This is a human-altered world. How have these alterations by humans affected other species? Yana Wernicke explores how animals experience society through the imperfections created by man. Through her visual depictions, we are able to empathise with the creatures displayed in her latest photo book Companions. Encountering pastures of cows and baby pigs, Wernicke explores the interactions between animals and humans. Through the black and white photographs of Companions, (published by Loose Joints, available here), we are whisked away to an interestingly desirable, yet weirdly nostalgic utopia created by Wernicke.
Congratulations on your most recent release, Companions. What was the process like putting together your photobook and eventually sharing it with the world? And how do you feel about it?
Thank you! Putting the book together was a very organic process. I started working on the project a couple of years ago without a photobook in mind, but it evolved more and more into it and thanks to my publisher Loose Joints it really came together.
I understand that the book Why Look At Animals? by John Berger was a piece that inspired Companions at its inception. Could speak a little to this and elaborate on why Berger’s book is special to you personally?
As many other photographers, I read a lot of John Berger’s work and some parts really stuck with me over the years. Especially the aspects of “species loneliness” and how the ancient relationship of humans and nature has broken down, reducing the existence of animals to marginalised objects and the Other. I wouldn’t say that it specifically inspired me to do this project, but when I started photographing and thinking about our relationship with animals and the natural world, it came back to me, and it really made sense for me to reread the book.
Companions seeks to highlight the (quite literal) companionship between humans and animals through photography and text. Why do you believe companionship is important, and what is the message you hope to convey with this book?
I am interested in the way animals have to live in this human made world. Both of my protagonists, Julie and Rosina, have friendships with their rescued animals that are based on trust and respect. Their animals have a kind of freedom that not many other animals that aren’t what we normally consider pets, like dogs and cats, have. I’m not sure about a message, but I do of course hope that in the long run, humanity will become more aware of the suffering of animals, especially of those in the food industry.
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
You have a unique style in that you use photography and text to discuss the relationship between humans, animals, and nature. Companions is your third photo book after Zenker and Trails. The three of them explore aspects of intersection between the human and animal worlds. How does Companions bring something new to the table that is absent in Zenker and Trails?
Zenker is the only one of these projects where text is used, and it is much more concerned with the long-lasting repercussions of German colonialism in Cameroon. It is also a collaborative project with the photographer Jonas Feige.
Trails and Companions are solo endeavours, but only the latter was made into a photobook and focusses on the positive, healing aspects of animal-human-relationships. How do you believe your style has evolved over your career?
Companions is my first monograph, while Zenker was a collaborative project with the photographer Jonas Feige. I have always had a very documentary interest within my photographic works, but while these photographs for Companions were taken in the “real world”, their sequence and montage seem to also transcend reality and hint at a kind of utopia.
Both Zenker and Trails were collaborative projects, but Companions was not. What was your experience working on a photo book as with another artist as compared to solo? Are there any photographers or authors that you would like to work with in the future?
Yes, Zenker was a collaborative project, which was a very different experience to publishing a solo project. Trails was not collaborative but created during an artist residency in Italy. While I was working alone as a photographer on Companions, there are still so many collaborative elements that come into play: interacting with my subjects, both human and animal, working on the book with my publisher or receiving feedback from my peers. I don’t have any plans right now for new collaborative projects, but I do enjoy the process and unpredictability of it a lot, so I’m sure it will happen again at some point.
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
I’m very interested in your stylistic process. How do you view the relationship between image and text? How do they complement and influence each other? Do you tend to base the text off the image or the other way around?
My book Companions does not contain any text. In fact, it was important for me to let the images speak for themselves and also to allow the viewers some space for their own interpretations.
I noticed that all of your photographs are black and white. One would think there could be the concern that the photos feel cold to the viewer, but in fact, I still received a very warm feeling from them. Why did you decide to make the photos black and white? How do you feel this choice adds to the experience of Companions, and what is its significance to you as the photographer?
Yes, my images for the project Companions were in black and white (though I also work in colour on other projects like Zenker). I wanted to concentrate on the physicality and closeness between the animals and Rosina and Julie. It was important to me to highlight the textures of the different skins and furs and to work out the gestures involved in this mutual care taking. I felt like black and white allowed me to focus and to cut out any distractions. Also, that warmth you mentioned is something that I think is enhanced by the black and white, rather than diminished. It’s a summery dream of interspecies friendship, if you will.
You must’ve seen a lot of animals on your journey to capture the images for Companions. Did you find companionship with the animals you were photographed with? What was your approach when getting up close and personal with them?
Yes, I did meet a lot of animals, but as I only photographed the rescued animals of my two protagonists, Julie and Rosina. I was able to see some of them grow up and change over time, but I always stayed in a more observing position for this whole process.
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
Also, working with animals isn’t an easy feat; they don’t follow rules and indications like people do. How is the experience of working with animals in front of the lens? Any funny anecdote you can share?
I learned that photographing animals is a real challenge. There is no way of communicating to them what it is you want. They don’t know what a camera is and certainly cannot imagine the photograph you want of them. Working with animals takes a lot of time and endurance, especially with bigger animals such as cows. You need to try and beware of all the animals surrounding you, pushing you from one direction and chewing on your ear from the other. I think this project really taught me to be a silent observer, to take my time and let a situation develop until the right moment for a photograph arrives.
As a curiosity, did you grow up with any animals? Do you have any pets now?
I grew up with two cats and a dog and I do have a dog now as well, a rescue from a Spanish kill shelter. I always dreamed of living with more animals, but I also have to be realistic in terms of what I can actually provide, so maybe at a later point in my life.
How many photos did you take and how many actually made it into Companions? How did you choose which ones would make the final cut?
It’s hard to say how many images I took in total. Quite a few indeed, as the animals were always moving and capturing the right moment was only possible by photographing and observing a lot. The actual selection of images was done mostly by intuition and in close exchange with Sarah and Lewis from Loose Joints.
What do you see as the next step in your process in terms of further exploring the relationship between humans, animals, and nature?
I am very interested in our relationship to the natural world – or rather the more-than-human world, to borrow a phrase from David Abram. I will definitely keep photographing animals, but right now I am sort of broadening my focus.
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
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© Yana Wernicke 2023 courtesy Loose Joints