Interview with Monika Sziladi (2010 Daylight/CDS Photo Awards)

Interview with Monika Sziladi
Jurors’ Pick (Julie Saul and Alec Soth), 2010 Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Work-in-Process Prize

What sparked your initial interest for your “Wide Receivers” project?

It’s enormously complex to try and map out the effect of one person’s behavior on another since each person’s emotional and intellectual make-up is shaped by that of many other people. To add to this we have multiple layers of virtual communication that complicate our interactions and the development of our psyche even further. My interests lie in representing such complexities using photography. There is a tradition of photography depicting social interaction, and the medium has allowed artists to create juxtapositions in space as well as freeze moments in time that satisfyingly describes the absurdity of the world and the contingency of our life within it. With digital technology at our disposal now, the description of both time and space may be manipulated beyond the shooting process and the capabilities of the darkroom. The degree of believability of an image is up to the skill and will of the artist. I’m interested in both encouraging and suspending the viewer’s disbelief. By merging multiple focal points and moments as well as gestures and gazes, my aim is to represent a multifarious world where the viewer is asked to determine for herself  the extent of each subject’s autonomy, atomization, alienation, and self inventiveness, along with the degree of the intra- (and sometimes) inter-group connectivity.

You describe your work as “visual fictions.” Are the “pseudo-events” you photograph staged, or does the “fiction” come into play only at the point you composite the imagery?

All the raw material is shot candidly at events I had no hand in organizing or staging in any way. After the shoot, I sit down at my computer and do the compositing.

Frequently, I myself become confused whether the actual gatherings and events I photograph are “for real” or if they are mainly staged for the camera or for the media or to be broadcast to the rest of the world as a news worthy event. Hence the term “pseudo-event,” coined by the American historian and writer Daniel Boorstin.

Moreover, there is much discussion surrounding how much photography is fiction or reality. I adhere to the view that a photograph is always visual fiction regardless of the verisimilitude it can seem to capture at times. A photographic image is a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional world. The frame and captured moment de- and re- contextualizes the content of the image from the reality it was taken out of. And more often than not a camera is operated by a person; so the world it depicts is subjectively edited.

All we can say about the documentary nature of photography is that if the image is not manipulated digitally later on, it records something that “once was.” It may refer to the real world, but it produces fiction. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that the reason a photograph can spark a strong emotion, a visceral reaction, is because it looks so real and can uniquely engender a strong sense of self-identification.

Of course, there is a tradition of setting up fictional scenes to photograph. As I mentioned before, I’m not doing that in this series, although I very consciously choose moments that look like they may be set up. Part of who we are is a projection of who we want to be, and in a mediatized world we often imitate what we see on television, in films and magazines, and on billboards. I believe it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that we slip in and out of fictional characters by way of imitation and a desire to adhere.

When you are photographing at “networking parties, talent competitions, charity balls, dinners, and private parties,” and people ask what you are photographing, or why, how do you respond?

They never ask “what” or “why” but “for whom”? I usually give snapshots of the event to the event organizers, which they can use for publicity. My permission to be in the space comes from these event organizers. I reach out to them prior to the event after learning about it from friends, acquaintances or the Internet.

Do you feel that technology has changed you personally as you described in your piece?

I think it changes all who use it. It changes the way we think, the way we use our bodies, the way we schedule our time, the way we organize or divide our attention and the way we think we need to be in order to fit in. Marshall McLuhan talks about this better than I could. Some argue that we can choose ways to use technology to our advantage and not let it control us. Perhaps by limiting the ways we use it. But it would be naive if not arrogant for me to claim to be immune to its affects.

Read more about Monika Sziladi’s work here

CDS undergraduate student Brandon Putnam (Atlanta, Georgia) conducted this interview as part of the class “Multimedia Documentary” in the fall of 2010.

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