Category Archives: Books & Literature

Papageorge on Literary Photography

Alec Soth gets Tod Papageorge’s thoughts on “literary photography.”

AS: You’ve said that you see photography as ‘at least as close to writing as the other visual arts.’ Are you talking about a specific kind of writing (poetry, journalism, fiction)?

TP: Poetry, because it and photography can both be similarly condensed.

AS: Which photographic books stand out for you as an example of literary photography?

TP: There are only a few, but, of course, they are also the usual suspects: “American Photographs,” “The Americans,” and, combining pictures and text, John’s “Idea of Louis Sullivan and Strand’s “Time in New England,” a great book.

As you’ve indicated here in this blog, I’ve tried to do something that I think is new in “Passing Through Eden,” and that is to follow an established narrative through the long opening of the book, and then trace out the residual ‘literary’ energies of that narrative through the rest of it.

Live at TNB

I am now a contributor at (Thank you, Brad Listi.)

John Vink Interview, Part III

Part III of the interview with photojournalist John Vink, a W. Eugene Smith Award-Winner and member of Magnum Photos.

Wayne: You talked about how the financial difficulties at Vu helped spur you to transition to Magnum. What was that transition like? How different were the two agencies? How has the agency been important to the furthering of your goals? What are the biggest misconceptions that outsiders have of Magnum?

John: As I said I quit Vu before applying to Magnum, as I thought that was a clearer position in regard to Vu. I didn’t want to be perceived as a traitor, so I told Christian Caujolle beforehand about me leaving Vu and trying to get into Magnum. The risk was of course that Magnum would not take me, in which case I was out there on my own, because it would have been a bit strange to go back to Vu… Luckily, it worked out and I spent the next four years passing through the required purgatory steps to become a full member of the Magnum cooperative. I had applied once to Magnum in 1985 already, but that was way too early, and I was not mature enough at that time.

In retrospect the Vu episode probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the biggest move ahead in my “career.” It really revealed me to the business world in France and also to myself. It gave me the self-assurance I would need to be accepted by Magnum later on.

The difference between Vu and Magnum was switching from a small dynamic and quite iconoclastic place where things were run in a fairly emotional and messy French way to a much heavier, more complex structure with a comparatively huge multinational network of offices and agents with heavy traditions and loaded to the brim with icons. I must say I had a very hard time adapting (and in fact, after being a full member for 10 years, probably still have not completely adapted). Things have changed quite a lot these days and nominees are much better taken care of to find out about the mechanisms of the beast, but at the time I felt kind of dropped into a big machine without anyone telling me how it would work. It was up to me to find out.

To make things more difficult there were quite violent tensions between the three main offices at the time, due to cultural differences, personal histories and because of crippled internal communications (no email). Although some of those tensions still remain (you can’t rewrite cultural identity or history) they are definitely less of a burden today because communications have improved (yes, now we do use email!) and because if we want to survive we have to get along and stick together to face the world out there.

In 1994 Magnum was also at a pivotal stage, at the very beginning of a switch from an analog to a digital distribution. It took ages to implement this, partly because of our inexperience in that area at the time, because most members were computer illiterate, except for Carl De Keyzer, a couple of others and me, because we were early in wanting to do the switch compared to many other agencies, and because of our specific and complex way of being organised which had to be translated into a digital system. Our data management was written from scratch, tailor made to our needs and has cost us several tons of money (amongst which 5 percent of our photographer’s share, still today). If we hadn’t done that Magnum would not be there today. It is as simple as that. I think it is the biggest managerial achievement of the agency ever. We are still free. Freedom is expensive…

The improvement of the Magnum machine is the thing which helps me most in achieving my goals, as having an efficient and up to date sales tool brings in better money with which I can continue working on my projects. But otherwise Magnum never really provided direct support for any of my projects. I was for example very disappointed by the fact that not one portfolio was published about my refugees work at the time when there was the exhibition at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris in 1994. Not entirely Magnum’s fault of course but I was really expecting the Magnum machine to be more efficient and supportive for its new nominee at the time. That cold shower made me understand right from the start that I had to keep relying on my own and not count on Magnum too much.

As for the misconceptions outsiders may have about Magnum? I should know about what they exactly think first. The biggest misconception I had would turn around the term “cooperative.” My own (probably romantic) view of a cooperative is a generous place where ideas, energy and goods are equally shared in order to produce intellectual and material improvements for the members. I shouldn’t be romantic, shut my big mouth and be happy with what I can get…

Wayne: You said you felt a need to leave Belgium, but what has been the common thread about where you have lived since you left? In particular, what is it about Cambodia that has attracted you and compelled you to stay?

