An Interview between Zak R. Dimitrov, Beata Bartecka, and Łukasz Rusznica regarding their book How to Look Natural in Photos Palm* Studios and OPT.
How to Look Natural in Photos is a functional, yet very aesthetically pleasing book. It examines the way photography operates as a mechanism and a tool for recording when used by nefarious forces and political regimes. It suggests violence and malicious intentions while unveiling a photograph’s characteristic that is often forgotten in the fine art world – being a document. The book is a hefty tome containing well over 100 images and some long, detailed texts providing further information and context. Some of the images contain marks on their surface while others are pristine, but they all have a slightly dark undertone – if a photograph depicts a person, it does not bode well for them as it means they are under surveillance of the Polish state. The book is published by PALM* Studios and OPT, 2021.
ZD: Let me start by asking what sparked your interest in the functionality of photographs rather than their aesthetics? Many people, especially nowadays, expect a photograph to be showing pretty things, but as your book proves there’s a lot more to the photographic image than from how it looks.
B & L: From the very beginning we were interested in the aesthetic part of the photographs we worked with but at the same time we understood their meaning and function. We started from a collection of photos (the Polish archive of Institute of National Remembrance) which have a very special embedded function, we think that these utilities pile up and we should look at all levels. When you look at photos from a police investigation or observation of a suspect by security services, these photographs are pure function: they serve a specific political purpose, but also investigative procedures, they are made according to specific rules established by those agencies and are to meet specific expectations. These are photographs, evidence, pictures with information, “information carriers”, etc. Their aesthetics are irrelevant, they should be legible, clear, and practical. Of course, there is another layer in this perspective: we also have to look at those images from the institution of the archive, every archive, as photographs which additionally become documents, witnesses to history. These pictures serve a different purpose: they are documents that the observation took place, that there was a system that had secret police and they watched their citizens. When we have photos made by the soldier who is an amateur photographer and who was on the front line during the Second World War and who photographed scenes for his personal album as souvenirs – in this case, he wanted to make nice pictures which had harmonized frame and light – but we found his photos in the archive, so this context changed our perspective. These images again become the document of history, the witness of crime, or just a trace of the theatre of a war scene.
The historian doesn’t care about the chiaroscuro in the picture of a dead body, but we care. We give back the aesthetic dimension to those photos. In the context of your question, we are “people pleasers” – we give people what they are expecting to get: photography as a beautiful image. Of course, we have a particular agenda, but this goal is rather unpleasant to the viewer. However, it doesn’t change the fact that in order to achieve it, we need to bring these photos back to a gaze full of delight.
ZD: Was there a particular image from the book that caught your attention?
B & L: We understand why one might ask this, the book contains approximately 180 images so the idea of one or a few pictures that affected us or the viewer in a strong way is very captivating. Although our book is quite large it is a really small excerpt from the archive we worked with, which contained 40 million pictures, undeveloped films, and damaged prints. During our research in the archive, we chose photographs that caught our attention. We saw hundreds of thousands of pictures and after many months in the IPN archive, we chose a collection that included around 4000 artifacts. From this point, we began to laboriously build the book by reduction. Without any romantic emotions or flirting we can say that every photograph from our book is a “particular image that caught our attention”, which, of course, we wouldn’t say straight away in the first sentence, because you probably wouldn’t believe us.
ZD: Yes, I totally get that, I suppose you wouldn’t include the picture in the book if you didn’t find it captivating for one reason or another. The pictures appear to be treated as documents or drafts rather than prints or fine art objects and I find the marks particularly interesting. Could you elaborate a bit on the way markings are used on the surface of the print?
B & L: All the marks and numbers don’t foretell well for the person who is marked. These are signs for investigators who the main suspect in the photograph is. We have to remember that these photographs were often elements of a larger set of documents and they complete the report about the investigated people which we see as “the people with painted numbers or other marks” who were examined in detail by agents in their mutual relations – a report which, as a consequence, often contributed to the misfortune of the photographed person. They were blackmailed, forced to act shamefully, or sentenced to imprisonment or death. We used all photos with all the original marks on them.
ZD: What did you learn after doing this project? It seems very investigative and full of curiosity, I’m sure there are things you didn’t know before that you uncovered during your research?
We are not sure whether such an answer will satisfy you, but probably the most important “discovery” was a trauma contagion. We discovered that all stories and accompanying photographs have the power to influence our own emotional wellbeing. The archive is a moldy cellar – when you enter you must be careful not to inhale the fungi which can colonize your lungs and nervous system. The violence of the files collected in the archives is a real factor influencing our work and health.
ZD: This is a really apt metaphor, photography is truly capable of influencing our emotions and feelings in a way that painting, for example, can’t, because an unmanipulated photograph is part of the real world. I’d say that this is one of the main strengths of this body of work, how it exposes the suffering of real people targeted by their own country, most of the time for no reason at all.
