cost a lot of money, which not everyone can afford.

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From Anna and Eve by Viktoria Sorochinski

What do you aspire to be at the end of this journey?

This question sounds kind of fatal to me… I don’t like to think about it this way. Life is so full of surprises. Who knows what changes I will go through? The only thing I can hope for is that I will always be able to find something inspiring that will feed my creativity. In fact, I haven’t always been concentrating on photography; I’m interested in many mediums as well as performing arts. Therefore I can easily see myself doing something very different in a few years or so.

Nita Vera

Nita Vera 1By Nita Vera from the series Space and Relations Between

I recently returned from Encontros da Imagem in Braga where I was exhibiting with some talented and inspirational artists.  The theme of the festival this year was Love Will Tear us Apart.  I will be interviewing some of the featured artists in upcoming weeks, so if you see a theme emerging, this is why.

Nita Vera’s work took me aback in its absurd and witty approach to what could have been very difficult subject matter.

Growing up observing a ‘cruel and twisted’ relationship between her father and his mother, Nita never understood their way of behaving towards each other.  Her father was a photographer and after seeing some photographs he took of his parents Nita set out to investigate their senseless family dynamic.

They worked together in collaboration and performance; Nita directing and they acquiescing to her control.  The stark ludicrousness of the imagery makes the work both compelling and strange, an acute reflection of the interpersonal relations it seeks to represent.  A style that is evolving in her most recent body of work, a further examination of her family relations, this time between her and her parents.

Nita Vera is a photographic artist of Chilean and Finnish descent, currently living in The Netherlands.  Relatively young and with a background in fashion, her work has been published and exhibited widely.  Her subject matter often deals with issues close to home.  She is studying photography at the prestigious Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

You were drawn by curiosity and confusion regarding your fathers relationship with his mother.  Can you describe this strangeness and how it compelled you to start this series?

I have always had really good relationship with my father as well as with my grandmother, and because of this it was really difficult for me to understand what was going on between them. Since I was little, I had noticed and wondered about the twisted relationship between my father and grandmother: although they were close, there was always friction between them. There seemed to be something that had been suppressed, something from the past that was never resolved and it was affecting not only them, but also me.

I started this project intuitively because I wanted to understand what was going on between them. When we gathered together with my father and grandmother, I saw a relation of power between these two generations. The way they treated each other caused me sadness, even pain.

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By Nita Vera from the series Space and Relations Between

How did you begin to visually interpret something you found difficult to express in words?

I started to think that behind this behavior there had to be something buried deep in the past, but the outcome was totally absurd and irrational to me. It was only in the relationship between my father and grandmother where I could see this kind of irrational harsh behavior. Realizing this absurdity, I used it as a tool for my visualization by making the images as absurd as I saw them myself. I thought maybe this could help me to understand their relationship better.  The absurdity of the photographs came from the relationship itself but it also helped me to avoid making the photo series depressing.

You mention that in directing your father and grandmother you realised that you were also creating self-portraits.  Can you talk more to us about how this work reflects you?

When I see these pictures, I see a connection between my father and I, the best father-daughter relationship that I ever could have wished for, but maybe exactly because of this, it is too close. I feel that there is something very similar between my father and I, and between my father and grandmother. It seems that the story repeats itself.

In my photographs, I do not talk only about the relationship between a mother and a son, but also about a relation between a woman and a man. In our society the man has often been dominant and powerful in relation to a woman. Therefore in these photographs the femininity reflected through an older woman is also present.

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By Nita Vera from the series Space and Relations Between

How did your father and grandmother respond to the work? Bearing in mind that it is dealing with an intimate and potentially embarrassing or vulnerable aspect of their lives.

My father and grandmother are very different from each other, so they also approached my project in totally different ways. For my father this was more like theater. He was just an actor, an anonymous person in my photography scenes where I was the director. Being a photographer himself, I feel that my father understood my need to make this series. When he first saw the photos, he did not recognize himself from them. He saw a cold and dominant person, not himself. But nowadays he has started to see himself in a different light. The pictures have acted as a mirror to see himself from the outside, and I feel that they have had a great impact on him.

In contrast, my grandmother took my project very personally. She felt that I was laughing at her by taking these photographs. She always let me photograph her, because this was a way for her to be able to be near me and spend time with us, although she did not like the way I did it. She felt that I was not showing her in a good light.