John: The only other place I lived in besides Belgium and Cambodia was Paris for a few years. Well, sort of… Just like when I was in Belgium I was home three months a year and travelling the rest of the time. Now the big difference with today in Phnom Penh is that I am at home all the time, being somewhere else without having to travel (and saving a lot of money in travel expenses)… Some of the reasons why I am staying specifically in Cambodia can be found further down, but not travelling anymore also gives me the chance to build some serious/ normal relationships.

Wayne: What has been most pivotal to you in forming your ideas about what constitutes a story? You mentioned Gene Smith; how, if at all, did he influence you? From what other art forms have you drawn ideas? How is multi-media affecting your ideas on this front? What are the limits and possibilities of multi-media for the still photographer?

John: Before I even knew I would be a photographer or a photojournalist I was also fed with the books about Tintin.

And I guess that these Belgian comic books about a reporter and his dog having thrilling adventures at the four corners of the world, drawn with great accuracy by Hergé in a style called “la ligne claire” (the clear line) have unconsciously taught me how to construct a story and what are the elements that keep it together and “entertaining”: beginning, rythm, progression, climax, plot, suspense, end, characters, etc… It also taught me to try and make pictures with great depth of field…

People like Gene Smith, Gene Richards, Gilles Peress, Larry Towell and so many other photographers have in fact only translated in photography what I more or less already learned through Tintin about constructing a story.

But when I was a kid my parents also showed me paintings by Pieter Brueghel (here: “The Triumph of Death”)

Jeroen Bosch (Here: “Hell” from the tryptich “Garden of delights”)

Jan Van Eyck (Here: “Virgin with the chandelier”)

…and other Flemish painters… Imagine what stories you can make up in your mind as a small kid when you see people being skinned alive in hell?

Later there was Wassily Kandinsky:

Or Joan Mirò (Woman Dreaming of Escape. 1945)

That is the power of painting: so many stories, so many informations, in one and only frame.

Photography usually needs more than one frame, at least with the kind of photography I am doing. That is perhaps the limitation / asset of my photography. It seems that the more I go ahead, the more I have to have pictures relying on another one, that one picture on its own loses some of its power if it is not part of a thread. That the thread is what my pictures are about. And it somehow makes sense as I have been favouring the story as opposed to anything else for so many years.

To build that thread is a matter of collecting bits and pieces, left and right, without apparent immediate connection. It’s like a craftsman making the pieces of a puzzle he has the concept about but not the final image. The tricky part is not to forget to collect one piece or another, as a seemingly unimportant situation may in fact be crucial to the understanding of other parts of the story. For example during my first trip to Cambodia in 1989 I completely overlooked the fact that I had to take pictures of the empty streets of Phnom Penh, of the twilight just before curfew, of the absence of circulation. In retrospect it is the most obvious change with today and those pictures I did not take could have been coming in handy at one point.


But you also have to keep an open mind and at the same time be strict and coherent regarding the concept. You have to adapt the concept in the light of what you encounter but at the same time keep an eye on the initial idea. It is only at the very end, when the story is finished (but is it ever finished?), when you look at the outcome that you start piecing things together and try to convey and reconcile both what your initial idea was and what changes you found with the initial idea during the quest for bits and pieces. I mean: you learn a lot about things during the collection process, you refined the initial idea and therefore you have to integrate that in the final result.


With me the initial idea grows usually out of some other story. It doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s more of a maze. That’s how I very often end up working on several stories simultaneously, because suddenly an interesting situation leads me to initiate a new thread. The decision to pursue one thread or another and how I do it is probably as far as I will go in revealing my feelings about a situation. I never use the “I” word in my stories. The “I” word would only be a distraction.


The multimedia thing is just a logical extension of the storytelling and is realistically possible only since a few years thanks to the internet and broadband (which I don’t have by the way). It is adding a range of informations to the photographs. If done properly it helps in apprehending…

Wayne: You use the term “paroxysm” to talk about what draws you to a story. What do you mean by the word, especially in light of your coverage of the dislocations to people, especially those relating to the most elemental (famine and drought, land grabbing), and how powerless and poor are most affected by those dislocations? Can you also talk about the concept with regards to your story on Terre Rouge relocation?

John: I used paroxysm in the sense of crisis, when things go out of hand, when common rules don’t apply anymore. When things are being deconstructed, torn apart and when journalists pop up from all over. I usually come after the paroxysm, the crisis, when things are in suspension or settle down, when things are being rebuilt, reconstructed.