B & L: We do not believe in “unmanipulated photographs” – photography is not the real world, a map is not a territory. Even if photography has certain features that refer to objectivity and reality, it is not. The frame is already a “manipulation” of reality, choosing the right photographic film or specific settings in the camera is also “manipulation.” Pointing the lens one way or another is already a “manipulation” of reality – or, in our understanding, and interpretation of the world. I do not mean that photography does not have the power to influence our emotions, but that it is not based on the thesis that photography as an unmanipulated medium is part of the real world. The photographs in our book are documents, evidence of how the system operates on individuals, how power crushes a human being, and we are talking not only with the “innocent” but also the way the system influences the agents themselves, as shown by the triple portrayal of a man over the years. When Bertolt Brecht saw the Japanese evil demon mask with grimaces, taut and turgid veins, he wondered what a formidable effort is required to be evil. Yes, the power of our book is that we work in archives and people look at photographs that refer to very historical reality, to real individuals who have experienced totalitarian systems – but on the other hand, we know from our experience that fiction can work on an equally shocking level. How the book, exhibition, or another type of work functions depends both on the authors and the recipients as well as their openness to what they perceive and what they look at, and the type of emotions it evokes. Another interesting aspect is that the “reality” of these photographs is evidenced by the accompanying text and how they were used. That is why we know that these are evidence, and because of this knowledge, our attitude to the picture changes.
ZD: What do you think is the difference between working with your own photographs versus working with an archive? I’d suggest that assuming the role of an editor allows you to make more rational decisions that aren’t wrapped in an emotional attachment (many photographers, me included, can imbue so much personal experience and emotion into their own images that it makes it hard to edit your own work).
B & L: We both have experience working as curators and working with someone else’s photographs although it does not change the fact that the images try to dictate the conditions, manipulate and include us in their games. You need to look at the bigger picture, know what your goal is and what you want to achieve – whether you are working as a curator with artists, or an artist yourself. If you do not lose sight of it, you can let go of all your excitement and desires. You can break the entire sequence or structure to fit your own or the artist’s favorite photo, you can disrupt the dramaturgy to add a beloved image – as long as you have the goal before your eyes, as long as you know whether these actions benefit the project or not. If they are not profitable for the whole, you know that this most wonderful picture, the beloved photo goes in the trash and you do not feel a loss because you think it is better that way. I guess that is the trick – to know where you are going, get lost, and find your way. It does not matter if it is your photos or someone else’s, you have to fall in love with them, lose your distance and understand them, and then use them. These are the decisions. You have to build emotions in the recipient, not experience them yourself. What is in the picture is what is there – there is no experience of yours or the artist, the smell you felt when you made them, there is no memory that sticks to the picture – it is only the image itself. You have to build the rest with the layout, sequence, structure title, or printout size. To build or consciously play it in a way that will work in a specific way on the viewer. Of course, these are photographs, they are not precise, you cannot have total control over them, but you can set the boundaries.
ZD: It’s quite timely that the book is released now when there is a lot of emphasis on the surveillance of citizens by the state, including in the Western world – CCTV, facial recognition, the recently proposed ban on protests in Britain, etc. Do you think the work serves as a reminder to the public and opens their eyes to activities that are perhaps unknown by the general population? In a way, it appears that things haven’t changed much, at least not for the best, but in fact, they’ve evolved.
B&L: Our book is based on photographs originating from a totalitarian system, but it’s worth noting that the so-called “Western world” has a pretty strong tradition of surveillance. Computers were applied to analyze mass data from citizens in Germany in the 1970s – not communist Germany and the Stasi, but West Germany. The PION system introduced by Police Chief Horst Herold tracked not only “suspects” but a large circle of “innocent” citizens. Regardless of whether we are talking about the “Western world”, Eastern Europe, or Asia, any such control needs funds to finance the agencies and the logistics of voyeurism/surveillance, and it needs inner fear – you must have a treasure to be afraid of losing it. Through these photos we look at power, this scattered force that appears where there is inequality, there is “someone” who knows more, can do more, and makes decisions – “someone” who has power. Of course, everything has changed after the end of the communist era in Europe, but if we think of power as a certain force and the established relations, there are new players who have appeared and there are the relations that can show up in many places at the same time. The citizen is fucked not only by the government and its agencies but also by mega-corporations and small businesses. Add to that capitalism itself as a method of describing reality, and the Internet in its various aspects and forms, from so-called influencers to manufacturers of new mythologies, from pig farms to reptilians. Probably someone is still walking behind another person and taking pictures from covert points, but you have satellites to locate you, cameras that read your facial features, a system to track your credit card history, and a mike to catch words in phone calls to better select ads in the browser – and in the end, you add a greasy sauce combined of photos and posts, tweets, stories that you post on your social media or uploading photos of your face to the “neural network” because you want to see your selfie full of wrinkles and gray hair and you do it for a small price, which is learning the facial recognition algorithm. We are one large archive from which all future AI will learn. On the other hand, it is interesting how the “Western world” attempts to point its finger at Eastern Europe’s totalitarian past. One can also add: “Eastern Europe” can talk about the “system” from the past for two reasons because it collapsed and thus unveiled, and the system of the “Western world” encourages us to describe this collapse – thanks to this it gives us a place, determines the conditions for functioning, controls us and distracts everyone from themselves: “look over there.”
Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica.)