A Conversation with Peter van Agtmael

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Peter van Agtmael

I don’t remember any longer when I first heard of Peter van Agtmael, but it was some a little over a decade ago. Since then, I watched the photographer become a member of Magnum, publish his first books, and evolve into one of the United States’ most passionate and adept photographic chroniclers. Politically, much happened in that decade, and with a new book out now — Buzzing at the Sill — I thought this would be a good time to catch up again. The following conversation was conducted over email.

Jörg Colberg: Almost ten years ago, we had a conversation about your work. I’m not necessarily stressing the time to make us both feel old; but for sure a lot of things have happened in between, both for you and of course the country. So maybe let’s stick with your own work first. If you look back to this past decade, how do you see your path (or maybe evolution) as a photographer?

Peter van Agtmael: Ten years. It makes me feel a bit old, and it also feels like yesterday. In many ways I’m working on the same trajectory as when we first spoke. At the time, I was obsessed with the American military and its conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I spent more time there it opened up massive questions for me about history, the nature of empire, race, class, politics and how to manifest these things through photographs and words. When we last spoke, it was a moment filled with possibility but deep unease. I felt I had a clear calling, but I wasn’t sure I’d even survive working in areas of conflict. Yet somehow I couldn’t logically talk myself out of it, nor did I want to. Those irreconcilable forces made me question the whole nature of free will, though that may be a story for another time. Ten years later, I’ve made a lot of progress with the work, but the end is not nearly in sight. I have four books loosely planned out, which I expect will take me at least fifteen years to finish, and who knows what will arise in the meantime? I’m starting to wonder whether I will be working on this for the rest of my life. I hope so, but the terms have changed somewhat. I’m covering less conflict. Although there are a lot of powerful reasons for covering wars, for me it was also a dark desire, and I’m glad it has mellowed and that I can see the world and my work in broader terms. Still, the need still arises from time to time. Now when I cover conflicts it’s more out of a sense of duty than out of desire. I’m grateful for that.

In terms of the work itself, I’ve spent a lot of time improving my craft. I joined Magnum as a nominee about six months after our first conversation. I barely scraped in, and the dominant feedback I received from the other photographers was that my ideas were good and the work had an appealing rawness, but that I needed to elevate the quality of the individual images. I took that advice very seriously, and began the long process of refining my work while not losing its essence in the process. That’s probably a lifelong task, and one threatened by plenty of pitfalls. By some terms, I’ve made mistakes. I’ve resisted certain tropes that could have led to a more definable but more narrow “style.” I prefer to remain a bit loose on these stylistic questions to better serve the content. After all I’m thinking of each of these books as really just chapters in one vast book. The work will need to remain surprising and revealing over many hundreds of pictures. I think I’m generally on the right path, and I hope things keep improving. Who knows when and why the eye will begin to dull? I hope I have some agency in the process, but I’ve tried to let go of a lot of these kinds of conceits.

JC: I’ve just got to ask: four books already planned out? It sounds like you have a very clear game plan (if that’s a good word), at least what to go for. Where is this coming from, though? What is feeding this, and how do you adjust to new developments (assuming that’s something that’s needed as you make work)?

PvA: It’s a bit of a strange feeling. It wasn’t planned that way. Back in 2005, I had some vague ideas of what I wanted to do with my work. Over time, through a lot of experiences, from friendships with some remarkable people, and a lot of reading, I began to build a more defined view of America and its place in the world. As my own work developed, I realized I could effectively photograph the imprints of that history in the everyday landscape. That was a tremendously liberating feeling, both in recognizing photographs in places that I previously may have ignored, and realizing that I had found my own path. This has taken many years, and of course my books owe much to tradition, but it’s tremendously satisfying to see the way forward. I’m not trying to be coy about not going into too many specifics. Needless to say, the work to come is both an extension and an expansion of what I’ve done thus far, and deals with America, its history, and its place in the world. Of course those notions are always shifting, so a part of the work is exploring history and another is responding to contemporary events. Although I have core frameworks for each of these works, I’m sure things will shift around over time.