True that the particular case of relocations of people in Cambodia are to be considered a crisis, but compared to what happened before that in the country, one can also see it as a (painfull) part of the reconstruction of Cambodia as a “normal” country. I wouldn’t want to sound cynical, but the basic idea I have behind everything I am doing here in Cambodia is documenting the reconstruction of the country after the Khmer Rouge regime. What does it take to recover from near-total destruction, be it infrastructural, moral, social? Every single story I am doing on Cambodia can be seen from that perspective. The Terre Rouge relocation is just one chapter in the Quest for Land, a story about land issues in Cambodia I am working on, and that in turn is just part of another story about the reconstruction of Cambodia, just like the several other stories I am doing evolving around the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Imagine documenting a country being rebuilt from scratch…

That is why I stay here. And that is why I will stay for quite some more time…

CAMBODIA. Kep (Kampot). 13/04/2003

Jessie Mann Interview

Jessie Mann is a Virginia-based writer and artist. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries such as Zone Chelsea (New York), The Reynolds Gallery (Richmond, VA), as well as Nelson Fine Arts (Lexington, VA), and XYZ (Blacksburg, VA). Her writing has appeared in Aperture and Shots magazine. Jessie is also one of the best known models and muses of our generation, known for her collaboration with her mother, the photographer Sally Mann, and photographer Len Prince. (The collaboration with Prince is represented by Danziger Projects.) Jessie is a graduate of Washington & Lee University.

Wayne: Photographer Walker Evans originally wanted to be a writer; Zola was an avid photographer, though obviously, we best know him as a writer. Why is it difficult to be great as both a writer and a visual artist? Why do you have aspirations to be both?

Jessie: I don’t think it is particularly ‘hard’ to be a great writer and visual artist, but it is hard to be recognized for doing both. The public needs to be able to conceive of its public figures in discrete categories. Furthermore, I think there is a prejudicial need for creative energy to be in discrete quanta. The romantic notions we have of creation and the creative individual are such that a painter is a painter, and was born to be a painter, and therefore how could they also be able to write or perform? There is a sense that being an artist is like being a chess savant, it is an inexplicable and slightly alienating skill, one which does not arise out of the normal psychological makeup of an individual but rather is something akin to psychic ability; that it comes from somewhere else, from outside of the mind. In that way it is seen as an assignment, rather than a choice of expression. Therefore to attempt to express oneself in a variety of media challenges both people’s ability to hold the artist and their form of expression neatly in a category but also their conceptions of artistic creativity itself. I do not have aspirations to do both, I just do both. I have found that I have no choice in my expression. It pours out of me like water over falls, I just try to find the nearest bucket, when one overflows, or is full already, I find another. It is necessity, not planned intention.

Wayne: In the past, there was much less of a line between visual art and text: the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times, notably – Asian calligraphy also. Why do you think text and art have diverged so much? Why do we sometimes see text in your paintings? You have credited Cy Twombly for influencing you; how so? Besides Twombly , what other literary references do we see in your paintings?

Jessie: I think it might have started, like so many other things, with the printing press. Maybe, when the application of words to paper became automated and in a way institutional, the process no longer required the physical act of writing and it became separated from our direct creativity. Furthermore, I think that the separation has been part of the abovementioned need to put artistic expression, a messy and unorganized concept, into neat boxes. Therefore words were words and not a visual experience, visual art became more itself, and so became both more exclusive but also more self aware and self consciously developed. In that way it was a good thing, I don’t know if we could have had artists like Flavin who deal with the visual experience in such an isolated way had we not isolated the visual experience. The drawbacks to this phenomenon are now just an opportunity to reunite and reexamine.

Twombly influenced me in two main ways, the first being that he is a family friend, and so he was the first successful painter I was able to watch and study on a personal level. He taught me about what a painter does, how they live and what the personal consequences of such a lifestyle are. Secondly his work, I think, is the first to have self consciously included consciousness. It is as if he has applied, like a glaze to the surface of a painting, thought. That is revolutionary and, given my background in psychology, it is very appealing to me. The study of consciousness is an exploding field, and he predicted that with his work. For the first time we are scientifically studying consciousness itself, and it seems appropriate that our art should reflect that direct stare. I bring everything that I read to my work, and am often inspired to paint by what I am reading, for example I read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics when I first moved into this house, and then began a series about the concept of Dasein, often incorporating his words into my paintings, as if I could, like Twombly, both present the image and to some extent that thought which provoked it. Which is an interesting synthesis: it asserts a connection between thought and image, or even the primacy of thought over image or maybe vice versa, that’s a whole other matter I am not going to get into. Given that my paintings also deal with landscapes, it is a way to remind people that the image is not a representation of the world out there, but a representation of my digestion and perception of the world out there, sort of perception meets consciousness.

