Biography

Martin Kollar was born in Zilina, Czechoslovakia (now Slovak Republic) and is a photographer and cinematographer.

He has received several grants and awards, including the 3PPP photography grant, Fuji Film Euro Press Photo Award and the Backlight Photography Award in Finland. His work has been exhibited internationally, including shows at Maison Européenne de la Photographie Paris, France, Rencontres d’ Arles in France, MOCA Shanghai China, Guandong Museum of Art in China and Month of Photography in Krakow.

He has published three photography books - Nothing Special (Actes sud 2008), Cahier (Diaphane 2011) and Field Trip (Mack 2013).

“Some of the places I had the impression that I was on a film set, and I tried to bring this to the images. You don’t really know when the reality and the fiction somehow stops and starts.”

Biography

Martin Kollar was born in Zilina, Czechoslovakia (now Slovak Republic) and is a photographer and cinematographer.

He has received several grants and awards, including the 3PPP photography grant, Fuji Film Euro Press Photo Award and the Backlight Photography Award in Finland. His work has been exhibited internationally, including shows at Maison Européenne de la Photographie Paris, France, Rencontres d’ Arles in France, MOCA Shanghai China, Guandong Museum of Art in China and Month of Photography in Krakow.

He has published three photography books - Nothing Special (Actes sud 2008), Cahier (Diaphane 2011) and Field Trip (Mack 2013).

Martin Kollar

Field Trip

During 2010, Kollar travelled between Israel and Europe, spending roughly every other month in residence, and mostly working in Tel Aviv and the coastal regions. Many of his images were meticulously researched and required special access to military sites and exercises, official ceremonies, and scientific or medical facilities. Other photographs happened in more serendipitous circumstances, imbued with his exploration of picture making in an age of surveillance. Kollar is also a filmmaker and his images often seem like fragments of a narrative, although the plot remains a mystery. His images purposely read as hovering between reality and fiction, anxiety and paranoia, the ordinary and the absurd.

Martin Kollar in conversation with Charlotte Cotton

Fall 2014

CC: Was your involvement with This Place the first time that you had been to Israel?
MK: No, the first time I went there was in 1988 for a students’ film festival in Tel Aviv that I was participating in. I wasn’t sure if I liked it very much. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t something that I knew a lot about. As a teenager, we had other issues to deal with in Czechoslovakia. I went back to Israel three or four times after that, mostly for filming. The conflict seemed to have changed and become very different from what I remember from the first time that I went there. Or maybe, apart from the separation wall, the situation hadn’t changed a lot but the way I became sensitised by being part of this project was different.

CC: You spent a lot of time living in Israel while you were working on Field Trip. What was your life like?
MK: After a couple of weeks in Jerusalem I rented my own place in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was too much for me, it’s a very particular place – intense and without respite. I stayed in three or four apartments, I’d rent a place for six weeks or three months and stay in that one place, return to Europe and then come back to Tel Aviv to another apartment. The project organised an assistant for me, Talia Rosin, for the twelve months that I was coming to Israel. It would have been impossible to work without a full time researcher.

“Jerusalem was too much for me, it’s a very particular place – intense and without respite.”

CC: Tell me more about how you worked together.
MK: Before I started going to Israel, I made a list of maybe fifty things that I wanted to shoot.

CC: What sort of things?
MK: Mainly locations. I definitely wanted to work in the quarries, with the explosions for mining, but I failed to realise that idea. I also wanted to do something with the television and news media in Israel and particularly the religious God TV station. I was also interested in photographing in Kosher abattoirs. For different reasons, all of these were impossible to shoot. The other things from the initial list were scientific and military facilities, the Israeli space program and archaeological sites. Talia, my assistant, would research and work on permissions to gain access to the places. For example, I wanted to go to the anthropology department of Tel Aviv University and you would assume that this is an easy place to get to but, as with many instances, it was really complicated. According to Talia, Israeli religious and state laws dictate that all remains of Jews have to be buried.

So it was complicated to get access to photograph what the anthropologists were doing within the confines of their department. According to anthropological research the skeleton in my photograph is dated 7000 or 8000 BC. And therefore definitely not of Jewish descent, so it could be photographed and stored like this.

CC: Was that sense of anxiety about using a camera to represent contradictions and slippages a constant presence in your work in Israel?
MK: A lot of the people that I met through the research were concerned about how their situation would look in a photograph or what they might be accused of through the ‘evidence’ of a photograph. They wanted to control the context, wanted to fit it to their agenda. The society is operating on this very high level of fear, some of the people I met were concerned about being implicated in some way. Their tactic was usually very efficient, they simply said ‘no’. It works in a similar way in Eastern Europe or Russia. The first answer is always ‘no’ but ‘no’ luckily doesn’t mean ‘no always’. We just kept calling and knocking on doors. Sometimes it took months just to get through. We never gave up easily and remained patient.

I decided that any obvious depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we know from media, wasn’t interesting for me. Somehow I understood what’s going on but I wanted to avoid getting involved or implicated.

I was rather curious to discover where the source of tension is coming from. I didn’t work on the Palestinian side as a way to ‘balance out’ Israeli territory; it didn’t mean I didn’t go there – I know the place quite well but I didn’t put pictures from the Palestinian side into the exhibition (although slipped into the Field Trip monograph are two images from the Palestinian side).