JC: I hope you don’t mind me asking this about the development of your pictures and the efforts you have been making. This is the big struggle, isn’t it? Certainly, as far as I can see, for photographers who go to school, and then, boom!, they’re out in the world, and how do you develop further? Or in your case – how did you go about this? Are you speaking regularly with other photographers about your pictures? I think this might be something a lot of other photographers might be really interested in.

PvA: The first factor has been to shoot relentlessly. I take a camera with me everywhere I go. I’m not always taking pictures, but I try to be mindful in order to keep my eye sharp. Some of my favorite pictures have come at very unexpected moments. I also like to make a comprehensive visual diary at the end of each year, so that forces me to keep shooting. I’m interested in pushing the limits of digital technology. Digital cameras have opened up a lot of possibilities (especially in low light) that weren’t possible with film (or even earlier generations of digital cameras). Testing that still mostly untapped terrain has been a big motivator. I also consume a lot of work, from photojournalism to conceptual work and everything in between. I’m interested in the intersection point between a lot of forms of photography and there’s just so much historical and contemporary work to get through and be inspired by.

I think that being relentlessly self-critical about my work and frequently seeking out the criticism of people whom I trust has been hugely important. It’s a pretty broad group of people… quite a few are Magnum colleagues, but many are not. Christian Hansen has been giving me feedback since the beginning, and my partner, Alia Malek, has a great eye (though she’s a writer). I don’t have much education as a photographer, so I’ve always had to informally seek out critical voices. I think it’s impossible to grow without constantly challenging one’s ideas, work and progress. It’s not always easy. I can be thin-skinned, which is a bit embarrassing. The key thing is to internalize the good advice and have the confidence to understand what advice doesn’t fit the work, as well as sometimes standing firm on certain pictures that other people don’t respond to. It’s not always easy, especially when starting out, but I’ve learned to trust my gut. Of course, sometimes I’m wrong.

JC: Coming back to you as a photographer and where the work is coming from… Ever since I have known you, you have been driven by a deep sense of wanting to do something about the country, and the things it did, which, of course, focuses initially on photographing its wars, but which has now expanded. I wouldn’t know this, and maybe this is not the case, but I’m guessing that this drive is great because there just is so much more work to do, but it must be also frustrating, given that, for example, after eight years of Obama in the White House, there’s now this huge step back to a new president who talks up torture and bans Muslims from entering the country. How do you deal with all of that? How do you deal with having the kind of limited voice that inevitably we all have, seeing things get better and worse?

PvA: I have a lot of criticisms of the Obama presidency, but it was a clear effort (though only partially successful) to return a sort of stability to domestic and foreign affairs after the upheaval of the Bush administration (I use the term “stability” loosely. The Obama years were anything but calm). Still, these past years allowed for a certain slowdown in my work on strictly contemporary affairs and a shift into how we got to this point. Buzzing at the Sill is the result of that exploration. It’s about the past as much as it’s about the present. The new administration decisively seems to have upheaval in its core ideology, and the fallout from that will inevitably be a big factor in my work. I’m trying not to see the present too narrowly, however, and I have a long list of shoots that I want to accomplish in the coming years that are independent of the news cycle. Of course all these intentions can change in an instant. The future feels especially murky at the moment.

JC: After Trump got elected I argued on my website that the world of photography couldn’t just pretend as if nothing had happened, merely going about its business of selling pictures to rich collectors, while ignoring the larger problems we are all facing now. In some sense, this obviously mostly applies to photographers in the larger sphere of the arts, but it also does apply to others as well. What do you think? Do we have to change things, and if yes, what can we (should we) do?