Wayne: You have said before that you live with “just me and my books.” What kind of reading habits do you have? Why is literature so important to you? Can you talk about your favorite authors? Who are your biggest influences? What are your writing ambitions, and in which forms are you working most heavily?

Jessie: This is a very full question. I live, technically, with my dog, Noble Mann, and my cats, Lilly, Pitch, and Alia. What I meant by that statement, is that I live 20 minutes from the nearest store and work at the greenhouses across the river from my house, so the life I have chosen for myself is a very isolated one. That choice was made with a desire to read in mind. I have my painting studio upstairs, but no T.V and the slowest possible internet connection, so when I am not painting or working, I am reading. My life goals include a massive consumption of knowledge, and that takes dedication, one has to just make the time and space to read and think. I have always felt that everything you could ever need to know is in the books already written, all one has to do is just find it, anything you might need to know- it is out there. That is one of my comforting delusions.

Each winter I try to read one major work of fiction and one major work of non-fiction. So my first winter here, I read The Brothers Karamazov and the works of Heidegger. Now I am trying to read one volume of Remembrance of Things Past each winter (I am finishing up Within a Budding Grove now), and this winter I got half way through Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, but it’s a huge and dense book, so it will probably hold me over through the summer. In the summer I read minor works, but I tried to get as much in as I can, so for example last summer I read Henry James’s Daisy Miller, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette. I also have a side bar of what I call work reading, and that is the books I have to read or reread for my writing about my art. So I read a selection of myths from Plato’s dialogues and Tarkovsky’s autobiography last month to prepare for a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago. Also every year I read Love in the Time of Cholera, Ada, Art and Physics (by Shlaine), and selections from Jung’s complete library. I also, and finally, read poetry. Among the poetic prose artists, my latest obsession is Elizabeth Smart.

Literature is so important to me, I suppose, because of my above-stated belief that within the world of knowledge and creation which exists in our collective book, so to speak, there is an absolute truth. Somehow, in literature is a grand allegory of humanity; we have created an abstract world, in which we have recreated ourselves, recreated our stories, and have even recreated our imaginations, by filling our pages not only with our unique creations and spaces, but also have recently imbued our characters with a generative consciousness of their own. And this can be my segue to the next two questions, who are my favorite authors and who are my biggest influences. My biggest influences and some of my favorite authors include Nabokov, Rushdie and Bellow. Rushdie I think is the best to illustrate the above point. His work self-consciously acknowledges its fictionhood, but asserts also the righteous domain of that sphere. His fictions are treated more like the embodiment of the collective unconscious than falsehoods. His worlds are influenced by our collective thought, they share archetypes and forms, like Jung’s mirror world (my greatest influence), and they seem to have some tenuous connection with and dependence on our consciousness. Or like Bellow’s characters who have that creepy feeling that they are characters, playing out archetypes, in some sort of collective story, but feel it just as subtly and mysteriously as we do. So literature most richly informs our mirror world, and is the closest to acknowledging its status as such. Photography though I think is close behind.

As to my writing ambitions, I am not even sure what they are yet. I am working very hard on my poetry right now, and hope to get a slim volume together soon. I suppose my greatest writing ambition would be to write one major work of fiction and one major work of non-fiction. I know what I want to write about and I have rather substantial notes and outlines, but I have to say I am a bit afraid of how much of myself I have to put into my writing, and so I am taking it slow. I consider my writing a very long-term project, and besides I have so much more I need to read first.

Wayne: I remember reading that you made a conscious decision not to study the visual arts as heavily as you could have. Why is that?

Jessie: There were a few reasons, the first is that going on the advice of Cy, my mother enabled me to learn how to paint but would not let me take lessons. I had a painting studio by middle school, and apprenticed with a few artists, but the goal was to make me teach myself, and never dilute my style. The second is that I also felt that I should teach myself what I could, and study what I couldn’t teach myself, so I focused heavily on the sciences in school. On my own, through reading and study, I taught myself art and art theory. Of course my family exposed me to a lot of art as it was, so it would make sense that I study something else in school.

Wayne: You have been a model and a muse for various artists throughout your life. How has that influenced your own thoughts on the relationship between artist and subject? How much is collaboration? How much is confrontation?

