Interview: Marija Janković’s “GAK”

A few months ago, at a Belgrade photo night called Periskop, I saw Marija Janković present one of her new projects about her time as a patient at a Serbian maternity hospital, which she calls GAK. The first time I saw this work, with Serbian text, I could only really react to the photographs and the audience around me, who were often left gasping. After the event she told me the project would soon be available on her new website with English captions. I found the quotes she paired with the scenes she had photographed to be extremely compelling. They added a fascinating depth to the reportage and made me think of a slew of questions about the project and the hospitals themselves. Janković has generously agreed to publish the complete series GAK here on dvafoto and to answer some questions about her wide-ranging projects.

I’ve long admired Janković’s approach to her work and the novel ways of framing some very serious topics in Serbian history. I’ve known Janković for a few years but we had not had the chance to have an in-depth conversation about her work and what she was accomplishing. It is my pleasure to present this interview with Marija where she elaborates on GAK and some of the other projects she has completed in her career. Visit her website www.marijajankovic.com for these and many more projects.

dvafoto: Where are you from and what is your background? How did you come to be a photographer?
 
Marija Janković: I grew up in Sombor, a small baroque, multiethnic town in [the Serbian province of] Vojvodina. Before the WWII, four large ethnic groups lived together in this quiet little town. Now there are two, plus the minorities. My father was from Kosovo and this mix was important for my future work.

Visual art is pretty much all I ever wanted to do in my life. I went to a design school, than I studied painting. I quietly painted still-life until the day in 1999 when the bombings of Serbia started [ed: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia]. It was the first time I experienced fear for my life. The involvement of the media was shocking to me. I thought that the news was supposed to follow the events, not to create them. On one side there was the Milosevic’s manipulated news, on another, the Western manipulated news. From that moment, there was two ways: close your eyes or get involved. I chose the second. I wanted to understand how the media machine looked like from inside. And I also got my first decent camera, so when I had to make my living, working in the newspapers was the solution. And I loved it, at least at the beginning…
 
Some of the work on your work on your new website is classic reportage, and other projects are very conceptual, featuring dioramas and models. Do you work on both of these sorts of projects simultaneously? Or do they represent different periods of your career?
 
If there were only two… hahaha. It’s a parallel work, sometimes more conceptual, sometimes more photojournalistic. Sometimes conceptual becomes documentary, and reportage artistic. I had, for years, worked in the press in a more traditional way (and I still do). I noticed that there are some patterns on how to make a good picture for publishing. Once I learned how to do it, I got bored. To me it was more interesting to do things differently. Unfortunately, at least here in Serbia, there is little space for that. But if I am touched by something I’ll do it, published or not. And then I decide about the approach. Not being under pressure of publishing gives you a beautiful freedom. But it also means that you will work on some other creepy, non-creative photo job to support yourself.
 
What do you see as the difference between these two ways of working, and why do you choose one approach over the other? How did you first come to make set-up scenes for your pictures? 
 
When stock photography became hysterically popular I thought to join the crowd. In my shopping basket for the set I just dropped the bag of cheap plastic soldiers; it was a strong symbol to me. Back in the studio I made a salad spiced with figurines and I was suddenly in the war zone. [ed: see Janković's War Story]. Pictures from the front line followed me from childhood and in 1999 I made collages with pictures I found in newspapers from the war zones around the world. I got a wish to make my war material but I was aware that, despite my wish, I will have little opportunity to go and cover one. So I created my own. That way I could be critical about whatever I wanted. As I said: freedom.
 


From the series “Bor” by Marija Janković

Did you feel there were limitations in the traditional reportage you practiced before? Are there freedoms that you are able to explore with these studio photographs? Do you consider them documentary? Either if so or if not, is that label important to you?
 