PvA: I think it’s a powerful time for self-reflection and self-criticism. The arts, the media, Hollywood and the vastness of pop culture all exist in pretty substantial bubbles. These bubbles are often narrow and self-reinforcing, and far from a representative cross section of the culture. Because a lot of these fields slant to the left, it appears that some degree of complacency built up over the past eight years. Now, there is an effort by the administration to dismantle some of the things that many consider the core values of American society. There seems to be a lot of simultaneous efforts to resist that change. The sustainability and cohesiveness of these movements will likely define how successful that resistance is going to be. I remember watching the decline of the anti-Iraq war movement, and it was a painful sight, and a cautionary tale. At this moment, it’s hard to quantify the strength of the opposition to the administrations policies. Despite working in or traveling through all fifty states in the past eight years, I was surprised by Trump’s depth of support. These days, I’m spending a lot of time reevaluating what I thought I knew and trying to educate myself on some of the glaring holes. It’s not an easy process.

JC: There also is the growing crisis of photography in the news, with, now, “alternative facts” even. How do you think should photographers deal with this?

PvA: This is a real conundrum. The Trump administration’s rejection of the side by side comparison photographs of Trump’s inauguration versus Obama’s was startling. I have a lot of criticisms of the manipulative potential of photography, but that was as close to objective as it gets. For the veracity of the image to be rejected is deeply troubling.

I like Fred Ritchin’s “Four Corners” proposal, which seeks to embed pertinent information in the image file itself, but who knows how widely it will be adopted? People seem to believe what they want to believe these days, and sometimes it’s less about the facts themselves than how they are presented. I read Fox News everyday now as well as the New York Times. The gap in tone and content can be startling. I just came back from a story in Guantanamo Bay and was assigned to share a small house with an IT worker who voted for Trump. We had a series of thoughtful conversations at night, and while our core beliefs remained unchanged, we both remarked how refreshing it was to have had the space for those conversations. There was opportunity for common ground. The country is increasingly divided. Social media and the ease of creating a “news” website has contributed to that enormously, and I think it’s much to our detriment. Selfishly, I sometimes wish the internet had never been invented. Still, it’s here and I’ve been spending some time thinking about how to disseminate future work to reach people outside the narrow worlds of the photography community and the mainstream, more liberal oriented press.

JC: Speaking of one of the way how your work has been disseminated so far, there are the books. In 2009, you published 2nd Tour / Hope I don’t Die (Photolucida), followed by Disco Night Sept. 11 (self published) in 2014, and now there’s Buzzing at the Sill (Kehrer). So even though a lot of your work is assignment-based, the photobook is important for you. But your approach to making them appears to have changed, from the almost classical photojournalistic 2nd Tour to Buzzing, which mixes autobiography with the impact of larger historical forces shaping or created by this country. Would you agree that you’re a vastly changed photobook maker, and if yes what created those changes (if no, how are these books not changed)?

PvA: My first book was created in a bit of a rush, and it was flawed for many reasons. I still like it, and think it represents my thinking at that time quite well, but I’m not sure I was quite ready for it. I owe a big debt of gratitude to Chiho and Christoph Bangert for helping me through it. Still, it was a great learning experience. Disco Night Sept 11 was much more fully formed. I was more confident in being heavily involved in the design and sequencing, and vetted the content and flow through dozens of people before putting it out into the world. It also has its flaws. It’s purposefully a very sober design and structure which omits some of the flashier potential of the photobook, but I remain happy with the outcome. It felt like it came together in an organic way, and when it was finished it had inhabited its proper form. Buzzing at the Sill is quite a different book, but the process was similar. I started with around 700 pictures (taken from 2009-2016), and slowly whittled it down to the core of 72 images in the book. Through the process of making it, I went through a number of wholesale design changes before arriving at the current structure of flat, full bleed double page images. Inevitably that structure has its compromises as well. I wanted the final object to be something intimate while still giving the detail oriented photographs some space to breathe. I assume the next books will be different still as they coalesce into whatever form best suits the work. While the books are different, the core approach hasn’t changed much. I still believe deeply in the interplay between images and words. I’m still trying to explore these manifest forms of where America has been, what it is now, and where it is heading I hope what I learn has some value to people.


