I first got turned onto the work of Miron Zownir through Nadja Vancauwenberghe, my former Editor at ExBerliner, when she showed me one of his books one day at the office.
What I saw, it was so hardcore poetic. It really moved me. The images in the assemblage were taken from a time Zownir was in Kiev, and we were looking at them around the time when the Ukrainian Revolution was really heating up, with the situtation’s tenseness giving off this feeling of uncertainity. Regardless of the Zeitgeist, the images were like these captured moments, in a way at first glance staged like fashion editorials, but you could clearly see that these images were, in fact, not staged. Absolute hardcore, so poor to the absolute bottom, yet the figures grinned back out of their situations, beaming auras of great fortunes. Nice.
Zownir currently has two exhibitions—a solo show at HARDHITTA Gallery in Cologne and a triple-solo with Ken Schles and Jeffrey Silverstone at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. He also recently released his most recent film Back To Nothing in Berlin to really considerable applause.
Zownir was born in southwestern Germany in 1953, he lived in West Berlin in the late 1970s and 80s before moving to the USA, where he lived in places like NYC, LA and Pittsburgh of a 15-year period before returning to Berlin, where he’s very much alive and kicking today. He has a considerable filmography, has taken a ton of photos and has written a few books. His intelligence is so complex, it was a really really great challenge to try to capture it. We met up twice around Kollwitzplatz in Berlin recently to talk….
With your pictures and the movies, I was trying to find a way to describe what you’re doing. I mean, obviously, your aesthetic is beautiful and it’s poetic, but in terms of depicting the hardness of life, I think you have a very extraordinary eye, how you can capture ALL of this together. I feel like you have this eye where you can see these dramatic pictures in the everyday…
Definitely. Everything I am doing is basically very intuitive. I was never in a photo school or a film school; everything I learned was autodidactic. I see things independently from any school of thought or style. I would say my technical approach is pretty basic. If I see something I’m interested in, I try to cover it fast to keep the momentum. But I’m not sloppy and every picture– no matter how gloomy or dark the situation is– has an aesthetic look that is recognizable. In street photography, you don’t need to set up a scene or something, you just need a perspective and a sense of light and contrast. Mostly I focus on things many people look away from. Human misery and despair is always dramatic if you have the nerves or the interest to face it.
So you just took photos, took photos, took photos, and took photos? (smiles)
Well, I did other things, too. (laughs)
I was thinking about this new movie you just made, BACK TO NOTHING. When I first watched the trailer of it, some of the actors at first seemed like typical people who’ve been in a number of movies in Berlin.
Some are not.
Right. Some aren’t. But I thought some of them were in that movie ‘Desire will set you Free’ by Yony Leyser. (smiles)
Actually, I was in that movie, too. Rummelsnuff, who is one of the protagonists of Back To Nothing, is shown for a minute or two in a concert clip, Steve Morell and Dieter Rita Scholl also have much shorter parts in Yony’s movie than in Back To Nothing. That’s much for the comparison and the ‘typical’ people. My range of actors is very different from anyone else’s cast.
Yony’s movie has a totally different topic and look. His movie covers most every famous transgender entertainer in town and many homosexual icons. At least he can be sure he’ll create a lot of interest and a lobby of followers in any homosexual community throughout this world. My film is totally different. There is no protagonist you can sympathize with. Everything is beyond good and evil. It’s futuristic but rooted in many social tendencies of our time, such as ruthless gentrification, questionable moral, ethical and religious imperatives, disinformation, prejudice, capitalistic greed and existential fear. I don’t know if that many people are ready for my vision with Back To Nothing yet. It’s too controversial and doesn’t serve any lobby. If you want to have success, you need a lobby. You got to define your heroes; so people can identify, ‘root’ or sympathize with them. Feed their alter egos.
But Back To Nothing draws you into an ugly world of no hope. Beautifully filmed because I believe in the beauty of decay and the poetry of the dammed. Not necessarily a movie to get an Oscar or to hit the jackpot.
I wish I could make more money with my interviews, but I feel like if I focus on that too much right now, I would lose a lot of my freedom and I just can’t.
For me this was always the case. I could never think for one second of how much money I might get out of any project in advance. I never write a script thinking it will be a big success. Back To Nothing might as well be my best movie so far– but I didn’t even try to get it to the Berlinale. Even so, one of my movies Bruno S –Estrangement is Death was shown there before (in 2003). But I just knew this new film would be too much, it didn’t fit to the image of the ‘Welcome Culture’ Germany tries so desperately to protect. In Back To Nothing, nobody is welcome and nobody ‘deserves a break’. That’s hard to digest.
