Conversation with Boris Cvjetanović by Ana Opalić

Alertness to the Images Which Surround Us

Boris Cvjetanović, 2010. (Photo: Marko Ercegović)

Boris needs no special introduction. In a noisy cafe at Dežmanov passage, filled with cigarette smoke, we talked a little about photography over a glass of beer.

When exactly did you “become a photographer”? And how did it happen?

I started relatively late in life. I was around 27, at that time. I don’t recall the exact moment when I said to myself “I’m a photographer”. It all began when I was working as a conservationist at the Conservation Institute and I was spending a lot of time doing field work which came with a lot of downtime. It was when I started doing photography. I bought a better camera which brought me greater pleasure to photograph whatever interested me. From Erotic Graffiti onwards.

In 1981, I began professionally working in photography at Studentski list.
I found it interesting how people reacted to the published photos. It was what motivated me.
In 1984, I quit my job at the Conservation Institute and began to work exclusively in photography.

In your opinion, what does contemporary Croatian photography concern itself with?

This is a very broad question. But let’s say that, in general, the photographers nowadays spend less time dealing with social issues and they are more inclined to express their subjective views and intimate states.
Focusing on oneself seems to be the dominant approach. This, of course, has its reasons.
It was easier before to deal with social issues. People were more open to cooperation, to being photographed. This isn’t the case any longer. People became very distrustful.

Do you think that it has to do something with the fact that people don’t know anymore who the “real photographer” is? Today, everyone is taking photos!

One of the reasons behind it is definitely the abuse of photography. People – once bitten, twice shy – think that photography can be used against them. And ultimately, they don’t believe in the power of photography anymore. People don’t trust it anymore.
This happened due to numerous reasons, and not just because photography is susceptible to manipulation, but how it generally effects the human consciousness.

After all these years, do you notice this change in your own work? How did this new approach to photography affect your work?

Everything changed. I changed and as did my surroundings.
Photography lost its romance. It seems as though photographers are avoiding contact with people and social issues. As if they feel insecure venturing into that area.
Because there is a certain distrust towards photographers and photography.
It would be much harder for me today to make the same photographs as those I made 20 years ago.

My need for human contact was more pronounced back then and, which is extremely important, it was much easier to gain access to people’s lives.
When they would see me with a camera, they would often approach me to photograph them.

How would it look today if you were to shot workers or prisoners?

I think it would be much harder to do that today. First of all, the working class has all but disappeared. In fact, the working class has become a completely invisible category, as if being a worker is a disgrace. I recently heard on the radio that the companies which have their offices in Radnička (Workers’) street put out a request for a name change because it harms their reputation.
This tells you enough about the state of our society..

In addition, photography as a profession has somewhat lost its legitimacy due to everything that is being published today. Photographers in the media can almost no longer be considered authors. The content of the photograph is determined in advance.

Our best photographers used to be photojournalists. Posavec, Vesović … an entire generation of Polet and Studentski list.
They had different roles back then. They were far more independent. They could impose certain topics they wanted to cover. Today, this is no longer possible.
20 or 30 years ago, a photographer had to be a photojournalist if he wanted to be published.
A photographer had to have an attitude.
You can’t find photos like that in the press anymore. It would be unthinkable.
The romantic era of photography has passed. Soon enough, if you wish to take photos of people on the street, you’ll have to have a lawyer present who will give them contracts to sign.

What has changed with the emergence of digital photography?

The digital photography has introduced some novelties.
The camera has become a visual notepad. I made Photography before, but now, like I’m writing it down. It gained a certain immediacy, which is good, but the deliberation was lost along the way.
When film was in use, the concentration and attentiveness was incomparably greater.
It was impossible to take 100 shots, and select one.

An image undoubtedly remains the same, but when you shoot on film you have to think beforehand.
With a digital camera, you first shoot and think later.
It all boils down to making a huge amount of photos and making a selection. Somewhat like picking out stills from a movie.

On the other hand, photography gained on its immediacy. You can shoot anything “without consequences”, but that has caused hyper-production.
Every device I pick up can take photos! You can’t see the forest for the trees. We are oversaturated with photography.