A Conversation with Peter Puklus

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Peter Puklus

I have been following Peter Puklus‘ work for quite a while now, through both his books and direct encounters. I remember I attended a talk Peter gave in Amsterdam two years ago, and it was easily one of the best presentations I have ever heard a photographer give. Last year, Peter published The Epic Love Story of a Warrior, a photobook that is not just that, epic. It also is tremendously ambitious and political. Start deciphering what merely look like studio still lifes or nudes, and you see Europe’s tattered and complicated history unfold, a history to which another complex chapter is being added right before our eyes, with neofascism rising everywhere.  This seemed like a good time to speak with Peter about his work. The following conversation was conducted via email.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk about your background as a photographer? You’re based in Budapest where you also went to (photography) school?

Peter Puklus: My relation to photography started quite early: I was about 10-12 years old when my family went to an excursion to climb the Schneeberg mountain in Austria. The day before I discovered my father’s East-German Exa camera. Somehow, I managed to open the back and I pulled out the entire film. I remember I proudly showed it to him. Then he explained how the camera worked and gave me a new roll. On the next day, I photographed the cows with green grass and blue sky. A little later I started to buy my own films and develop them in the bathroom…

Towards the end of high-school (when you have to choose which university to pick for your studies) my sister mentioned that there was a photography program at the University of Applied Arts where she studied architecture (today it’s called Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest – MOME). I failed at the first entry exam so I filled up my year with preparation for the next year’s attempt, plus I had to make some money: first I worked in a printing house. I was mostly helping in the book-binding area. Then I started working as a junior graphic designer in a small design studio where I usually had to create flyers and menus for the local restaurants. The next year, in 2000, I got accepted to MOME, to the Visual Communication / Photography Department.

I graduated in 2005, my final degree work is the base of my first book One and a half meter. The same year, with a scholarship of the French Government I went to Paris where I studied in a Masters in New Media Design course at the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle. This is where that thing with ‘leaving the square’ started, and I worked with video, drawings and objects. In 2007, I went back to MOME where I continued my studies – at the doctoral level. But defending my thesis still lies ahead.

JC: Can you speak more about ‘leaving the square’? How did this start, and what do you gain by doing it?

PP: Even though I really respect the ‘square on the white wall or page’ stage of the medium I believe there is much more when we talk about photography. Technically it’s a frozen moment. But I’m also in interested what happens before or after (in time) or in front or beyond (in space). I am about to discover these territories for instance by visiting and using different platforms and medias. I believe photography is not only a medium, it’s more like a tool – a tool to help you formulate your message. And this is what matters first and foremost: what would you like to say – and then you select the most appropriate tool(s): the how(s). During my practice I would like to create a multi-layered, complex building, and you cannot construct a house with one hammer only.

JC: Photobooks have played a major role in your practice. Before we look at them in more detail, can you describe what it is that the form of the book has to offer for you as a photographer?

PP: Books are playing a major role in my life: growing up in a house full of books, reading those teenage novels till dawn, learning how they were made, and now trying to design the perfect book-shelf for my collection in the new house where we are just about to move in… I believe the book (including photobooks) is a very democratic platform: you don’t need electricity, internet and a screen to access them. And they smell great!

When I make a book I know that my decisions are definitive (this happens quite rarely otherwise in my life), and it’s a great feeling to discover the mistakes later. On a more practical level: there are certain moments when you have to decide to finish a project. And when you are holding your freshly published book in your hands, you know that it is really at that moment that you can focus on your next idea.

It is also a tool: it works great as a “portfolio” (I don’t like this term) as well as a present for contributors, curators and collectors, etc. In three words: compiling, closing, sharing.