Two of my stories (Staro Sajmište and GAK) would be impossible to make as a classical reportage but they are based on true stories. Sajmište happened 60 years ago and many people photographed the actual place, or wrote historical essays or books. For me it was important to show the feelings of the victims and not only the political background. This is how I chose testimonies of survivors, to give them a second life. During the process of making every picture, besides double-checking facts, I had to ask to myself “Who am I in this story? Am I a victim, a reporter, a German soldier or a simple citizen?” As a matter of fact, there are only few original pictures from the time of the camp and none from the period when it was the “Judenlager”. But we are aware that the Germans made pictures and movies. In the way I tried to make the missing pictures. Later I found only one single picture of the “Semlin Judenlager” in the archives of the Novi Sad museum.

Also GAK wouldn’t have been possible as a classical reportage. No woman would tell these things with a camera or a microphone pointed at them. Because I was a patient, without camera, in the intimate atmosphere, women shared to each other their life stories. Gynecological hospital is like a micro extract of our society.

Now we see all the fantastic work from photographers reporting from Kiev. I must admit that I would like to be there, I love the adrenalin of the protests and teargas. I did cover protests in Serbia, but we all know how classic photojournalism can also be manipulative.

Labeling… I couldn’t care less. If somebody needs labels they have all the freedom to attach some to my work but I don’t start my project by giving them this kind of definition. I begin with the problem.
 
Your work takes on some very complicated and occasionally sensitive topics, such as concentration camps, the destruction of a mining town and loss of the German community in Vojvodina. What motivates you to photograph these stories? 
 
In Serbian society many historical topics are either forbidden or rewritten and people tend to go with the mainstream flow. Nobody ever told me what happened with the Germans after WWII. First, it was dangerous to speak. Then people forgot that thousands of German women and children were kept prisoners by the Partisans in camps in ghost villages in Vojvodina. Thousands died from hunger, cold and diseases. That story was challenging. Many of these German men, husbands and fathers, committed crimes, but we tend to generalize. Women and children were not guilty. It can sound naïve, but I’m often driven by the simple feeling of “justice for everyone”. Some of this motivation comes from the feeling of guilt for the crimes that the Serbs committed, against the will of many Serbian citizens.
 
Across the body of your work I feel there is a very thoughtful and determined confrontation with certain areas of Serbia’s history that I don’t see many other artists or photographers tackling. Do you in any way see all of the series you’ve published as part of a single, larger narrative? And why do you focus on Serbian stories rather than regional or global issues?
 
I don’t see Serbia as a very happy or healthy place. It’s country with a constant problem of finding its place and direction. For example, you can’t be a patriot and in the same time say that your people committed crimes. I think opposite: first as a citizen, and then as a photographer. But no matter how much I’m stressed about many things in Serbia, it’s my country and my people and I wish them well. I would like that the Serbs know their history better and that Serbian women (and all other women in the world, for that matter) have better conditions, more human rights, more jobs and better work conditions. I traveled around the region and in Europe and made some good pictures, but there are still a lot of topics to be covered in Serbia. I’m sure that the female stories are similar in the whole world but I think we should start with what we know the best. And experiment.
 
Are there other artists, from Belgrade or the region, that you look to for inspiration or camaraderie?
 
Ten years ago I was more inspired by my colleagues work than nowadays. Many of them are good friends and I love to see their work, but at this point I have the feeling that I walk alone. Working with dolls is not my invention. Dolls are a universal symbol and inspiration to many artists. There is always something traumatic about these replicas of humans. However my recent work is more appreciated by my colleagues abroad. I don’t inspire myself just with photographs. Books, fine art, music, daily life and news, global news… All this make us who we are.
 
I see your latest series GAK and your photograph “Original and 52 notarized photocopies, 2012″ as a direct and logical continuation of the investigations that you completed in your earlier work. But it is much more personal. How has your work lead up to these projects? Do you feel better prepared now to document your own life and the people around you?  
 