Jessie: It has certainly focused my thoughts on the relationship between the subject and the artist, but more than that it has brought me most fully to an examination of the role of the subject period. It has been through my experiences as a model/muse that I have been able to look upon directly what is exchanged between the artist and the subject but also, what is exchanged between the subject and the art, and the subject and the collective unconscious. I find that none of it is really confrontation, because we are always both, whoever it is, reaching for the same goal, and that is a beautiful image. Anytime there is a difference of opinion it is somehow worked out in the process, and sometimes determined by the process. One time, Len and I disagreed about a picture, and we took it two ways, only one came out due to a freak error, and it was a great picture. What really inspired me to do this project is two-fold. The interest in the model/muse-artist relationship came secondarily. The first fork of my motivation was my experience growing up, not as my mother’s model, but as a public character and the subject of mass speculation. The second was Jung. This should actually sum up the interview as your next question is about my interest in Jung and my study of psychology in college.

When the flap about my mother’s work occurred what shocked me most was that the public rarely thought to assume that we might have really enjoyed make art with our mother. This interesting social phenomenon led me to study the ways we conceive of the subject in art. This led me to consider the artist model relationship, and also to an awareness of an interesting assumption of exploitation. It is our fallback position when considering the individual turned character to assume some sort of tragedy or even some sort of danger to the spirit. Marilyn Monroe offers the best and most mass-scale example of this phenomenon. I think that this paradigm is shifting and as usual the first signs of this shift are showing in art. Starting with Warhol there was this idea that the individual could make this transition themselves, could make characters of themselves, or in literature, could make their characters self-aware of the fact that they are characters. In this facet of post-modernity I found a wonderful opportunity to use my life experience to finish the post-modern sentence. After Warhol, Sherman took it a step farther by not turning herself into a character, an art icon, but to turn abstract characters and archetypes into selves. With her movie stills she shined the spotlight on the abstracted anima, and by applying herself to the character, like the voice of the author in the character’s mind, she gives her, the ‘girl’, the anima, a moment of consciousness. And this is where Jung comes in.

I started reading Jung in sixth grade and haven’t quit. I think that his theories are some of the most influential of the decade and also some of the least fully digested. In his writing he was very specific, the collective unconscious was not a personal system of symbols, nor even a collection of thoughts and stories, but was rather a pre-existing system of symbols and mythic forms to which he pointedly and repeatedly assigns a form of consciousness- he refers to it as the psychic substrate of consciousness, which itself is conscious and generative. If that is not the best explanation for the allegory which is literature and artistic creation, then I don’t know what is. But given his definition of the collective unconscious, the role of the subject becomes much more interesting, and one begins to wonder what the effect of immersion in our collective thought and story telling does. What does the muse give of herself, what is being taken, if something is being taken at all, and then where does it go? I began to ask myself, what does it really mean, ontologically, when a person says, you don’t know me, but I know you, as happens to me often given that I am a character in people’s minds as much as I am myself. Recently a book came out that is said to be loosely based on the imagined lives of one of Sally Mann’s daughters. What I intend to do with the pictures Len and I have created, is take the theoretical implications of that freeing and abstracting of character, which is implied when novels like that are written, and add that to the sum of the artistic examination of the character and its interaction with the anima, and see if I can be the conscious anima first, the self-conscious narrator second. And so you see, my position has allowed me theoretically to explore that mirror world, from the mirror at the interface. I can look back as a character, as the subject (exploited, self-possessed, fictional, historical, or referential) – with this new post modern awareness of subjectivity, and I can begin to answer the question, what does this immersion do: it makes one believe in the metaphysical significance of our imaginings.

In Character: Actors Acting

When we want to say that someone is duplicitous, we say they are “two-faced.” We might use the word “muti-faceted” to describe a well-rounded person, to say that there are many sides, or “faces” to him. Rainer Maria Rilke once said that: “there are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.” In his book In Character: Actors Acting, Howard Schatz portrays those who make a living presenting different faces.

In portraiture, the photographer is often asked to capture and distill the many faces of a person to a single image. There are really two main approaches to portraiture: portraiture as collaboration between photographer and subject, and portraiture in which the photographer acts upon a subject. The latter can be illustrated by photographers like Richard Avedon, who famously confronted subjects like writer Isaak Dinesen and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to portray them in ways that were less than flattering, but in ways that he felt showed them stripped of veneer. (Ironic for someone who fashioned much of his reputation initially as a fashion photographer.) Avedon has been described as being more akin philosophically to a sculptor, working on subjects almost as if they were stone or clay, to be struck or molded in his vision.

Arnold Newman, whose affection for his subjects was often palpable, represents the more collaborative tradition—his portrait of the German industrialist Alfried Krupp being a notable exception. Which way presents the greater truth? A person is usually neither the person he himself sees, nor is he exclusively the person seen by others. More likely, he is a combination of the two: artistic collaboration can be a powerful tool in revealing that identity. Schatz takes that form of collaboration to an interesting place. In his book, Schatz gives each actor a direction, “a character to play, a scene, and at times, even dialogue. Photographs were made as each actor creatively developed the part.”