But maybe most importantly: photobooks are part of the project. They tell stories not only through the sequence of the included images but through their physical form and appearance as well. Also, they remain with us.

JC: Your first book, One and a half meter, was still a pretty conventional affair. Handbook to the Stars then ended up an installation in photobook form. And now The Epic Love Story of a Warrior takes things even further. I’m wondering about this evolution. Let’s maybe start with Handbook – how did this book end up being what it is, pushing the form of the book beyond what it usually is?

PP: To be honest, the idea of the installation wasn’t really there until I received the boxes from the printing house. I knew it was possible to recreate that ‘map,’ which is folded inside the book, by placing several books next and on top of each other, but I couldn’t really focus on that part of the project because I was busy with the production. The installation itself is almost an accident – however, it was coded by design.

From the beginning of the book-making process I was thinking about something ‘different’. I wanted to tell a story. The story of the endless capacity of human mind, how we are able to connect unrelated things together just because we want to understand our universe. The book has no single topic or theme: it contains still-lifes, city-scapes, portraits, interiors, nudes, etc. and it is up to your imagination how you connect them or which connection you follow. Finally, with the book installation I am proposing a solution, but it is not the only one.

JC: Love Story, your newest book, yet again pushes the boundaries of the medium. It might be best to start out by talking what it actually is. What’s going on in the book? Where did the idea of doing a historical novel (of sorts) in photobook form come from?

PP: To be able to see the background of Love Story, first I have to talk a little more about the two other books. I was working on One and a half meter between 2004 and 2009 and on Handbook between 2009 and 2011. Then both book were published in 2012. When I held the two books in my hands I felt like there was a big gap between them: One and a half meter was about intimacy, friendship and family (the ‘diary of a young photographer’ as I call it today); Handbook was about creation, construction, fabrication, with very little personal references.

Somehow, I wanted to fill this gap and connect the books, and this is when the idea of making up and design a family story came. The recipe is quiet simple: I took memories, events, characters and places from both of my wife’s family (she’s coming from a Jewish background) and my family (I’m coming from a catholic/protestant family). I put all these elements into a so called ‘inspiration bucket’, mixed it well and finally pulled out a few very arbitrarily (I love this word). These elements were the basis of the project. Then I rearranged and reconnected them with many different other things. This approach generated a ‘fake’ family story based on truth. The one-liner of Love Story sounds like this: ‘The story of an imaginary family in Central Europe during the Twentieth Century’.

JC: There is a large number of visual references played out in Love Story. How did you conceptualize these? And aren’t you worried many people might simply not get them?

PP: Usually I don’t hold the viewers’ hand through the exhibition or the book. I realize it might cause some people losing interest at the beginning. But those who are willing to spend time with my projects to see what’s between the lines engage more. The “target area” of Love Story is the EU and US (somebody called it WASP, but I think it’s pretty offensive). However, it’s true that these people more or less share the same culture. Even the different countries are connected through history, economics, or at the personal level. We are used to watching more or less the same movies, we read the same books, worry about the same news.

Long story short: there is a commonly shared large number of visual references you can connect to. I am playing with these references through the book, and I’m sure that there are always a few images which make a random viewer think of something. Maybe that’s when the engine starts working.

JC: With its larger theme of European history, do you see the book as a commentary for our increasingly times?

PP: I am also worried about the recent news, the terrible changes in our society and the bloody Russia–Brexit–Trump triangle. Somehow this feeling leaked or filtered into the project when I was working on it. I believe that there is a hidden message somewhere in the book: we are still living in the 20th century, which started around 1916-1918 with, during or after the WW1. Since then the rules of our times have been more or less constantly the same. And the history of our time is repeatedly told and taught in the same way: a vertical opposition between good and bad, left and right, blue and red.

I believe that the real 21st century will arrive when people realize that the real confrontation is between up and down: the oppressing power (state, bank, corporation, etc.) against us, the people. I really hope that we can make this change happen without a major war.