In the past few years I went through some difficult personal times. It’s not accepted today to complain, or to be weak. We should be up to every mission all the time, but we witness many complications due to unresolved personal problems. Domestic crime is very common in Serbia. I love the stories that nobody else talks about. I did it in my name and the name of other troubled women. Putting yourself out there is much more difficult than photographing hooligans (this is my artistic side). “Original and 52 notarized photocopies” was very popular in the Serbian media; it became a symbol of bureaucracy. It’s my baby on the picture and my documents, but the problem is universal, and concerns the whole region. During pregnancy, instead of working, I had to spend time collecting useless documents. If I had found that story and those documents somewhere else I would have used it. But one day I just realized that I am the story and the reporter in the same time. Hahaha.
 


“Original and 52 notarized photocopies” by Marija Janković

As a man – therefore not a patient –  and as a foreigner who does not speak Serbian well, I cannot conceive of having any access to the stories of these women in a gynecological hospital if it was not for your reporting. The anecdotes and quotes struck me because of their very distinct and uncomfortable voice, I suppose because they are phrased in such a frank and unguarded way, overheard and not polished for quotation. This, coupled with your photographs of a dirty model of a hospital filled with ghoulish nurses, makes an interesting approach to reportage.

How did you come to conceive of this way of telling this story? Did you consider other more traditional approaches? What advantage (as I was asking above) did you see in telling the story with models and quotations? Do you see any disadvantages with presenting this story in this way?
 
As I mentioned above, I didn’t set out to make “GAK”. It wasn’t a situation where I made a decision and strategy, like we do for the stories. I was kept [in the hospital] in a t-shirt, with a dying mobile phone, and one notebook. During the next 5 days I was surrounded by sensitive women talking about their deepest secrets and fears. Two weeks after I found the notebook, it clicked together. I was just open to see it. Now, finding a text for this kind of work is difficult. Also, if I imagine the same text with the portraits of those women, it would be less strong. It’s like a painting of a shoe by Van Gogh; it’s much more exciting than a pair of real shoes.

I have my “test audience”, my closest friends and colleagues and I send them the projects to get some feedback before I publish more sensitive things. Most women replied “I can donate you a story!”, and men: “I didn’t know, I feel sick, great work but I can’t look at this twice”…

From time to time we read reports about hospitals and what is noticeable is that people react more to some dodgy pictures that patients made themselves with their mobile phone. You need to be extremely upset to take things in your own hands. 99% of these women accept with resignation these conditions, saying “What can I do?”
 
How would you like this project to be received? Is there any advocacy present in this project, for example to challenge for better conditions at your hospital?
 
Once I got the same question (referring to Original and 52 notarized photocopies). My answer then was “Yes, it would be nice to see somebody change something”. Today I am more realistic. I don’t think somebody will see those pictures and say “She is right, we don’t need form 227/b. II” or “We should order nurses to be nicer to patients”. But it can always serve as a support on the level of “woman to woman”, or help in reaching a critical mass of complaints where things need to be changed. It’s a job for all of us to make some pressure.
 
Are you continuing to photograph your family? Does this project mark any turning point in your work? 
 
Becoming a mother is a turning point, now all I do is photographing family. I’m less prepared to deal with heavy and dark stories, or to run towards burning buildings to get more dramatic shots. At least at this moment. On another hand, I want a better environment for my child, so I will continue to challenge this absurd but well established social structure.

Thank you Marija.

Alan Chin: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away

Alan Chin is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for his new project Toishan, China: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away. Chin’s project will take him back to his family’s home in the Toishan region of China, an area that is undergoing rapid development since his first visit in 1989. The fundraising campaign will run until October 28th but we are happy to report that Chin has already exceeded his initial goal. Congratulations to him, but the project is still worthy of support and we hope that with further fundraising he will have more time and flexibility with the project, something every photographer would dream of.

Chin answered a few of our questions about the new work, and I also encourage you to have a look at Chin’s Kickstarter video below and his fundraising page for more information about his plans for this project.

Tell me something about the region of China that your family comes from? How many times have you visited the area?

