Gianpaolo Arena


The following interview with me was led by
Gianpaolo Arena somewhen in 2012.
It was published in Landscape Stories.

Looking back at this interview and the events of the last days,
I experience a deep feeling of gratitude for all the help and sympathy I have received and still do receive.


“Fragments of Memories”

LS: How important was it for your research to foster further cultural and aesthetic imagery through literature, art and music…? To what extent are still reality and life the most extraordinary sensorial experience?

ZJ: I was very lonely as a child and throughout my youth. Art and literature were my main companions. I can´t tie my photography to any work of art or literature that I loved or love now. My ties are emotional ones; they are rooted in my childhood and still form my work.

LS: Are there any photographers, movements or bodies of work that have influenced or inspired you? How much were “New Objectivity” movement or the lesson learnt from August Sander (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts/People of the Twentieth Century) and Diane Arbus a source of inspiration for you when you started to search for your photographic style?

ZJ: Though I admired work of August Sander and Diane Arbus, as I admired the work of Winogrand, Friedlander and Goldin, these photographers were photographic masters and I never felt I could follow them in any way. The concept of “New Objectivity” never even reached my mind. My photographic development was formed by a deeply rooted, barely reflected set of “likes” and “dislikes”. I studied in Essen “Kommunikationsdesign”, and most of what was produced here I heavily disliked. I disliked any photographic language that was not bearing the mark of it´s author. I disliked any slick form without further deeper meaning. And I was very frustrated with my photography. A fellow student showed me work by Paul Graham, William Eggleston, Peter Frazer, Michael Schmidt and other contemporary photographers. This was the visual universe I was unknowingly looking for. There was an incident that also impressed me a lot: an university assistant was printing the photographs his father had taken. His father had been an amateur photographer and I couldn´t think but that this guy was doing better than any of us trying to become professionals.

LS: Do you have a method of working which you follow for each series, or does it vary for each different project? Please explain us the themes in your artwork and your working process.

ZJ: My work was for a long time basically the fight to overcome my shyness. For weeks and months I was walking around the streets not daring to approach the people I wanted to photograph. Only when the emotional impact of what I saw was big enough I made a step forward. While working on my diploma I encountered Roland Barthes “Camera Lucida”. I felt that the “punctum” he was talking about was the same “punctum” that hit me when I was looking for images, pushing me to establish contact and to photograph. In these rare moments I reacted instinctively to an emotion that connected me to my past. As soon as I understood what was happening to me, I realized that I had to deal with my childhood memories. With “remembering” I’m actually approaching to my childhood, and my visual language becomes reminiscent of the past, the clothing and the colors, and my protagonists, everything looked like coming from times gone by. All my projects reflect my attempts to come to grips with life, trying to understand human existence, trying to understand myself. After having published my monograph I wanted to shed my photographic identity. I just couldn´t imagine to go on like this until the rest of my life. I started with a whole array of projects over the next years, all of them failed to meet my expectations. Meanwhile, for a living, I had begun to work with people, first as an unskilled social-worker in a low income quarter and then, after my job has ben cut as dispensable, I got an employment in a home for the elderly, caring for those suffering from dementia. I started to photograph the people I got to know in the quarter; subsequently I also began photographing seniors I care for at the home.

LS: How deeply are you influenced by the surroundings and places in which you grew up? To what extent is your childhood imagery still present in your photographs?

ZJ: I already mentioned that my childhood experiences formed how I relate to the world, it formed my way of life and all of this is reflected by my photography. “Remembering” was visually influenced by the colors and spaces I learned to love during the summer holidays I spent with my grandparents in Hungary.

LS: Looking at your latest and ongoing project ‘Mrs Raab wants to go home’… evokes a feeling of comprehension, an intimate space for memory, experience, contemplation, meditation, thoughts… Does this interpretation come close to your intentions going into this project? Could you explain about it?

ZJ: I never think in these terms about my work.
In the quarter I was confronted with helplessness, poverty, affliction, sadness and the uttermost loneliness. Here I understood that parts of my childhood traumata, in essence, I shared with a lot of people. That helped.
Moving to a home for elderly you loose even the last remains of the life you have lived. Your autarky has gone; you are depending on the help of people that are organized by shifts. Both my job in the settlement as working in the home for elderly people are important parts of my life. What I have experienced there and I am still experiencing now almost on a daily basis has impressed me deeply.

LS: Did you start this project with the idea of making a book? Could you tell us something more about the creation of the book?

ZJ: I didn´t start this project with a book in mind. I never know in advance if I will produce something worthwhile to print.
I started to combine my images with words when I was preparing for a portfolio competition. I wished to show my work without having to explain it. While searching for words I realized that I could add an other layer of meaning to my images with a text written out. Later on, for an exhibition, I had to transfer my portfolio to the wall. I was forced to find a new way to present my texts alongside the photographs. I wanted images and words to be read on their own, but still relating to each other. Now they are framed separately, and the words are printed out on color plates that refer to the colors of the photographs they belong to.
“Mrs Raab wants to go home” evolved step by step. At the outset there was no master plan. So if you ask me about my working method, it´s nothing but trial and error, working and learning. This happens listening to an inner voice, and it is an attempt to understand what is happening and which direction to go.

LS: What’s the ideal way to look at your work (book, exhibition…)?

ZJ: An exhibition is like a live concert. To visit an exhibition, to see the real prints, to move from image to image, and to share this experience with other people can have a bigger impact than looking at a book. On the other hand: I love books. I can touch them, open them, I can carry them home, and I can look at them again and again. I have the time to analyze what I see. A book is there to stay.

LS: What’s in store for you in 2012, photographically or otherwise?

ZJ: I do not know.
I would love to start working on a new project, but I am not through with this one. I am frustrated by my limitations. I want to say more than I am able to express.