JC: So do you see yourself and/or the book, Love Story, as activist, given your beliefs appear to be quite strong? Or is the artist’s role more reduced, to maybe make people look, but what they then do is beyond your powers?

PP: Looking, seeing, understanding. In business when you introduce a new product or service to the market, you have a chance to become successful if you can answer to all of the following items: define the problem, propose a solution, call to action. The tasks of the practicing contemporary artist are pretty similar (except we use different terms), and I’m not sure which one is more difficult or complicated. Since I really hate it when somebody wants to tell me what to do and how to do it, in exchange I usually try to keep my strong opinions to myself. However, I like the role of the activist in terms of asking (sometimes disturbing) questions and suggesting (sometimes uncomfortable) ideas.


A Conversation with Andrejs Strokins

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Andrejs Strokins

These peculiar pictures of the everyday with their strange colour palette have invited my curiosity.Conscientious Portofolio Competition juror Emma Bowkett said about Andrejs Strokins‘ photographs. “A wonderful, uneasy world, meticulously staged for the viewer to enter.” Indeed, there’s something strangely curious going on the world as this artist sees it. How and why I wanted to find out. I spoke with him over Skype — the conversation was subsequently edited for clarity.

Jörg Colberg: To start, can you talk about how you got into photography?

Andrejs Strokins: I was studying at Riga Building College to become a building contractor, after graduation I wanted to become an architect. To do that I had to pass exams, but I failed in mathematics. In the process of preparations I was blown away by drawing lessons in the art studio. It had different vibe. I really enjoyed hanging out there. So in the end these drawing lessons opened flood gates to the art world for me. At this point I got small digital camera from my parents aņd started to shoot a lot. It was in 2005, I think.

I continued to attend drawing lessons and as a bonus took one-year photography courses. The following year I went straight to the fine-art academy and got into the print-making department.

JC: From then on, you kept working as a photographer?

AS: Yes. It was a schizophrenic feeling. One part of me studied at the fine-art academy in a bohemian and carefree environment, while the other part was working in a photo-news agency. Doing art unrelated things.

By the way I made an awkward discovery today. An early press photo agency work is selling as an “art print” online. :)

AFI agency where I was working sold this image to European Press Photo agency, and from there it went viral. Here are a few examples.

JC: Is that what you do for a living, you work as a journalistic or commercial photographer?

AS: Yes, mostly commercial photography. Sometimes I’m still working in the reportage genre, but I don’t have the same feeling towards journalism in general. Besides I don’t get enough of those kinds of assignments to survive just doing journalism. So I’m doing more commercial jobs, but still I try not to go too far into commercial stuff. I try to do what feels right.

JC: But you do photography all the time, for yourself and your work?

AS: Yes. At some point, I quit the news agency because it was too much work. I didn’t have the time for my own things and my own development. So I just quit and started working as a freelancer, doing my own projects on the side.

JC: For your own projects, how do you approach them? How do you decide what to do?

AS: With each project it’s different. I try to break my own rules all the time. I started with a classical documentary project about a district in a suburb of Riga. I’m still working on that. It’s called People in the Dunes. Since then, I have worked on different things. I’m also doing collages now, and I’m a quite passionate collector of found photography from my region, and Latvia. So I’m also doing some curatorial work related to that, making small exhibitions.

JC: What do you do with the found photographs?

AS: It depends on the specific archive or images. Sometimes, I’m playing with the context by putting a found image into my own work, trying to shift a viewer’s perceptions of what he sees in the image in a bigger sequence of pictures.

I’m really interested in amateur photography, how amateurs approach photography and what they photograph. Sometimes, they find really interesting approaches and make art unintentionally. Quite recently I started to collect also amateur photo albums.

JC: So you have all these photographs, the vernacular photographs, your own projects. What’s the end product (I know that’s an ugly word)? Do you make books, do you make exhibitions?

