Kata Geibl has always been interested in analogue photography, playing around with film cameras from the age of 5 years old. Kata talked with us about becoming confident in herself and her vision, transitioning from observational documentary photography to more staged and experimental shots, recreating the world in her own image. She expanded on how her background in Liberal Arts, especially her focus on Film and Philosophy, has informed the way she creates concepts; and the way in which she is focusing on issues such as contemporary capitalism and the Anthropocene through her new photo series, There Is Nothing New Under the Sun, and how postmodern society has shifted our perspective of reality.
Before we start, for those who might not be familiar with your work, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a photographer, I grew up in Budapest, but now I am finishing my Masters studies at The Hague, in the Netherlands, so I am back and forth between the two cities. I was always fascinated with images since I can remember. I wanted to become a film director but then quickly found my passion in photography. One of my earliest memories is that I tried to take a picture of a foam castle I built in the middle of our living room before my little sister could destroy it.
When did you first start getting interested in specifically analogue photography?
I had my first camera when I was five years old, it was a poison green colour automatic 35mm camera that I carried around everywhere with me. Later on, I changed to medium format, but I didn’t use a digital camera until I was in my 20’s. It’s just personal preference - I never really fancied digital cameras, for me film has a much more naturalistic look to it than a digital image. Also, with the way I work, analogue just suits me better. The physical process of developing, the waiting, the slowness of it, it just excites me every time and I’ve never had that experience with a digital camera.
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Your work generally concerns itself with issues that contemporary society is having to grapple with more and more: eco-crises, the Anthropocene, the effects of capitalism on humans and the environment. When did you first start getting exposed to these issues, and how did you decide to document them through the photographic medium?
When I finished my series Sisyphus – which dealt with the ambiguity of scientific images – in 2018, I was already very much interested in these issues, but I had no idea how to tackle them through photography. I read a lot of theory about these topics which really inspired me, for instance Mark Fisher, Frederic Jameson, John Berger but I struggled to tell the story visually. I only knew that I wanted to avoid typographical, literal work, and show the issues in a metaphorical way. I realized that I was so insistent to show these issues objectively that I disregarded any other way. Then, through experimenting and sketching, I finally found a way to tackle these topics in a very personal way.
Could you tell us about your transition from wanting to capture the world through the lens of documentary’s visual honesty, to wanting to explore more conceptual and thematic, sometimes staged, photography?
I recently scanned my old, abandoned negatives and realized I was always more interested in staging images, but I lacked the experience to do it confidently. Capturing the world around me in a documentary way just seemed more convenient, especially since I am a very shy person. But as I gained more experience, and I still couldn’t find what I was looking for in the world, I started to stage what I envisioned. First I just recreated scenes from my favorite movies using cardboard paper, later on asking my friends to participate, then strangers, and so on. I’ve always been an observer. Studying how the light falls on objects, how our perception of colour temperature changes during the day, really I am just excited for our everyday reality. All my images emerge from these workaday observations or scenes, but by staging them I have the means to create a scene exactly how I imagined it.
Something that particularly struck me was one of your earlier photo-projects, Uncanny Valley. You said you were inspired by Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and many of the pictures bear a striking resemblance to both the shots in and the tone of the movie. How did the story’s themes – the interplay between human and machine, our constant search for meaning in and through nature – play out in the photographs you took, and the scenes you decided to capture?
Uncanny Valley was a project I did during my stay in Helsinki. I was there as an exchange student for a semester. It was the first time that I spent months living outside of Eastern Europe, so it was a whole new world for me. The architecture, the weather, the light, the spaces – everything was new and uncanny. I felt like I was walking on a science fiction film set, so I started to rewatch my favorite sci-fi movies. The way I felt, being away from my loved ones in a completely new environment, very much resembled how the protagonist of Solaris is coping in space. I started to photograph these strange places in the Gulf of Finland, traveling from Helsinki to Tallinn and St. Petersburg. Sometimes I revisited them in different weather or lighting conditions. I only had a limited amount of time during the daytime because it was winter and the sun is a very infrequent visitor in Northern Europe, so I was always biking through the neighborhoods looking for locations. I was hesitant to show my photographs to my Finnish friends who had grown up in Helsinki because they knew this place inside out. They were very surprised that I found these locations because they had never seen or even noticed them before. So, I hope Uncanny Valley shows another side of the area and not just the familiar painted wooden houses of Northern Europe.
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Do you often draw on your background in philosophy and film history when forming concepts for your photography?
Yes, very much. My biggest inspirations were always movies and paintings. I try to avoid reaching for photographs for inspiration because I think they influence me too much. My passion for philosophy comes from my previous education in Liberal Arts.
Can you guide us through your ongoing project, There Is Nothing New Under the Sun?
The starting point for the project was my anxiety about the state of things. I was feeling more and more lost in the world, and even though I found consolation and confirmation in the movies and books I was reading I didn’t know how I could translate this into a project.
As I mentioned before the turning point came when I realized I don’t need to talk about climate change, consumer society, competitive individualism through a documentary, observational point of view. Rather, I could through my imagination and associations. This realization was the starting point for the series. I try to tackle the present-day condition in these images through metaphors, associations, image pairs, which speak more to the viewers' emotions. In that sense, it is a very personal project as it feeds from my fantasy, but at the same time the topics I work with are universal, and people freely connect with the project.
Throughout the images you have collected, there are pieces of text placed that make reference to theorists like Jameson and Baudrillard. Does this current photo-project reflect the theorists’ view of the postmodern?
There is one image that was particularly born out of reading Baudrillard. The burning mock-up from the series was born after reading his piece on simulations and simulacra. I was hugely influenced by postmodernism when I started to work on the series, as the postmodern condition has a great amount to do with our state of things right now. According to postmodern critique, facts and realities are socially articulated, thus our access to reality is limited. The rejection of grand narratives, objective knowledge, the critique of facts and realities. It all seems very familiar today in the light of our current political climate. I was especially intrigued by Jameson’s writing on late capitalism, it is very eerie how he foreshadowed in the nineties [hegemonic commercially driven mass media's 'colonisation' of thoughts], what would become our reality today.
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What made you choose a quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes as the epigram for this series?
The expression "there is nothing new under the sun" always popped up in my head when I wrote my first drafts for my artist statement. I researched where it originated, and I was surprised that it came from the Old Testament. I read the Book of Ecclesiastes in a breath, I couldn’t put it down, it is one of the most poetic works I ever read and it fit my topic perfectly.
Does this photo-series also believe, along with Jameson, “that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”? Is this too big a question to ask? I sincerely hope a change will come, I think more and more people are realizing that many of our problems are not individual ones but arise from our economy. The fact that books of Anne Helen Petersen, Can’t Even, Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing and Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, are becoming best-sellers shows to me that an initiative is arising.
Do you have an end in sight for the project yet, or is it still ongoing for the time being?
The project was supposed to be finished by 2020 but, due to the worldwide pandemic, I couldn’t continue it. I aim to finish it this year, I already have new ideas for upcoming projects so it's time to dive into new territory.
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