A pleasure of Shatz’s book is that it allows us to really see the physical skills of some of these actors. It is no accident that many contemporary actors still admire the genius of silent actors like Charlie Chaplin. Likewise, who better than an accomplished still photographer to believe in the ability of a person to emote without words or sounds? Theater and film directors giving actors guidance, but also give them space in which to interpret their characters. Richard Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Danny Glover, Hal Holbrook, Ellen Burstyn, James Earl Jones, Peter Falk and Kelsey Gramer are among the actors that headline Schatz’s project.

As Roger Ebert notes in his introduction to the book, Schatz works close to the actors on this project, in closer quarters than we might even see them on the small (television) and large (movie) screens. The way the actors’ faces fill Schatz’s lens is as if we were sitting in a café or diner across from them. It is a distance that at once calls for both clarity and subtlety. (Ebert admits that those absorbing the book might find a bit of overacting in an actor or two.) In some of the “performances,” the actors’ visages fill and bleed off the page, for instance, when Elliot Gould is in a “high stakes poker game, holding four aces.” The best spreads, though, are those where you see expression after expression after expression, as in the multiple poses of Melissa Leo or Nestor Serrano, which show us their acting ranges. We gain further insight from the actors’ notes that accompany each profile. Schatz’s project is wonderful, his photos enthralling, but many of the directions are more like the scenarios an instructor might give an acting class. This might be a quibble, but would we have seen an even higher level of acting if Schatz had taken his acting challenges from well-known scripts?

The opportunity to see the many sides of a person gives us fuller insight into that person. People live through both guarded and unguarded moments. In actors, however, we see people who are able to emote more quickly, to get “into character” more easily than the rest of us. Yet even actors struggle to balance the covering and uncovering of their emotions. As Scott Glenn says, acting for him combines “100 percent concentration with 100 percent relaxation.” Despite the artifice, acting come at least partially from somewhere inside; performance contains at least one kernel. In his direction, Schatz calls this forth, but how much of the real person can you call from those who make a living from “getting into character?” A lot, according to Ebert, who notes that film, and, presumably by extension, photography, “looks into their eyes and souls and shows us not only what they can control of their presentation, but, crucially, what they cannot.”

This book review first appeared on


Writer Sue Henderson posts tips from “cool publicist” Lauren Cerand.

Velibor Bozovic Interview

Velibor Bozovic is a Montreal-based photographer and a native of Sarajevo. He has collaborated on the Lazarus project and Nowhere Man with the writer Aleksandar Hemon. His photography has appeared in The Paris Review.

Wayne: You have been working on a collaboration called Lazarus with the writer Aleksandar Hemon. Can you talk about how you both came to work on the project? What was its genesis, and where are you taking the project? How much does it relate to the collaborative work that appeared in The Paris Review?

Velibor: The writer Aleksandar Hemon, who happens to [have been] my best friend for more than 20 years, asked me to accompany him on a research trip to Eastern Europe and document it with my camera. Hemon’s book will be partially based on the life of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who at the age of 19 was killed by the Chicago chief of police, only months after his arrival to America in 1908. We were going back to where Lazarus came from, trying to understand the places he left behind.

The Lazarus story is very interesting and eerily familiar almost 100 years later. After the incident when he was killed under mysterious circumstances. Based on the story version by [the Chicago chief of police] the man who killed him, the press started the hype labelling dead Lazarus as an “anarchist,” emphasizing his body features (his curly hair, low forehead… his brain was taken out and examined by scientists to ‘understand’ the mind of an anarchist) and triggering hysteria among ‘decent’ citizens towards the immigrants. (Everyone who looked different, if not an anarchist/terrorist already, is a potential anarchist/terrorist and has to be closely monitored… This was in 1908. All of this is well documented in Chicago historical archives and in a book by Walter Roth and Joe Kraus “An Accidental Anarchist: How the Killing of a Humble Jewish Immigrant by Chicago’s Chief of Police Exposed the Conflict Between Law and Order and Civil Rights in Early Twentieth America.”

Lazarus Averbuch was born in Kishinev, today Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. There, as a child he survived the pogrom and escaped with his family to Chernivtsi, today in Ukraine, and then continued his journey to Chicago where he got killed. We went in the opposite direction. We were not going to solve the mystery of Lazarus’s life and death and that was not the intent behind the trip. Aleksandar needed to see, hear, sense the remaining fragments of the times and locations Lazarus went through on his journey from Chisinau to Chicago. We were not in search of the history (as historians would) but rather in search of the story. The resulting photo essay is not pretending to be an objective photo journalistic portrait of the region, it is more a personal reflection on places we visited and people we met during the trip. In retrospect, while Aleksandar was looking for his story I was looking for myself.