AS: Mostly exhibitions. I really want to make a book, at least for one project. But it’s really a slow process, and I’m trying to think and re-think and again and again… I have this fear of failure towards bookmaking. But surely it will happen at some point. It’s a more complicated process that I have to “study first, then do”. I’m fine with making exhibitions for now.

JC: Latvia is a relatively small country. How many galleries do you have?

AS: None photography related.

JC: So are you looking for galleries outside of Latvia?

AS: Yes and no.

The best way how to describe my feelings lies in this quote “You’re a struggling artist who doesn’t care about money or fame but really you care about money and fame, but you don’t care about money or fame.”

One the one hand, you’re not doing this because of money. But on the other hand, of course you want to make money from what you’re doing. I would like to spend more time on doing art than doing commercial work. I don’t know, I don’t have the energy to sell my images or to look for someone to sell my images. I don’t have the energy for all the business aspects. Maybe I need agent or manager, but then again I don’t have energy for that.

JC: Maybe we can talk a little bit about your project that won the competition. It was called Everyday Error at some stage, but you changed the title?

AS: Yes hashtag on Instagram, #everydayerror still remained, but I have changed the title of the project to Cosmic Sadness. I often change things. The title Everyday Error and the whole project was inspired by Milton Glaser’s online lecture called “on the fear of failure”.

JC: These are pictures that you photographed with your smartphone, using a custom-made filter?

AS: Yes. That’s quite easy to do. I use this Android app called Vignette. This app allows you to change filters and adapt them to your needs. So I did that. It’s another project, another rule. I put myself into this box where I’m shooting vertically with this specific filter and a 4×5 aspect ratio. And that’s it. I’m not thinking about postproduction. I’m simply snapping images. I have to admit that I really like this process.

JC: Do you often work with rules for your projects?

AS: Yes. It’s a game, you know. You put yourself into box just to see what will grow from it.

JC: Tell me a little bit more about what you do in this project. You walk around, and you take pictures with your phone?

AS: I take pictures when environment resonates with me and fits the game rule set that I have invented. Mainly it is a bitter/sweet melancholic dive into my personality.

JC: Is this an open-ended idea that you will continue for a long period of time?

AS: Actually, I don’t know, because it’s related to technology. We has to see how the technology will evolve. Every year, companies are throwing new smartphones with better cameras and new inventions. These cameras has different visual qualities and aesthetics. My mobile phone represents lo-fi digital photography with tiny nostalgia to analog film era. It would look completely different with a new generations of mobile phones. So maybe I will switch to something else. But I think I will still have something in my pocket to document whatever will find. That’s for sure.

JC: For every artist, there’s the question of “why am I doing this?” or maybe “what am I doing this for?”. What do you think about these questions? What you do is that for exhibitions, or is it to satisfy your own curiosity, to see what the world looks like in these specific ways, given your rules?

AS: There is no reason for anything, but in my case I think it’s curiosity – a specific way to deal with reality. Other things just comes along.

My parents told me once that on my first school day in first grade I was watering flowers while the others were sitting and listening to what teachers had to say. I have feeling that I am still watering those flowers while others are doing more proper and meaningful things.

You know… I am a shy person and it is hard for me to communicate with strangers on casual level.

Recently, I was at an exhibition opening, and I wasn’t photographing. I was part of group of elite artists and invited guests who were there just to hang out. I felt so weird without my camera, without a purpose. I didn’t know how to approach people.

When you have a camera, you always take photographs, and you are there in the moment, but you don’t have to interact with others. I think the camera is my escape mechanism from society. But at the same time it’s a way to integrate with it.

Mimi Mollica’s Terra Nostra

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The very first picture inside Mimi Mollica‘s Terra Nostra shows a group of boys playing in a garbage dump. The photograph is ambiguous in the way good pictures are, because the boys could have been tasked with cleaning up, or their job could have been to assemble the trash — mostly old furniture — from somewhere else, or they could have simply been playing on what for young adolescents with not much else to do might be a great playground. I’m personally never interested in getting the explanation because it ruins the mystique. It puts a damper on my own imagination (that’s why wherever I can, I avoid going to photographer talks – there’s nothing worse than photographers giving away their secrets).

