Sunday, March 15, 2009

Conversation : Max Sher

I am posting another conversation this time with Russian Photographer Max Sher which is represented by Agency Anzenberger. I have met Max Sher in Vienna during the presentation of book East edited by Regina Anzenberger , the book also featured his work on Kommunalka. Working and be represented by the same agency is an opportunity for me to have a better contact and perhaps also the spirit to ask some questions "acting" like a journalist... but
nevertheless i think is useful to understand a photography through the words of the photographer who decide to be there, see and decide to shoot a photo. The questions are related to the work and to the intent of the work.
I indeed like to write about photographers which are able to focus on their country of origin, something which is (especially for me) quite difficult. When you grow up in a place you start to see incredible things becoming normal and therefore to shoot well is an hard task. Not for Max Sher which has focused most of his work in the country he was born, depicting a certain intimancy and approaching the topics with a good cultural knowledge.
Here the conversation I had with Max Sher:
DM: Your work is mostly done in Russia and in different small new republics, I found the approach very intimate.
Is a way for you to look back at the history of your country or perhaps to report the many social aspect of Russia?

MS: I am actually trying to combine both: reporting on social issues but seeing them through a slightly different perspective. I am interested in how things that happened in the past still affect people living today. I am indeed working mostly in Russia and former Soviet Union as I am more familiar with the history of my country, its social and cultural intricacies and various aspects of its life.

DM: In the book East published by Regina Anzenberger you featured one of my favorite project : Kommunalka, as you describe
is one of the failed experiment of Russia and I can see how involved you were in the project. Tell me more about it.

MS: Yes, this is one of the examples of what I was saying about my socio-historical interest. Kommunalka (an abbreviation of Kommunalnaya Kvartira, literally Communal Apartment) means a single flat shared by more than one family. It is a Soviet phenomenon that is pretty much in place here and that will live on for many years to come. It was forcibly created by the Communists using the confiscated private property to pursue two goals: make the working class - the Soviets' main political base - feel the alleged triumph of the social justice (workers may now live in luxury high class flats!) and, at the same time, create a new man - deprived of the sense of property and putting community interests above self. This experiment was a dramatic failure. Instead of a new lifestyle of mutual help and community spirit the kommunalkas gave way to social alienation, neglect, apathy and eternal neighborhood conflicts. The word kommunalka in Russian has a strong negative connotation and is associated with filth, scandals, cramped space and lack of privacy.

DM: I was curious to know more about the project done in Venice, is a "literature" feature, you visited places describe in the
narrative of Joseph Brodsky, is a poetical journey which connect you to Italy. Tell me more about the motivation to experiment such a thing:

MS: Well, that was not really a "project" in a proper sense but an attempt to convey the moods, thoughts and feelings expressed by the Russian emigré poet and Nobel Laureate in Literature Joseph Brodsky in his English-language essay Watermark set in Venice but treating subjects such as beauty, creativity, humanity, tenderness and human existence. Joseph Brodsky was born into a family of a photographer in St.Petersburg. The latter is often dubbed Venice of the North and many of those who were born or grew up here (including my humble self) want to compare it to the original. For Brodsky, when he lived in the totalitarian Soviet Union persecuted by the authorities and unable to travel abroad, Venice was a sort of a personal vow - once free, he wanted to come there immediately to touch his dream. He later came there every December for 17 years in a row, after which he wrote his essay Watermark. In Russian, its name was replaced with Embankment of the Incurables. The point is that the view from this embankment to the opposite island of Giudecca, according to many, is one of the most reminiscent of St.Petersburg.

DM: Where documentative photography is going nowadays?
MS: The classic photojournalism is dying, isn't it? The printed press has less and less space for photojournalists and less and less money. We have to find new ways to tell the stories we consider important, not only in terms of technology but in terms of the means of expression as well. Since quite some time, photojournalism has been evolving towards a more intimate, personal and thoughtful approach with editing becoming ever more important because virtually everyone can now take good pictures, eh? :)

More from Max Sher also in his blog