What impact did it have on your relationship with them?

Because I was making a project about my father and grandmother, we spent a lot of time together. At the starting point, it was easy and fluent to work with them. We always met at my grandmother’s home, from where we went to different locations to photograph. But at a certain point our relationship started to crumble. I felt that I was working with two little children. They would start to irritate each other using me as the mediary, I was the one in the middle of their fights. After a few months my grandmother passed away.

My father and I have always been really close, and these photographs helped to clear up our relationship.

I was intrigued by how something that has happened in the past can influence one’s life so much throughout their lifes. Could photography be used as a tool to understand one’s irrational behavior toward others, and can it be used to cure deeply-rooted behavioral patterns?

How does this work fit with your other projects?

This is the first time I relate my family to my own photographic work. However, I have dealt with personal subjects before, concerning the theme of femininity in our society investigating the ways women are expected to behave. Although my project Space and Relation Between is about relationships between family members, the issue around gender roles is also important.

What is next for you?

This project about family relations is something that I am still working with. This is a way for me to understand better my own roots and especially my family history. I want to continue working through an absurd and humoristic point of view to prevent a pathetic image that does not lead anywhere. I have a huge interest in human relations and alongside my family relations it would be interesting to work also with the relations between other people and try if I could use absurd photography as a form of therapy to help other people to see their own behavior models better. Beside my personal projects I am doing my degree in photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

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Images by Nita Vera from a work in progress.

Veronica Bailey

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From the series Hermes Baby, 2011 by Veronica Bailey

Veronica Bailey is a photographic artist based in London.  The strength of her work is situated in her approach to history and the archive as well as her conceptual use of the binaries image and text and ambiguity and truth.

Bailey was awarded a Jerwood Photography Award in 2003 and has enjoyed solo shows around the world including USA, Korea, Canada, Germany.  Press features include Portfolio, Art Forum, Hotshoe International, Eye, Guardian, FT.  Postscript is represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum London and other UK and international collections.  Her work is currently on display until 14th September at The Showcase in London.

Commissioned for Photomonitor, Veronica talks to me here about her career and specifically the work Hermes Baby.  This series takes texts from an auto-biography written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Marguerite Higgins on her experiences of the Korean war.  Most of her articles were written on the front of a jeep on a portable Hermes baby typewriter.

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By Veronica Bailey from Hermes Baby

Throughout your career you have frequently adopted the methodology of using image and text.  What interests you about bringing them together?

Storytelling is what draws me to combine text and image. My time as a volunteer guide (1996-2000) at 2 Willow Road, The National Trust House designed by architect Ernö Goldfinger, made me realise that the line between fact and fiction is easily blurred. There was a wonderful myth retold that the writer Ian Fleming based the villain in his novel Goldfinger on Ernö, because of the surname.

The truth is less dramatic, and only an associated reference.  But the public visiting the house wanted to believe that the villain image of Ernö Goldfinger was true despite a written statement from the family that dispelled this myth.

The Goldfinger book I photographed ended up being signed by Fleming for Ernö with an apology for any confusion. My photographic image of ‘Goldfinger’ portrayed the novel with edges splayed to show an additional bookmark that references this myth.

There is an art to selecting words from longer excerpts without it becoming either too obvious or too obscure.  What criteria do you use and how do you ascertain what text works best?

I have always been interested in typography, letterforms and printing. Editing text to create titles can create powerful headlines, through both the form and meaning. For example, in an earlier series – Postscript 2005 – I was initially drawn to photographer Lee Miller’s handwritten love letters to her lover Roland Penrose. Whilst I was in the archive I also discovered her typed war reports for Vogue magazine in1942, which were compelling reading. Her articles evoked a stronger sense of emotion, in stark contrast to her striking black and white photography. I observed a very personal style of writing, which resonated when I later read Higgins’ reporting. I feel these colourful descriptions of war reveal ambiguous emotions and feelings. My series Hermes Baby 2011 contrasts black and white letterforms with colourful excerpts of text such as ‘Purple Heart’, ‘Green Soldiers’, and ‘Vanilla-ice-cream’. They create an illusion of youth, playfulness and naivety.