Toishan (or Taishan in official Mandarin Pinyin romanization), is about a hundred miles from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Two-thirds of all Overseas Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the greater Toishan area, until the 1960s. Today, Chinese-Americans hail from diverse regions in China, especially from Fujian, but for a hundred years that was Toishan.

I first visited in 1989, when I was eighteen years old. I was there again in 1997 and then many times in 2008 and 2009.

Do you still have family in Toishan that you are in contact with?

My last close relative was a great-aunt who died in 2009 after I saw her for the last time in 2008; I still have more distant cousins that live in the village.

What is the relationship between this area and Chinese-American communities, particularly in New York? Is immigration from this region still prominent?

Starting in 1965 with LBJ’s immigration reform to reunify families (as important a piece of landmark legislation as Medicare or the Civil Rights laws), the Chinese-American community expanded tremendously. And as the Cold War ended, commercial and diplomatic relations improved between China and the US. Individuals began to travel to-and-fro with much greater ease and frequency. Toishanese continue to emigrate abroad, but now are one of many Chinese clusters rather than the majority. The old part of New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, dating from the late 19th century, was originally Toishanese and remains predominantly Cantonese. (Toishan is part of Guangdong, the Cantonese province.)

Are you going to be documenting Toishanese communities from both countries with your book?

Yes, but the emphasis is on China, on where we come from.

How do you plan to use your family’s photographs in this project? What are some of your favorite photographs in this collection that will help tell the story?

I will use some of my family photographs to track our specific history, which is typical of so many families. The oldest photograph we have is of my great-uncle, Sing Chin, who emigrated to Cuba in 1927 and then the US in 1935. The photo is a formal studio portrait from his time in Cuba. It shows him in a tropical suit, and he was younger then than I am now. I think it will help show just how transformative the 20th century was in its global impact of revolutionary change.

My favorite photographs? That’s too hard a question to answer!


Click image above to start Chin’s video about the project

Valentino Bellini’s BIT ROT Project

Valentino Bellini wrote to us recently to share his new project BIT ROT, about the troubling issue of electronic waste worldwide that results from “rampant consumerism” and products that are “designed for the dump”. We really enjoyed the photographs and the story he was revealing to us, so we asked him to answer a few questions about the project. His responses were fascinating and we are happy to share his work.

Bellini is looking for more support to continue his project, and you can donate through the BIT ROT Project’s Support page on the project’s dedicated Tumblr.

Dvafoto: Where are you from? How did you come to photograph this project?

Bellini: I became interested in photography about 4 years ago when I moved from Palermo, my hometown, to Milan, where I attended a course at the annual CFP R. Bauer (a public photography school). Immediately after I graduated I started working at the LINKE. lab which offers various services for photography including fine art printing, post production, mounting and realization of photographic exhibitions.

During the first two years of my stay in Milan, during times when I could go back down in Palermo I started working on a photographic project about the Ghanaian community of Ballarò, a neighborhood in the historic center of the city. I’ve known several young Ghanaians with whom I have a great relationship now, this was probably the main reason that push me to visit Ghana in April 2012. Once in Ghana, among other issues, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph the e-waste dump of Agbobloshie, where I discovered the terrible world regarding the trafficking and disposal of e-waste in developing countries. (Ghana is probably the African country, along with Nigeria, where the flow of electronic waste is the growing fastest).

How are you doing the research for this work? Where are you traveling to to make the photographs?

I’ve got the opportunity to work with some guys from a Ghanaian NGO that works to improve the living conditions of Ghanaian children. After our first visit we jointly launched special projects addressed at all those young boys who work in Agbobloshie e-waste dump. From that experience, from the contact with those people, I felt the need to investigate this issue and to develop the project in other countries and on different levels of investigation. Then I continued in the last months, visiting Pakistan and India.