“The society is operating on this very high level of fear, some of the people I met were concerned about being implicated in some way. Their tactic was usually very efficient, they simply said ‘no’.”

CC: And were the unused images from the Palestinian side quite different from what we see in Field Trip?
MK: The West Bank is another planet with another set of problems. I wanted Field Trip to reflect something that I discovered and I got bothered about, to reflect the personal level of fear and danger that I felt. In Nothing Special (2008), I used humour to deal with social tension in a very direct way. Working in Israel, I wondered if it would be possible just to bring this tension directly into a book, to load those images with the tension and transmit that to the audience. I wanted to make photographs that are still comfortable to look at but somehow you’re absorbing the tension from the place.

CC: The situations in your photographs have a quality of being about to tip, there is a precariousness. Was it easy to find these signs of the tension in day to day interactions in Israel?
MK: It was extremely difficult to avoid it! That’s how it is. After I’d made the decision to not literally depict the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was really just describing the tension on a very personal level. This allowed me to think about photographing in a very individuated way.

I wasn’t following the consequences of the conflict. I was trying to deal with how the future can be imagined in Israel – what might happen, the fear of possible danger, what that can look like. I recognise that this is a highly fictionalising act, reflecting upon how it could be. That’s why I was always looking for those images that present a possibility or a preparation for something.

CC: Are the majority of the pictures as hard won as that or did some just fall into your lap?
MK: It was research, research, research… but on the other hand, there are photographs that were made close to the places I was living too. I wanted to photograph in Tel Aviv – I wanted to have the sea and the city structure. There are several images from my very close neighbourhood, I bumped in to some of them by chance.

CC: And were forms such as this temporary structure you photographed on a street just like that when you came across it?
MK: Yes, all the images are from situations that I found, they are not staged. For example when I photographed a scene with the barrels and a tyre, it was in fact a barricade, but you can also read it as a photograph of a levitating barrel. You might find the signs of imaginary conflict in the skateboard and bicycle course. I wanted the photographs to be really direct at first glance but containing some sort of mystery or ambiguity.

CC: So you might have a day where there’d be a cluster of pictures made?
MK: There are some days that led to two or more pictures in the Field Trip book and then I had months when nothing had happened. When I’m shooting, usually I don’t feel any pressure that I have to take a photograph. When all the channels are opened, things are happening. I learned this from my life as a filmmaker and how I approach making films. You’re working on a scene that looks strangely out of context because you are shooting just a small part of the whole movie. This is analogous to the world around us and how it can look real but there is always something crooked in it and it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

“I learned this from my life as a filmmaker and how I approach making films. You’re working on a scene that looks strangely out of context because you are shooting just a small part of the whole movie. ”

CC: Is the light in Israel cinematic?
MK: Not really, it’s really just the direct sun overhead, it’s just hard strong light with a blue sky light, it’s horrible. But somehow I really didn’t have a problem with it and at the end I started to like it. I also enjoyed the way the architecture appeared in this hard light and combinations of buildings, which looked like film sets.

CC: Do you think another way in which your photographs have a ‘cinematic’ narrative is on the level of performance? In particular, do you think that you observed the performance of security, a kind of simulation of order?
MK: It’s a real performance of power often made for the media and targeted audience. That’s very clear to see in the picture from a military drill, which also looks like a film set. There were soldiers hidden at ground level, and drones flying around. There was a very big screen for the high-ranking military viewers to see the manoeuvres and the military hardware in action. All the performances last one hour. It was like watching the ultimate level of military theatre. I don’t know if I managed to translate those experiences into the photograph, I don’t know if it’s even possible to abstract the essence with a still camera and deliver it to the audience.

CC: Do you think that the editing and sequencing of your photographs plays a major role in offering a possible explanation for these curious individual pictures and scenarios?
MK: The edit started to be easy from the moment that I found the title ‘Field Trip’. All of the pictures in the final selection are equally relevant and each could individually drive the narrative, but I also wanted them to co-operate with the neighbouring pictures. It’s not a question of compromises but it was a question of what kind of pictures have the duality I seek. I was trying to create Field Trip as just simple storytelling. I wanted to make the kind of book from Israel that was missing in the arena of contemporary art photography. Especially since it is a book from this complicated part of the world, I didn’t want it to be something that you have seen so many times before. When I looked up definitions of a ‘field trip’, I was taken by the idea of when a group of people goes to a place, which is far from their stereotypes or from their daily life for a certain period of time. The outcome of that is what it’s supposed to be about – exploration and reflection. In a way, ‘field trip’ describes the overall idea of This Place project.

“When I looked up definitions of a ‘field trip’, I was taken by the idea of when a group of people goes to a place, which is far from their stereotypes or from their daily life for a certain period of time. ”

CC: Do you think that you have created enduring pictures of Israel?
MK: That’s what I am wondering. I’m very curious about how these pictures will read in twenty years. If nothing else, they are just a way of recording reality, a transformed way of looking at things. In the future, all these images will have a very simple role as recordings of a place based on individual observations.