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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

How to Photograph: Vanessa Winship Q&A

pictures: Vanessa Winship

As a brief respite from How not to Photograph, here is a question and answer that Vanessa Winship very kindly answered. File it under How to Photograph.

How did you get started in photography?

I suppose I was first drawn to photographs when I was a small girl.

I loved looking at images of my family, especially the ones from the past. They were from a different time to the one I inhabited. I liked and was fascinated knowing my grandmother as this elderly lady who made our fish and chips on a Friday, juxtaposed with an image of a strange other worldly young woman dressed for a wedding, that was also her.

I also loved the pictures my father had brought back from his time doing his military service in Hong Kong. It was a time and a place that seemed to have had a great impact on his life, and I never tired of him telling me the same stories over and over again.

I didn’t actually pick up a camera until quite a long time after during my time at Art College. I guess I felt a little lost there.I couldn’t quite find my place but there was a photography option and as soon as I entered the darkroom and saw that latent image appearing from that tangy solution, I was transfixed. It felt comfortable somehow.

Owning a camera also coincided with the birth of my son….I needed to photograph this new person so strange and so new.
When and how did you have the idea of Sweet Nothings?

The idea to create Sweet Nothings came at the point that I’d decided to leave Turkey and return home. I’d been living outside of the UK for quite a long time. By then I knew and understood something of the people who lived there, and I’d also begun to grasp an idea about the politics of the country.

It’s a hugely complex place of course and one that is so often misunderstood, and not really appreciated fully. It took this length of time before I felt I could begin to tackle and express how I felt about the place.

I’d been to many different places and seen many different things in Turkey, but one enduring image was that of the small school children in their royal blue uniforms. They’d appear like fleeting apparitions, and there seemed so many of them in every city and village.

But I also knew that for some girls, going to school hadn’t always been possible.It was mainly in the rural areas where traditional values hold fast, but also in the area of the low level conflict that has blighted much of the region of the east and southeast.

As young girls they are complete innocents, and yet they seem sometimes to bear a gravity beyond their years, I was touched by this, so I decided that I would set about making a series of portraits where they could have a small moment of glory.

Why do you think it has been so successful?

I think perhaps because they seem to buck the trend of a lot of today’s portraiture, where I think there is a kind of emotional disconnect. I feel that the girls in Sweet Nothings express themselves in a way that is emotionally very raw. The young girls in my pictures really are without guile or conceit.

I wonder whether they have taken people off guard by touching them in a way? They are so very direct, but also quietly insistent.

What has the effect of the success of Sweet Nothings been?

I am not sure in the end what success means in real terms; it’s a tricky one for me personally.
I think probably the biggest effect has been the realization that an image/s really does take on a life of its own. They are of course my images, but they are also outside of me too.

In terms of projects, I continue to do my own thing. I suppose in terms of commissions I’ve allowed myself to think that there might be a possibility to go for one or two. I have better access to the ears of people who might otherwise not have had time in the past. This is a nice thing.

What makes a photograph convincing?

Delicacy and lightness of touch.

Why do you choose to work in Eastern Europe and Turkey so much? Do you want to do any UK projects?

It actually started in Albania. I’d seen a couple of images of this obscure small country that was actually relatively close to my own, and yet had been so far from the consciousness of Western Europe’s gaze. I wondered how this could be. I was curious about this border that had been created, and what this meant. How was it that I had an idea about Greece and about Italy and yet knew nothing of their close neighbor, its poor relation if you like.

I guess once you dip your toes into a region you almost inevitably get drawn into the surrounding areas, and their histories are so intertwined, the actually physical borders are mere border posts. Of course their own individual telling of those histories were diverse and different, each had their own truths to express. I began to explore ideas around fiction in the telling of history. I’ve only really scratched the surface to be honest.

Yes I do have a desire to work in the UK, it was something I was comfortable with before I left, and I’m keen to make something connected with where I’m from now as well.

How do you fund your work?

I haven’t actually figured this one out very well. I guess when we (my partner, George Georgiou) first left the UK we spent what was left (and it really wasn’t very much) from the sale of our small apartment in London.

It felt important for both us to be able to work to our own agendas. It’s been a bit of a wing and a prayer really and maybe somewhere in all of it there’s been bit of confidence in what we were doing. I wouldn’t really recommend it as an easy option.

How do you travel? Where do you stay?

Mostly by car, but sometimes with local transport. I like the process of getting to a place, and prefer it if I get to where I’m going slowly. I like the way time seems expand and contract with different kinds of transportation.

In terms of accommodation, it really depends where I am; I think I have experienced every form of sleeping arrangement possible. I stay with people I’ve met along the way, with friends, camping in the car itself, and of course in Hotels. I particularly like Turkish hotels, they really know how to look after you, and the beds are nearly always great.

These things start to get important when you travel a lot.

What is your next project going to be?

I have a couple of parallel projects in mind and on the go. The first is in Georgia. It’s another portrait series, but with some additional elements, that of landscapes and interiors. I hope to make these additional elements similar to the portraits of the people if that makes sense.

The second is a project based here in the UK. It’s about being home in one way and also about how I feel about the society I come from. Having been away has kind of concentrated and crystallized what I see around me. So I will locate some of the work in my actual hometown and some of it here in London.

I don’t want to be more specific than that because I’ve not yet begun to make the images for this one yet.

Who are your photographic influences?

Probably too many to list mainly because I’m constantly discovering new and wonderful works from people I didn’t know existed. I really do love photographs, and am a great consumer of imagery. We are so spoilt these days, in accessing pictures, perhaps too spoilt.

So for me early photographic influences were the ones from those early childhood memories…often-anonymous authors. But once I actually began to make my own pictures my influences were from the photographic books I had access to at the time.

From the early days I appreciated the work of Frank, Koudelka, Evans, Arbus and Sander, some of the early Farm Security administration from America…it seems like a long time ago now. Of my contemporaries I like the work of Paul Graham, Anders Peterson, Alec Soth, Stephen Gill, Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits are really touching.

I recently discovered and got excited by Mike Disfarmer and Ingar Krauss, I have begun taking in some beautiful photography from Japan. . I still have a soft spot for works by Cristina Rodero Garcia and of course my partner in life, George Georgiou…..

I could go on all day.

What are your favourite books?

My favourite novelist at the moment Ismail Kadare.

But if your talking about photographic books there are loads.The Americans has to be one of the all time greats although I don’t actually own a copy.

I have several versions of Koudleka’s work from scrappy old copies of books found in charity shops that have needed adoption to his most recent Prague 68 which as a book itself I’m not that keen on, but the work remains wonderful.

I was recently introduced to a book called Negatives are to be Stored, a set of wonderful portraits from the 1920s and 1930s Poland. I discovered Mike Disfarmer’s work by chance walking passed a bookshop on my return to London.

I have beautiful copy of a book only published in Greece of images made during the Ottoman Empire called Portraits from Kastoria at the time of the Macedonian struggle.

A have a copy of tiny little book called Wake by the Danish photographer I’ve only just discovered, Adam Jeppesen, it only has a few images in it, but it’s enough. I really like the fact you can have it in your pocket, I like the Photo-Poche series for this reason too.


Guy Batey said...

I still can't get over how good Vanessa Winship's photos are.

Do you know (or can you ask her) if the photos in Schwarzes Meer are from the 'Black Sea' or from the 'Imagined States & Desires' series on her website?

And is the 'Georgia' series going to be a new book?

colin pantall said...

Hi Guy - I would guess they are from the Black Sea series from the name. I don't know about the book but I'll ask her.

colin pantall said...

Guy, Vanessa says it is the Black Sea but there might some Imagined States crossover.