Polish photographer Martushka Formeast, whose collaborative photo project ‘The Story of Gosaikunda‘ was recently published on Aksgar, talks about the project in more detail and the great potential of collaborative storytelling approaches.
Anil Cherukupalli: Where do you come from? What was your childhood like?
Martushka Fromeast: I come from Poland. I was born to a middle class family, my grandfather and my father were both university professors in mathematics and my mother was a teacher. I belong to a generation that witnessed great transformations in our country in 1989. I still remember how the life was before it. My family were supporting Solidarity, a political group opposed to the communist government and during marshal law two uncles of mine got arrested for a few months. My grandmother, however, was lost in the memories of the horrible events of World War Two. Fortunately, we all loved mountains and we did lots of trekking in the Polish mountains. I also grew up loving books.
In spite of the difficulties with obtaining passports or earning enough money to travel, my uncles used to travel abroad, also to India. At that time, due to the state controlled economy, average income in Poland was around 20 dollars a month and as a result our access to any Western goods was very limited. However, we never felt poor, people could get from the state flats and cars but we lacked color in our lives and dreamt about a better, Western world. I grew up on stories told by my favorite uncle, Adam. In his stories, me and my closest cousin, Marysia, were always the protagonists. In the 80’s, there was a huge crisis in the country and there was hardly anything to buy in shops and lots of people received help: colorful clothes and food from Western donors. Otherwise, we were all dressed in grey colors and everything around was grey.
When the transformation of Poland happened, we all were caught between hope and unpredictability of the future. One day, the names of streets changed, similarly names of districts, the number of districts, the name and amount of money, and most importantly: interpretations of certain political and historical events changed. The villains of the past were the new heroes. In my teen years, I used to travel without money, hitchhiking around previous Soviet Union states and the Middle East. Lots of times creativity, stress resistance and ability to facilitate contacts, saved me from getting into serious trouble. One time, as a student, I was preparing my BA papers and went to Turkey to do some research there. Somewhere in eastern Turkey, nine men dressed in fatigues pointed a fire-arm at me but I managed to escape!
AC: How did you get into photography? What keeps you going?
MF: I have been dreaming about making photos since I was six. Having envied my friends’ cheap, plastic cameras called Smiena, which were popular in those days, I managed to get a LOMO camera for myself. After taking my A- levels, I hitchhiked to Moscow with a recycled Canon camera, and brought back from this trip photos of drug addicted new Russians. In 1999, I won the main photographic competition in Poland organised by Agfa, and as the prize was quite a bit of money- I used it to buy some equipment and travel to Turkish Kurdistan to cover a story about the ground reality there. With this material, I enrolled for the degree in photography at the Polish Arts University in Poznań. I also started to work in a local music magazine as a photographer to make my living.
Since photography was always a justification for my untypical need to visit the places where no one else would ever go, I decided to undertake half a year residency in The Centre for Homeless Mother and Children in Warsaw (Poland). Unfortunately, I became completely overwhelmed by the reality there. I wanted to do something for the kids who were staying there. Pinhole photography seemed to be the best tool for that as during my studies I discovered the magic of pinhole photography, its simplicity and egalitarianism. The magic of a picture not showing the real world any more but taking it beyond imagination. The technique was helpful to me as I wanted to create pictures where dreamtime meets reality.
I asked two friends for help and we collected some money in order to be able to organize 4 day photographic workshops there. The results were shown in an exhibition and on the web. This was a starting point for a community project called Click Academy, which completely overtook my photographic practice for nearly eight years when I lead most Click Academy projects. Along with participants, we had a chance to do nearly everything with pinhole photography, we were preparing illustrations for stories, short films and printing books. With a shipping container transformed into a camera obscura I took the biggest photograph in Poland.
AC: Your community based project on Gosaikunda was executed in a collaborative manner, how did that come about?