The project is now at a very important stage. Very soon I will visit China, the country with the highest numbers for import of e-waste from abroad, and also for domestic production (China is second only to the United States for the production of electrical and electronic equipment, and of course, this also increases the amount of electronic waste produced and disposed of). The project will then continue investigating other methods of waste disposal and recycling, including more green and sustainable methods implemented by world leaders industries in developed countries in Europe and the United States (in this series there are already images produced in two facilities of companies that do this kind of work, authorized by the government and in a clearly legal way, in Tamil Nadu, India).

I will focus also on those places that represent the cathedrals of the consumerism world, the places where the “induced” need is generated, the places that are fathers of all the problems mentioned above.

Are you being supported by any grant or other funding to work on this? What is your goal for how to present this work, where will it be seen?

This project was started by a very personal experience, and is currently funded, with many difficulties, all by myself. At the moment I’m in contact with several international magazines trying to get this first part of the work published, in order to collect funds to continue the project.

In parallel with the classical editorial channels, I also launched a website dedicated to the project, through which I have implemented a funding campaign, hoping that this will help to raise funds that will enable me to move forward in production. In addition to thinking about photographic exhibitions in the international photography circuit, one of my primary goals would be to be able to bring the work with some exhibitions, in very rough shape, in the same places where the photos were taken, inside the dumps, in the districts in which the disposal takes place. It would be a way to give back the work to those who are directly protagonist, as well as to try to sensitize the communities themselves who inhabit those places, which, much to my surprise, they are often not even aware of the problems that this kind of processes can create for human health and for the environment. For this I’m working with the guys at Ghanaian NGO and with other realities that slowly I also met in other countries I have visited.

What have you learned about electronic waste and its relationship with the culture of consumers of electronic products?

Concerning the flow of electronic waste and their disposal, it is definitely a very complex phenomenon that is constantly changing and very, very quickly. It is important to emphasize that the issue of waste disposal in some countries in the developing world (see Pakistan or Ghana) has two different aspects. Employment shortage and continuous internal migration stream which can be observed for several years now, especially among the younger population ranges, from rural areas to urban centers, makes an occupation such as the disposal of electronic waste particularly desirable, as it ensure at least the possibility to earn a little amount money, just enough for daily survival, condition, however, still difficult to reach among the poorest segments of the population.

On the other hand, the import, though often illegal, of electrical and electronic waste from Europe and the United States, has contributed in some way to improve access to certain types of technologies by those same poor people. In Pakistan, for instance, until a decade ago, for the vast majority of the population was almost impossible to buy even a television, let alone a computer. In this sense this illegal flow, it is always good to remember, gave to some people a new access to different forms of culture (like internet) that were not remotely conceivable a few years ago. The production of electronic waste today is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) estimated that in the coming years could grow up to 500%, especially in those countries where the domestic electronics industry (countries like China or India) is experiencing a period of exponential growth.

What is sure is that this issue is caused by a system. The Western system (whose differences with other cultures such as those of Asian or African countries are decreasing) increasingly is dominated by rampant consumerism. A system in which the value is not intrinsic in the object we buy, as in the possibility of being able to display it. This is also reflected in the project guidelines adopted by production houses of electrical and electronic components. The term “designed for the dump” expresses this concept very well. Producers prefer to build products that will have a short life and will be difficult to repair, so as to impose on consumers a continuous supply of these tools, producing huge amounts of waste that regularly end up on the other side of the globe illegally, and which is disposed of in a harmful way. Probably the way to try to break down the problem is to make the producers responsible, forcing them to implement more sustainable production lines (and consider that some electronic components release harmful substances, although in small amounts, throughout their life cycle). For sure we must rethink the legislation, both locally and supranational, to preserve tools like the Basel convention, one of the few mechanisms to control the international movement of toxic waste, including from electronics. For example, these rules are continuously circumvented by exporting second-hand items to developing countries, as a way to reduce the so-called digital divide.

A big job of responsibility will also need to exist in these communities disposing of the waste, to make it clear that this work is destroying human health as well as the surrounding environment.