But the picture is not just ambiguous, it’s also metaphorical, especially seen in the wider context of the book, of what is going to unfold therein. That dump comes to stand for the location, and those boys going about their play business stand in for the location’s inhabitants, going about what, if presented the right way, looks like a futile business, the importance of which can only be compared to young boys playing in a rubbish dump: general life.

The second picture, after the title page and the inevitable foreword, reinforces the hunch I had, the idea of the human comedy, while also grounding the pictures in Italy. I don’t speak Italian, but I know what “uscita” means (exit), and two signs that say “uscita” with arrows that point towards each other make me think of Italy. (Obviously, this is photography, and in that particular spot you could probably walk around the corner and take that exit in question, but, again, that’s really besides the point. If Eggleston says he’s at war with the obvious, I’m at war with the literal.) I was lucky enough to have visited Italy a few times, and I truly enjoy being there. But I also know that the next absurdist comedy is always just around the corner, much to the exasperation of the likes of me, possibly one of the most unmediterranean people you’ll ever meet.

This is, obviously for me, what makes Terra Nostra so enjoyable: it unmasks the comedy, while, at the same time, strongly hinting at the humans who are going about their business there, in this very Italian way of being in on the joke while, at least half the time, pretending it’s completely serious. I find that very charming. But then I’ll be swearing profusely when, for example, the whole computer system at Rome airport just collapses, and it’s the kind of mess that’s funnier when you’re not caught inside.

In terms of its geography, the work is located not just in Italy, but specifically in Sicily. The inside text says as much. I’ll admit that I am unable to tell from the pictures, and honestly, I’m not sure it matters that much. Even the fact that we’re dealing with Italy recedes more and more with each repeated viewing of the book (there’s my war with the literal again). It’s true, Italy and Sicily in particular have certain traits that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. But what makes all that interesting is not what differentiates us as people, as Germans versus Americans versus Italians etc., but rather what unites us. Underneath it all, underneath our different mores or clothes or habits, we’re all the same strange animal “homo sapiens,” a misnomer if there ever was one.

Because mostly, we’re neither human nor wise (I know, “speak for yourself, Colberg!” — still!). We’re petty, engaged in useless fights over stuff that ceases to matter if we’re zooming out just a little bit, while being utterly convinced that any of those differences are just so important. This all would be deeply comedic, if it weren’t bordering on the tragic so much, so that, to give just the most recent example, people who pray to the same god, albeit with somewhat different customs, aren’t allowed to enter the United States any longer because of some vague terrorism concerns that really just mask intolerance, an affront to the most basic ideas of human decency and dignity.

So these petty fights over pretty irrelevant nonsense divide us, and they end up costing some people their lives. Seen that way, Terra Nostra does indeed stand for the much larger whole, for all of us, wherever we live — especially right now, given that neofascists are using their levers to destroy our free societies right there, appealing to bases instincts previously kept in check by nobler considerations. So for me this whole book for hugely (“bigly”) metaphorical.

But not just that, Terra Nostra is also filled with great pictures, pictures that have had me come back to the book quite often since I first received it in the mail. My only complaint concerns the pictures that cross the gutter: I wish that hadn’t been done. Unlike many other people, I usually don’t mind seeing it. But here, it doesn’t work for me, given that the gutter cuts somewhat awkwardly through the square photographs. Not only that, they also end up being a bit too big in their larger version. That aside, it’s really a brilliant, highly enjoyable book that, as I noted above, strongly hints at the darker complexities of these various activities we humans are engaged in.

Terra Nostra; photographs by Mimi Mollica; texts by Roberto Scarpinato,Sean O’Hagan; 128 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2017

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.9