MF: For the Click Academy projects, I started to use photography as a collaborative media. During those years, I designed and tested methodology of working with non-professionals collaboratively, which I use in all my projects to date. I call it collaborative storytelling. This methodology came directly from a belief that creativity and ability to work in groups are very democratic skills and are as important as literacy and numeracy. Also, often such visual skills are much better developed in traditional communities then among people who live in highly industrialized surroundings.
I started to work in Shyabrubesi by accident really. Three years ago, my husband and me visited Nepal. I met there, in Kathmandu, a Polish person, Pawel Skawinski, who was one of the founders of a Polish Development Project in Nepal called Polish Bakery. He knew my work and put me in touch with Nepali people running a social bakery in Shyabrubesi. That is how my collaboration there started.
I tend to work on the basis of local stories, often shared by elders of the community. In case of Gosaikunda, it was a local shaman who shared the story with us. Oral stories have often many variations but I do not worry about that. What is most important is to get the essence of the story: who are the main protagonists, what are their important features, what obstacles do they meet during the circle of actions and what the moral is. Having defined this, me and the participants as a group start to divide the story into bullet points which we later transfer into a storyboard. I try to make the participants aware of basic storytelling theory. I explain the hero journey idea and so on. Before we start to photograph, we know exactly what we will be photographing. Then we start to experiment, participants need to have space for their own creativity but, especially at the beginning of the process, they cannot be left alone, this will take their self-confidence away. My role is to teach them, but my role is also to step back slowly and from day to day give them more creative space.
In case of Gosaikunda, we worked with digital cameras, and at the beginning I had to teach them how to build a photographic plan and during the last days of the workshop they provided a glimpse of their amazing talents by arranging the scenes for the story plan, designing the lights and so on.
AC: How was it to work with children? What kind of contribution did they make to the photographs? What role did your collaborators play in this process?
MF: During the Story of Gosaikunda, I collaborated with young people aged 12 to 18. I would not call them children, rather young adults to be honest and they proved during the project how responsible and mature they could be. It was a great experience to work with the Tamang people. Their’s is a very collaborative culture and the young people were very creative and just great in sharing ideas. I think for such projects, the authorship of pictures cannot belong only to the person who physically pressed the button of the camera. It is the magic of collaborative effort which produces the results.
The project would never have happened without my local collaborator Nyima Tamang. He is the president of a local NGO, Shyabrubesi Welfare Foundation and a highly intelligent person. He is not well educated, he was forced to skip school when he was 12 and work. His childhood experience makes him really committed to social work. We ran all the sessions together. He knew the people, culture and the local language. I only knew how to take pictures and teach photography. Sometimes, I briefed him just before the session and had to trust that he understood everything to the level that he would be able to transfer the knowledge to the young people. But it worked out.
I also had two people from Kathmandu coming to help for a few days. Professional photographer Kishor Dangol helped a lot with running the initial sessions. Priya Tamang successfully ran craft sessions and her presence was of great importance especially in order to empower local girls for whom she was a role model. Shyabrubesi during the monsoons is literally cut off from the word due to landslides which destroy the route connecting it with Kathmandu. During the course of the project, I had Prakash Sijapati backing me from Kathmandu, printing pictures, shopping and sending things if something was was not available in Shyabrubesi. Ula Kahul was helping all the time from Poland, preparing all the project’s PR information. The project was supported financially via a Kickstarter campaign and also by the Polish Cultural Institute in New Delhi
AC: Why did you adopt the approach you took for your Gosaikunda work? Were there other approaches you tried before?
MF: The biggest difference between Gosaikunda and my previous projects was switching from working with pinhole cameras to working with simple digital cameras. I decided to do this because at first I needed a change. Previously, I had done nearly everything with pinhole and just needed to move on. Also, pinhole projects require lots of materials to transport: chemicals, photographic paper, sprays, boxes – none of this could be easily bought locally. This would create a barrier for the community- they simply would work on a fancy project but would not be not able to enhance their skills any further. Digital cameras could fit in one bag and there was no need to work in a darkroom and worry about how to recycle all the toxic chemicals. I collected the cameras from various individual donors in Poland and UK and was able to leave some of the cameras in the village- the young people can continue to use them and explore their world with photography on their own.