I espoused the idea that this “democratization” was a good thing, that everyone should have access and opportunity to take photos. However, quality unfortunately did not arise from it. Only quantity.

In the context of Croatian photography, photography which is considered art, exhibited in galleries, which became a part of museums’ collections and contemporary art exhibitions…how would you assess the approach of the theory of art history to that photography?

We have some excellent world-class photographers, but unfortunately, while Croatia isn’t lacking in quality photographers, it is profoundly lacking in the field of their appreciation.
The number of experts who deal in photography is extremely small. But the problem isn’t only with the professionals; we don’t only create photography for gallery owners, curators and theorists, but also for the rest of the audience.
And this is where we encounter another problem that, in fact, an educated audience doesn’t exist.
Whenever I exhibited in Europe, I had a feeling that they “needed” photography.

The audience doesn’t visit the exhibition because of who I am. They come because they need it; they have the need to see it and get something from it. Some experience or stimulus.

In Croatia, it often happens to me that I don’t have anyone to show my photography. Your work is often being misread and misunderstood so, in the end, we have only our narrow circle of colleagues and friends to rely on and present our work.

I personally find the difference between photographers and artists who use the medium of photography extremely important. That difference has never been explained or defined in theory. No one has ever broached that issue.

Once a photographer, you’re always a photographer. Posavec said it best “I see the world in frames”. Once you become a photographer, it’s hard to stop being one. It’s having certain alertness to the images which surround us.
I see photographs everywhere I look. And if somebody would ask me which of my photographs do I consider to be the best, I would probably answer, the one that wasn’t shot.
This isn’t the case with artists who use photography in their work.

It’s like the difference between sports and chess. The same applies to photography. It is as if theory doesn’t exactly know what to do with photography in the context of contemporary art.

During one of our conversations on creativity, you said that you drew what you wanted when you were a kid. What do you photograph today?

That’s true. Kids materialize their imagination through their drawings.
When it comes to my photography, this isn’t what I’m trying to achieve anymore, but I would like to preserve certain states, prevent them from getting lost.

You’re referring to the series Summer Holiday or Scenes without Significance?
What about your other photographic series?

In the case of the series such as Workers…I somehow felt free and able to be myself when I was in their company. It’s hard to explain. I always felt very comfortable with them. And people can sense that, and then, they accept you in return.

For example, I never felt good around politicians or wealthy people.
I always felt extremely uncomfortable.

The most important thing is to honestly approach the subject you want to photograph.
Never keep your fingers crossed behind your back. Even if that means you’ll hear a “no”.

Who was your first great love in photography?

Diane Arbus. At the end of‘70s.
Then, Jacques Henri Lartigue… he stands for photographic romanticism.
Susan Sontag. She writes about photography like she is a photographer herself.
That’s why photographers love that book of hers. They can see themselves in it.

One of your more recent works is “Photo Video”.
How did you come to make these short “clips”?

With the appearance of first compact digital cameras with the feature to record video, I began recording certain moments where photography wasn’t adequate as a medium.
And I didn’t stop at that.
The quality of these short clips wasn’t as high as the one you would get with a video camera, but I liked the ease and unobtrusiveness of filming in that way. I got the results which would have been hard to achieve with a conventional video camera and, besides, I wasn’t interested in that kind of work at the time.

The participants, convinced I was photographing them, would often get confused why it was taking so long. Some interesting moments arose from that.
I remember telling myself that it was all good, because I couldn’t use it for anything serious – considering the technical limitations of such a video. But that approach was short lived.

Darko Fritz, upon seeing these short films of mine, wanted to show them in his gallery “Siva zona” in Korčula. He was the one who helped me connect these 35 short films and this was how “Photo Video” was created.

Long story short, this was the end of my naive period of film-making. Later on, Vedran Šamanović screened “Photo Video” in Tuškanac during the One Take Film Festival.
With the appearance of photo cameras whose image quality surpasses even the best of video cameras with a much larger sensor, enabling video to be perceived in a new way, many photographers have “discovered” and entered into the world of the moving image.

Do you still shoot on film?

Yes, but only a little.


Interviewer: Ana Opalić

This post is also available in: Croatian