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16 June, 2011  ▪  Записала: Olena Maksymenko

Unvarnished Truth

Miron Zownir reveals his “living on the edge” in black and white

Miron Zownir, a German photographer, writer and director of Ukrainian origin, is known as one of the world's most censored photographers and a star of the underground. He shoots exclusively on film and in black and white. His pointedly expressive photos may evoke condemnation or admiration but they leave no one indifferent. Zownir launched his photo exhibit in Kyiv Mohyla Academy on 30 May. His show is nothing new to photography enthusiasts (these things have been captured on film many times before), but his pictures do open a window to a world most of us prefer to avoid.

The Charitable Foundation “Mystetskyi Arsenal” and the German Cultural Centre Goethe-Institut invited Zownir to participate in the First International Book Fair “Book Arsenal” - a new project of Mystetskyi Arsenal, which took place on 28-31 May in Kyiv.

“My works do not have any political message. I only reflect life from the viewpoint of my own experience and according to my ideas and interests. I take photos of people living on the edge, who have found themselves on the bottom and have no chance of climbing up. I turn to aspects of existence that society tends to ignore: begging, sex and violence – things not publicized and in a sense taboo.”

“Every photo is a story in its own right. Some of my models are indifferent to a man with a camera, while some others welcome my activity. But it’s best when they don’t notice me while I shoot. Photography is not an activity for the judicious and bashful. I am a polite man in life. But when you are behind the camera, you have to look one step ahead. I happen to shoot those who are not in the best situations in life. And they do not always want these moments to be captured on film. Different things happen, and I always have to be ready to defend myself (or least quickly leave the scene if there are too many attackers). Of course, I could focus on something else: animals in cages, architectural monuments or flowers. Photography is not a simple business or way of life, but even when people expect something else, I have to move on and be prepared for anything.”

“I work for myself. If you have sponsors, you are responsible to them, because they have certain expectations: no gays, fat women, homeless, etc. I shoot, and if there is someone who is ready to put my photos on display, fine. If not, that's fine, too. Above all, I stick to my own view. Good photos are not always bestsellers. My activities do not make my life easier or myself richer. I simply do what I have to do. Now my photos are displayed in some of the world’s best museums, because people can no longer ignore these topics and works.”

“If, for example, I shot only homosexuals, I would be seen as their lobbyist, and my photos would be presented in all their newspapers and galleries. But I also shoot heterosexuals! My activities do not serve one topic or idea and the photos themselves are individual. On this approach, it is somewhat hard to become recognizable.”

“The difference between the underground and publicity is recognition. When you are a hero of a certain subculture, people who cannot afford to buy your photos love you. But when you find yourself in the mainstream, many connoisseurs add your photos to their collections. Some painters become mainstream, evidently because their style fits certain dominating trends or society draws closer to their ideas. Everyone who is a classic today was in the underground at some point in the past. When you are regularly mentioned on television, in newspapers and magazines, you are on a roll. But you will hardly find yourself in this category if you are too irrational or criticized. You have to stick to a definite line to be in the mainstream.”

“Things like that can be traced in, say, Russian literature. For example, Bulgakov is now almost universally known, but how much he had to suffer in his time! Dostoevsky was a prisoner in his lifetime, while now he is recognized all over the world. There are too many ideological differences between a subculture and the mainstream.

“I have never considered myself a member of a certain school of photography. No-one has taught me. Everything I can do I have mastered on my own. Of course, I am limited in terms of equipment – I shoot with one small (but wonderful) camera rather than carrying a ton of devices like most of my colleagues do, because I have to be mobile. My shooting is influenced by everything: literature, cinema and the life around in both its positive and negative states.

“Writing literary works are a pretty lonesome activity. Shooting a movie is an incredibly interactive one. Photography is not so much interactive as it is hunting for a moment. Even if you are a lone wolf in the field, you cannot create – you can only react to what happens around you. You have to have prescient intuition and a good deal of courage, because photo shooting always means unexpected situations that cannot be controlled. Of course, luck plays a significant role. In cinema, you can control the process as much as your budget permits, while in writing it all depends on your imagination and the depth of your experience.

“It doesn’t matter if you have 20 studio lights or shoot documentary photos. I don’t see any difference. The main thing is the influence these photos have. Now almost everyone has a digital camera — the source of innumerable trashy photos. Fifty years ago, the camera was unique, but now you have to be extremely careful.

“My photos convey emotions above all. You may like them or you may not, but it’s hard to ignore them. The contemporary mass media have been changing – everything is being digitized. Now any information is available, but it is becoming increasingly hard to choose quality products. Today a photo can exist exclusively as an object of art. The photographer has to seek his own signature style and an expression of his own individuality. It is very easy to create things people expect. You can secure an easy life for yourself this way, producing a kind of artistic McDonald’s.”

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