I feel – it is not the technique that is most important for such projects. It is the process of the project. Building the self-confidence of participants and empowering them to fight for their own dreams is the most important result which can be achieved during the process.
AC: As I had mentioned in the essay accompanying your project, I’d love to see more such approaches to visual storytelling in the subcontinent and especially in India. Any plans on your side to do that?
MF: Well, I don’t think my work in Shyabrubesi is finished yet. I want to go back there to work more on the heritage of the shamans of the area. Currently, I am working on a book featuring the Gosaikunda story for the international audience. The book will be self-published in three languages: English, Nepali and Polish. Also, the choice and edit of the pictures will be a little bit different than what was shown previously.
I plan to move this year permanently to Delhi so I hope I will be able to work more in the subcontinent and I am open to collaborations and new opportunities there.
AC: What kind of photography work do you like? Which photographers do you follow regularly?
MF: I see lots of photography, and there is a lot of great work done nowadays. Nearly every day, the next great project can be discovered. I tend to prefer to explore results of long term projects, and I like documentary, portraits, and sometimes fashion series. The work must be intelligent, move my imagination and senses as well as create new worlds. Places like Invisible Photographer Asia or Photographic Museum of Humanity are great places to check regularly. I of course love the work of Chris Rainier, Jacob Aue Sobol, Rafal Milach, Michael Ackerman, Pablo Bartholomew and Raghu Rai. But I am also interested in innovative approaches to photography as a medium. I follow organizations like Photovoice from London for what is new in visual anthropology.
AC: What are the other narrative photography projects you are working on?
MF: I work a lot with Roma communities in Europe. These projects are to create different ways of representation of this community. It is called “Romani Click” / “Romski Pstryk”. The project is a result of my collaboration with Malgorzata Mirga-Tas. The editions of this participative project were implemented in Szaflary (2007), Nowy Sacz (2008), Czarny Dunajec, Czarna Gora and Krosnica (2009), Ostrowsko(2012) and Maszkowice (2012), Krakow and Nowy Sacz (2013) Roma settlements as well as in London, with Roma refugees from Poland and Slovakia.
We invited young Roma to arrange pinhole photo illustrations of Romani stories and tales written by a Roma poet Jan Mirga. Children prepared the tales’ scenery and took photos with hand-made pinhole cameras. Every project scene ended with a happening touching upon issues of lack of the dialogue between neighbouring communities. A temporary exhibition showing the works of Roma children was prepared and is still rented to everyone who wants to show it. Until now, it has been exhibited in over 30 venues in both Poland and the UK. In 2008, in London, the children picture book Romano Bumburumbum was printed and the photo album of the Romani Click’s results from Polish settlements is due to be published. The project was exhibited internationally including in the Austrian Parliament in Vienna and in the 2nd Roma Pavilion in Venice International Arts Biennale.
I am also preparing to curate an online magazine featuring photographic and video projects that do not concentrate on visual language per se.
AC: Any words of advice for photographers taking up long term projects?
MF: I think everyone working on a long term project should consider writing a self-reflective journal on a regular basis. It can be a great deal of help – to understand one’s own process and develop critical view points and methodology. It is good not only to think about visuals but also about the projects structure, or the networks we are able to build as a result of a certain project. I think one should not wait until the project is absolutely finished – but follow opportunities to make people aware of the development of such a project and gain feedback. Crowdfunding platforms are not only great places to fundraise but also to build a project audience.
The ‘In Conversation’ feature is an attempt to know more about the motivations and thought processes of photographers featured on Aksgar as well as other photographers undertaking narrative photography projects.