Wayne: You have also created The Pronek Guide to Chicago in response to Hemon’s novel Nowhere Man. How and why was that project launched?

Velibor: At the time when Nowhere Man was coming out the editor / publisher wanted to do a web-based interactive Pronek’s guide to Chicago. (Pronek is the main character in the book, and there are lots of references to contemporary Chicago). It was a great idea, but it never got completed since the editor moved to another publishing house, and the author followed, and the project stalled. But parts of it can still be seen on the author’s website.

Wayne: Your Montreal project you call a “Fiction: Life/Discreet.” You describe the project in this way: “Everyone in this city, as in any other, creates and lives in a city of their own, built on personal paths, streets, sites, realities and dreams, perhaps. We do not follow the same routes and we do not experience the same emotions, even though it might often seem as if we do. Here are the fragments of the city I build, the one I create so it could belong to me.” Why do you think there is that much separation in how each of us sees and uses (visual) space?

Velibor: I wouldn’t call it separation. Seems too harsh of a word. I am a city person and couldn’t imagine living in suburbs or anywhere outside the city. Cities bring people together. Where I live, just in that one block, there are about 150 to 200 apartments. The only thing we all (300 to 400 of us) have in common for sure is that we all hit the same traffic lights every morning when leaving the house, whether we walk or drive or bike. Beyond that point, it’s a big mystery. We work in different places, we shop at different places, we enjoy different spots in town, every day we come back home feeling one way or another, we occasionally stumble upon each other somewhere. We dream different dreams. I have places in town I visit every single day. Some I visit from time to time, and many I’ll never see. Often, I see someone, often just in passing, who provokes my interest and I think how the chances are I’ll never see this person again, as long as I live. There are a few million people in this city, even more in yours. Yet, we tend to say New Yorkers are like this, Parisians are like that, but in essence, we are all individuals. The cities do not shape people, it is the people who shape and build cities. This city didn’t embrace me when I arrived, I embraced this city.

Wayne: Your project “Soul Neighborhood” is in reaction to your first visit back to Sarajevo after you left in 1998. Can you share what it felt like emotionally to return to the city? How do we see this in the photographs of your project? How intentional was it to shoot the return in black and white?

Velibor: There was no intention. Black and white was the only way I took pictures at the time. For the longest time I could only think of photography as black and white. Only since I got my first digital camera a few months ago, I started creating color images. It’s still a struggle.

[My] return to Bosnia was emotional, and I was kind of frozen—didn’t take many pictures. I was in Sarajevo during the siege, lived with the city through its hardest times. That’s where my family still is, that’s where I have friends, there are all these places I have deep feelings for, the memories of my childhood and the memories of the war. I still have dreams set in Sarajevo, and I have nightmares. In 2005 I went back with my children for the first time, and they are the only faces you can see from that series. I almost didn’t take any photographs of people. I took photos of trees, flowers, asphalt and clouds, mostly. I guess I was pretty screwed up at the time.

Wayne: Your life has taken you from Slovenia to Bosnia-Herzegovina to Canada. How do you think these moves have colored your visual outlook? What early interests did you have in photography, what waylaid them (and sent you into a career as an engineer instead), and why do you say its only recently that you’re starting to push your work out?

Velibor: Had my parents decided to stay in Slovenia, instead of moving to Sarajevo when I was four years old—I would have been someone else now, most probably someone very different, and what would have been the chances that I would be photographing at all? The move to Sarajevo I consider the most fortunate thing in my life, since Sarajevo was the best place on the planet to grow up in. I have nothing but great memories of my childhood, I have a great group of friends and, while dispersed all over the world because of the war, we still deeply care for each other and use every opportunity to get together. The war was so terrible to send hundreds of thousands of people to death and millions [seeking] refuge, but [it] couldn’t break this circle of friendship. My visual outlook has been the product of life experience […] and that always includes experiences of others.

While I always loved looking at photographs I don’t think I had an early interest to be a photographer. My interests layered on each other, very slowly—[…] at one point my only interest was pure survival. It took more than 30 years for this photography layer to settle and for me to realize this is what I want to do in life. Some people know what they want to do at the age of six, some at the age of 15, but for me it took much longer and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Wayne: What photographic or artistic training have you had? What spurred you to promote your work more heavily, and what are you doing to promote it?