(During WWII, both MH and LM were based at the journalist’s headquarters – Hotel Scribe in Paris.  After 1945 Miller headed home, but Higgins continued to other front line conflicts, later winning the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, for reporting the Korean war in 1952.)

By removing words from their full context you use ambiguity to your advantage and can enjoy the fact that associations will be made in each viewer’s mind according to their personal history, education, background etc. How would you describe your role as artist when meanings and histories can be so unfixed?

I think it is about questioning meanings, and exploring possibilities of meaning from different vantage points. Words can have many different implications when isolated from their original context. There is a hierarchy of adjectives and nouns which one can play around with, and so challenge the viewer into a dialogue and conversation. I like using words out of context, but there are clues in the work too. If you know the text is from a war-correspondent then the words could imply a different meaning. As an artist I think that sentences are bound by their context and associations but individual words are open to a new discourse which I like to explore.

In Hermes Baby the words become the image, not just a title or caption.  You present the ‘images’ like objects, which you describe as “white handkerchiefs”.   What were your hopes and intentions here?  

Hermes Baby is a typewriter; a mechanical object forming text through human interaction. The font shape is associated with a physical action and sound. And the ‘white handkerchiefs’ refer to a soldier’s gesture of surrendering. My hopes and intentions were to link the extracted words with an action that would have resonance with war. The additional Slide Writer series takes the transparency text images further as an object – the Hermes Baby words becoming apertures through which light can be projected onto a flat surface, mimicking the darkroom process, but in a daylight environment.

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all images copyright Veronica Bailey, 2013

You chose to re-photograph the words rather than simply present them as words typed onto photographic paper.  What is the significance of the photograph in this work?  Was there something significant in the darkroom process or is it to do with the intrinsic link between the photograph and ‘truth’?

The words were never typed onto photographic paper. They existed as a digital file from a type foundry. As I wanted to print onto vintage bromide paper I had to create a photographic negative or transparency through a Slide Writer camera. Using an iPhone camera I kept a dark-room diary of the whole process, which was a visual journal itself. The interesting point is that the text in Hermes Baby is digital to analogue, and so I created a photograph that was not realistic as the type size in my work is larger than the actual typewriter font. So the process becomes blurred; the text enlarged and the image ambiguous. Of interest to me is at what point do we start questioning what we see in a photograph and is it true to our initial conception?

From what I can gather the thrust of the Marguerite Higgins memoires was to condemn the US leadership on GI’s and their lack of preparation for entering war.  Perhaps she was suggesting that the US government needed to do a better job at making a myth out of war or perhaps she was highlighting the failure of doing such a thing. 

Marguerite Higgins wrote daily articles for the New York Herald Tribute, that would not have allowed her to directly condemn the US leadership. But, her obvious frustrations are revealed in her autobiography ‘War in Korea: Report of a Woman Combat Correspondence 1951′, from which the Hermes Baby series texts are taken from. The foreword highlights a reflective approach through her writing… “which selects episodes and anecdotes that picture the war most realistically” and “what we have learned about our weaknesses, our strengths, and our future”. Higgins indicates that a future war needs better preparation both physically and psychologically, prophetically suggesting American leadership needs to think about this failure; the indoctrination of future GI’s to fight ‘dirty battles’. There is, as I understand it, an acceptance that historical myths play a part in military ideologies, but they need to be contrasted with related and realistic (but different) issues of utopia.

Surely, like Higgins (and Barthes), you have a point to make about mythologisation, wanting to dispel the myth that what is connoted in the image is a subliminal acceptance of what is true.  If the viewer misses this do you feel the work has failed?

Myths and the use of semiotic language interplay on many levels in my work. I don’t think about failure. I prefer to understand that the viewer may take time to discover the detail of my work. Dispelling myths and accepting the truth are subjective. Personally, using photography allows me to discover nuances. Modern Myths 2010 a series that was shown with Hermes Baby in Korea was a turning point for me. I discovered by looking closely again at the image ‘Olympus’, something that I assumed was there, was clearly not. Sometime it is about belief as well as seeing.

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all images copyright Veronica Bailey, 2013

Having been practicing photography for a substantial part of your life, can you tell us a few of your highs and lows? 

Highs: Visiting archives and re-discovering hidden gems to photograph and stories that can be re-told that were forgotten.

Lows: Finding that items in archives that I would like to photograph are no longer in existence.

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