Dita Pepe is a highly acclaimed photographer from Czech Republic, known for her famous self – portraits. Seems like she’s been taking selfies since 1999, years before it became the 21st century internet viral.
For Dita photography is a sort of therapy. She had to deal with inner conflicts and found herself through stepping into other people’s shoes. Dressing in their clothes, posing with another woman’s husband, pretending to be another child’s mother. There are different ways one can live a life, but the similarities you can discover between a variety of different situations still fascinate her today, that she isn’t taking self – portraits anymore. It was a hell of a ride and she talks about it all with love.
Apparently there is a procedure you follow before each self – portrait. How does that work? Do you first get to know the person / family you‘re going to be photographed with or does it all happen in situ?
There were different situations with each photo-shooting. Mostly, I went to see the people in their homes, we would first talk about the project, why I decided to do this series. This somehow automatically and naturally led to the questions about their life values and believes. To reach certain authenticity, I would dress in their clothes, use their personal belongings, clothes from their wardrobe or of their family. I would discuss with them their hair style, face expression, their typical pose or gesture. The place I would do the shooting was also relevant and important to them. It was pretty much a game. For me, it is always very important that the photographed people feel well and not just like an object. The shooting itself does not take long.
What is the message you long to pass on with these projects? You put yourself in front of the camera and you stand there beside the person who is being your object, taking their place for a moment. Is it a test or an attempt of equalization between the photographer and the model? What is the goal or the social implication?
It is about getting to feel what someone else’s way of life might be like, it’s very interesting. And I do not mean in a visual sense. It is very surprising to realize in how many different ways we can live and approach our lives. It enriches me tremendously and gives me a rewarding feeling.
Is there anything egotistical about it? Have you ever felt that way? The photographer wanting to step in front of the camera and stop being unseen.
The first and original aim is to find a way of life, in which I would be happy.
You’ve been taking these self-portraits with people since 1999, right? Who was Dita back then?
When I was about 19, I did not exactly know what to do with myself. At the age of 18 I ran away from home – I lived at my friend’s house. My schoolmates from grammar school went to university and I went to Germany to work as an au-pair. I met many interesting people there as well as my first husband Francesco Pepe, he was 14 years older than me and a psychology student at the time. I think he was the one who helped me get back on my feet. Unconsciously, I was still looking for female ideals to inspire me. I took pictures of myself in different disguises. It was around 1999 when the first series of self-portraits came to light.
What is it you‘ve gained from all those people you’ve met throughout your work?
I feel that thanks to the self-portraits I’ve learned more about people, relationships and even myself. But there’s always something else to work on. For me photography is a form of therapy.
Could you comment on selfies, the new internet / instagram viral? How do you feel about it? Do you think it is kind of narcissistic but also liberating? Could you relate the philosophy behind the selfies with your work?
Selfies, like my self-portraits, can take you back to a particular moment in time and the process of creating the image. Most of the time selfies happen because people want it to happen, so these are positive emotions, the form and style of the image might not have greater ambition but with time this phenomena could probably serve as a documentary and sociological material for research.
What is harmony to you?
Harmony for me is some sort of an ideal. In relation to life it is a balance of psique and other aspects.
Can you recall the first photograph you ever took?
The absolutely first photograph I took was with my friend Sarah back in 1999. Sarah was very important to me. I got to know her when she was 19, when I went to Germany to work as an au-pair. When I married Francesco at 20, she was my witness. It was thanks to her that I bought a camera. She was often my model; she was delicate, with a symmetrical figure and childlike features. One eye was slightly lazy, which made her more interesting. Her pale face was dotted with freckles. She had long lashes and straight, smooth chocolate hair done up in a ponytail. She fascinated and inspired me. I’ve always wanted to be at least partly like her.
Are your self - portraits an ongoing project?
I do not continue with the self-portraits project at the moment, but nevertheless, it’s still an open project, yes.
Do you take self - portraits with your family?
First, I was taking pictures of people from my closed circle of friends, my family or colleagues at work. After, I started focusing on other people, depending how and what inspired me about them. The personality, physiognomy, one’s natural environment. Every person is inspiring to me. I am trying to see each person in the context of his/her life. When I want to take pictures with my daughters, I have to tell them about it, I have to explain them every detail. They know the process of photo-shooting. For them it is no longer that interesting. When they agree to be on the photograph, they do it, I think, mainly because of me. But there are also times when they refuse, then I try to persuade them, depending on the situation. Sometimes they really do disagree and refuse. Later, after some time, once they see the pictures, they remember that day, they evaluate that moment, they laugh. I explain to them the concept of my work, as if it were a movie, where I am the director, camera-man and actor at the same time. Apart of this my husband is also photographer and camera-man, he very often helps with the shooting and supports me.
Could you speak us briefly about the “Mamika” project?
Taking pictures of my mother also works as some sort of therapy. I am not working on this project systematically right now. However, the current projects that I work on are related to this. The book Love yourself was about self-acceptance, the book Misses was about the life of women who decided not to marry. I am now working on the project Intimacy.
Are there any other projects for the future?
Yes, I do have some big plans. I am quite successful at the moment. However, what I deal with a lot is the lack of time. In a couple of weeks I am traveling to Japan to work there on the subject of Intimacy…