I had no formal training. When I was in high school, a good friend of mine would lock himself in the school darkroom, and it seemed to be a nice place to hide from the crowd and professors. So I would join him, and he showed me the basics of darkroom magic. It was the same friend who was doing the same thing when we were at university, so I would accompany him again. But I didn’t photograph at the time. I knew how to print, but didn’t even have a camera.

Both my photographic and artistic training came from [my] interest in music, movies and art. And literature, of course. It came from my friends, as we would share what we had discovered, and we talked and discussed and fought. We were a curious bunch. We were growing up in a communist run country but the borders were open, and people would travel, foreigners were coming. Compared to our peers in Montreal, or in London, we had to do a little bit extra to get the latest XTC or Birthday Party LP records, and we did. There was no store down the street that carried the latest punk or new wave records, or rather, there was a store but no XTC records in it. So we did that little extra effort to get what we needed. No training, just life.

I only started taking photographs once I moved to Montreal, some eight years ago. All along, I had been working as engineer in a big aerospace corporation and the photography kept me sane. But I had a very limited time for photography—only after my kids would go to bed—so I didn’t have much sleep in the last few years, which is a very familiar story to many photographers.

My discomfort with the corporate world resulted in growing internal conflicts with myself—ethical, moral, human—and finally led me to take time off from work and dedicate all my time to photography. This is a period of my life where some big decisions have to be made. I’m terrible in promoting anything, especially myself, and I make all the mistakes beginners do. But I try with some simple steps: set up the website, opened a Digital Railroad account, finally started to submit some of the stories to some magazines and getting to know people from the photography world, even if only virtual. I discovered the Lightstalkers forum from where I learn (I hope) a great deal of all the aspects of photography, including how to promote oneself.

In the photography world, I’m a complete outsider, from a different academic background, doing the type of photography that will never be of interest to popular media or the broad public. I’m 40 years old, therefore by most standards I can’t be an “emerging” photographer. (Emerging photographers can’t be more than 25 or sometimes 35 years old?! Who sets up those limits anyway? They seem to be unable to foresee the possibility of someone emerging when 40.) Well, I’m emerging, even if only from my own personal set of mind and boundaries, I’m emerging. It’s good to be an outsider.

Wayne: You have the two collaborations with Hemon; your Montreal project is called a “fiction.” How does literature otherwise influence your photography? What are your thoughts on the interplay of image and text?

Velibor: Literature is so powerful, sometimes it just blows me away together with my photography. Literature has a huge influence on everything I do, not only on my photography.

Depending on what are you trying to do with your photography the interplay of image and text can play huge importance. Photography was always about storytelling, but sometimes I think that nothing is as capable of storytelling as literature; every art medium’s story telling capability is very limited when compared to literature. The reason is that literature always leaves some space for reader’s imagination. The great photography works have the same power since, while depicting the scene in details, it’s often about what’s left out of the frame, or what has just slipped out of the frame that draws us in.

While looking at the photograph I think about what led to the scene or what happened moments after, things I anticipate further down the road or about things that can’t be photographed at all, it’s a viewer’s imagination that plays a gigantic role. I want to look at your photograph for as long as I feel like it, and I want to leave that space with this whole new world your photograph created in my mind. What worries me a lot is today’s tendency for a photo essay, in order to be taken seriously and eventually published in any form, to be accompanied by a well-written text as if it requires an explanation. Pictures that are well ”packaged” with good statement/writing are a priori taken more seriously than a body of work not “packaged,” however good it is. Photography doesn’t need explanation. Two examples that come first to mind, since I saw them recently, is Andy Levin’s Coney Island series and Stefan Rohner’s Humans which I only saw in multimedia format. Fantastic photographs, no captions or voiceover (at least in the presentations I saw), just photography at its best. It is so refreshing to see someone today having the courage to call his photo series simply ‘Humans’ and present it without wrapping. And it is beautiful. When introducing his series to Lightstalkers forum Stefan wrote something like “no big theme, just bunch of pictures together…,” knowing, I guess, that people expect big themes and explanation. I’m not judging anything and, of course, I’m not taking about the news photography, I’m only afraid that we will never see some great photography work because it is not packaged and will not be taken seriously. Most of us fall right into this trap, I often do.

Recently I had this correspondence with a photo editor of a magazine. He was obviously interested in my project after seeing the pictures, but then he started asking me to talk (write) about my project, which I did, but then he wanted more and more. No matter how much he liked the photographs, he needed to come up with the explanation, I assume, for the viewers on how, why, who… As if everything has to be explained. (Don’t give a viewer a chance to make his own conclusions or story), there is hardly any space for photography as a product of photographer’s emotions, perception and inner self references… At the end, I believe, only photography that stands on its own ground has a chance to be timeless.

[See also Part II, a brief continuation of the interview.]