It is. I mean, when that guy is being pulled by his breast nipples… I had to kind of look away. (laughs) But then, it’s interesting to watch the film and then hear you telling me before the interview that you would never eat a rat even if you were starving. There’s a lot that seems to be going on in that film—the scenery, the people involved with it, the stuff they are talking about, the situations in it, it’s pretty borderline.
It’s meant to be absolutely intolerable because that’s what we’re heading toward. With more than seven billion people on this earth, the competition and struggle for survival will be more and more outrageous. And in the time of big calamities and starvation, people might turn back towards cannibalism just as in my movie. One guy kills his wife and sells it for pig meat. I mean it’s so fucking off the wall but it kind of illuminates what’s coming up in the future. When the poor of the world desperately demand a share of the goodies the entire world will start turning Helter Skelter.
I think sometimes you have to get really literal with things to get across to people but people get scared from this. Like they’re scared they’ll become bad people if they connect somehow to what they are seeing or something. The importance of our ‘Civilization’ to clearly define the difference between humans and animals. But humans ARE animals and we have animalistic urges and sometimes pathos.
Animals are the most under-estimated species at all. I mean, a couple of years ago, there was a headline on Stern: ‘Do Animals Have a Soul?’—That’s such a ridiculous question. Of cause they have! They communicate, they have moods, and they dream. They have pride and they are vain. Any creature that is able to love potentially has a soul.
I was out with my younger daughter last night, and I was sort of showing her how to scavenge for stuff—pretty much everything in our house I found; we never buy things. So at one point, we were talking about collecting bottles—I told her beer bottles were heavier to carry and you only get eight cents for them, I was telling her about the logo you look for that’s worth 25 cents. I mean, I don’t need to collect bottles to live or anything, but I think it’s important to have these values.
You are trying to sort of prepare her for the future, for survival, huh? (smiles)
Well, I was trained like that when I was a kid, and I think everyone really should have the experience of having nothing. I did and those were maybe the coolest years of my life. I had nothing, but I didn’t need for anything either. Really weird.
You were young and you were adventurous to a point. But you cannot live like this forever. At some point, you need your hot bath and your plates for food. Or you have to wash in the rain and sleep on a public bench.
Of course. (smiles)
I mean, experience is important. I have tried every excess there is. I have tried every drug (except for heroin), but I always had this sort of discipline. Self-discipline. Ways to keep me sane. I have lost a lot of friends to drugs, cancer, AIDS. Some committed suicide, some lost their mind. Some even got rich and famous. I still don’t really have existential security. But things don’t look bad. Like the Deichtorhallen Exhibition in Hamburg– but you never know how long you last if you don’t play some game according to the rules of the establishment.
What have you lived from?
Well, I have lived from my work– from my books and films and I have gallerists who sell but I have always had to do other stuff, too, until recently. I did many odd jobs. In the United States, I didn’t even have health insurance but back then, you only had to give an address if you were going to the hospital– no photo id.
It’s funny how much things have changed.
Yeah. Back in the day, I had a lot of friends who hitchhiked from Germany to Pakistan. Through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India. Life has changed to the extreme. The world has gotten so fucking small and we are much more controlled than ever. Every step, they can trace. I was 15 years in the States, and when I came back, and went to register my address for my new place, and I found out I was still registered in the place I lived in Germany 15 years before. Now, you move and two days later you get a letter from the GEZ and you’ve got to pay. It’s really changed a lot. Big brother is watching.
(***Warning, the following Film Clip has Graphic Content***)
Show at HARDHITTA Gallery Closes 11. June 2016
Show at the Deichtorhallen closes 07. August 2016.
Miron Zownir: Poet of Radical Photography
HARDHITTA Gallery / Hohenzollernring 53 / 50672 Cologne / Fr-Su 13 – 19 h
KEN SCHLES JEFFREY SILVERTHRONE MIRON ZOWNIR
Deichtorhallen / Haus der Photografie / Deichtorstraße 1-2 / 20095 Hamburg / Tu-Su 11-18 h
More about ‘Back To Nothing’: www.mironzownir.com
*Title Image: Miron Zownir, NYC, 1982, silver gelatine archival print
Images Courtesy of Miron Zownir and HARDHITTA Gallery