An interview with the German photographer during his 'Tales from the Other Side' exhibition at the Interzone Gallery, Rome
By Jack Solloway
Where many artists mistake their aesthetic influence for political impact, Miron Zownir unapologetically refuses to underestimate mainstream apathy. Photographing numerous underground cultures within the Western metropolis, such as Berlin’s punk phenomenon in the 1970s and New York’s gay scene in the 1980s, Zownir’s solo exhibition at the Galleria Interzone in Rome ‘Tales from the Other Side’ presents a stark retrospective of his career documenting inner-city otherness. His refusal to participate in the media circus combined with his unflinchingly frank approach to photographing society’s downtrodden remains as pertinent as ever in its use of radical subjectivity.
Leaning forward on his haunches, Zownir is sure to get one thing straight: ‘I’m not mainly a photographer; I’m mainly known as a photographer. That’s a big difference.’ His assertion that his ‘passion is as much in writing, filmmaking and photography’ leaves little room for doubt. ‘Until now I was writing in German,’ Zownir explains, ‘so basically you wouldn’t know about it. How could you? Of course, photography is an international language, but I can offer you something right now.’ He pulls out his phone and thumbs for a recording of his poetry. Titled ‘Convince Me’ (from an album performed by Mona Mur yet to be released), Zownir’s poem is set to synthetic sounds and a steady beat. ‘I don’t mind and you don’t care,’ the recording begins, ‘if tomorrow another celebrity dies or wins an Oscar in Hollywood.’
At 64, Zownir has no interest in becoming ‘part of the entertainment factory.’ When pressed on what drives him to keep exploring urban environments, he candidly dismisses the notion that he is ‘thinking about any kind of exposure.’ ‘I’m going after whatever I see,’ says Zownir, ‘I don’t think about a gallery show, or a publication in a magazine or book.’ Instead he describes his photography as ‘a matter of intuition and sometimes knowledge,’ conceding that whichever it is entirely ‘depends [on] how close you are.’ And it would be fair to say that Zownir has been closer than most. Travelling to places such as Ukraine in 2012, many of his photographs bear witness to forgotten people or places of political unrest. Unsurprisingly, his experience of living and working in these locations is often precarious: ‘One moment someone is trying to swing at me, or shoot at me or whatever. For them it’s a richer target—but of course, you know, the reality is different.’ He laughs easily, shrugging at the occupational hazard.
Shot exclusively in black and white, Zownir’s monochrome stills are uncompromising in their honesty. Many of his photographs provide an explicit account of ‘the other side reality which is usually ignored [by the media].’ Speaking of ‘Berlin, 1980’ featured in The Street Is Watching, Zownir nonchalantly describes how the shot was made. ‘Well, I was in a punk club and I hear someone fucking. I climbed up, because there wasn’t a roof—it was a toilet which ended here, and the roof was up here. The girl obviously didn’t mind and the guy didn’t know.’ He laughs again, this time acknowledging the peculiarity of the situation. ‘I like the unpredictability of photography […],’ Zownir continues, ‘but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you did shoot a situation, but you knew it was wrong, and the person that is aware of you [provides an] interaction that becomes as real as if you have someone who isn’t aware of you’.
One wonders, given the intimacy of his work, whether it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission for a photo like ‘Berlin, 1980’. ‘I would never ask any one for forgiveness,’ says Zownir, ‘What for? If I would attack you in a rage, without any reason, of course I would apologise, but then it’s too late. You see, people’s attitude changed.’ ‘I’ll tell you one example,’ Zownir gets to his feet and stages the scenario: ‘I was in Leeds, walking through a neighbourhood, and I had to take a pee. So, I went behind the bush,’ (he turns, as though minding his own business), ‘and took a pee. I had my camera like this; then I went back to the street, just wanting to cross it, and the fucking guy— “Did you make a photo of me?” I said, “What?” “Did you make a photo?”’ Zownir pauses before letting loose. ‘“You talking about my camera? Me? Walking across the fucking street? And you ask me if I make a fucking photo? Did I shoot at you?” You have a camera and they think you have a Kalashnikov.’ This kind of reaction, Zownir believes, is symptomatic of a new kind of attitude: ‘the expectation [that a photo will] appear immediately on the internet; [something which] frightens most or excites the others’.
Despite framing himself as ‘a hunter looking for things,’ Zownir denies that there is anything threatening about the lens (the language of the camera is ‘point and shoot,’ for example). ‘No, the lens wasn’t threatening anyone before. It’s as I said: people want to be famous and this is their instant moment of attention. They like the attitude of celebrities. They copy it, because it sounds cool not to be photographed, making a big fucking thing about something—so, people’s attitude changed a lot. Most of the time I don’t have the feeling that they are really individuals walking around, but zombies being influenced by T.V. and whatever they think they glorify themselves with.’
‘If we really talk about the people I make photos of,’ Zownir gestures back to his work, ‘you see here that it was a different world. People were involved in an alternative lifestyle when alternative was still predicate. Now you are alternative: what does it mean? Nothing. But then there was the gay liberation, the transgender liberation; there was a lot of hope and a lot of common spirit. You don’t have this commonality anymore, I feel, because everybody is locked in this whole digital cosmos.’ His frustration that ‘nothing happens endemically anymore’ bears witness to this fact. ‘Punk, Beat, all those movements, they’re endemic; but now they are all manufactured. As soon as you have something to say and people listen, you are immediately going to be instrumentalized.’ Largely avoiding social media channels, Zownir instead prefers to work ‘with the same instruments as ever: analogue, black and white; I still write my poems with a pen; I’m not on Instagram; I use Facebook to make [myself] aware of some things that are happening, but that’s as far as it goes.’
Whether provoking audiences, or encouraging them to connect with the margins of society, Zownir insists that his approach is fundamentally empathetic. ‘If you connect me with the subculture, I must say I have empathy for it. If you connect me to people dying on the street, or living in poverty and misery, you can say I have empathy for it. It’s hard to make an overall statement, […] but I’m definitely a time-witness of different decades and different movements. I think I went as far as only a few before, and I think I influenced a hell of a lot of people with my direct way of communication. But I was always absolutely, radically subjective. It was very natural for me to start what I did.’
Dubbed ‘The Poet of Radical Photography’ by American writer Terry Southern, Zownir confronts his audience’s apathy with an uncompromising eye. So how does he feel about the label ‘Ambassador of Marginalized Communities’? For this, perhaps, we look to his poem, which ends with a final warning: ‘Don’t expect more than I may give you.’