“What I’m interested in is how we feel good” – interview with Éva Szombat
08 • 03 • 20Edit Barta
I’m aware of few photographers whose names have become brands. Éva (or Vica) Szombat is one of them. She has built an unmistakable style, and her visual world makes frequent appearances in collaborations with designers, as well as in her own applied works. Above all, we wanted to know how she could reconcile autonomous and collaborative projects, and how kitsch, sequins and glamour relate to provocation and social engagement.
In the spring of 2019, you were all over Vienna, when Foto Wien promoted the city’s photo month with your picture. How did the opportunity come, why did they choose you?
Back in 2016 I took part in a portfolio review in Vienna, where I met Verena Kaspar-Eisert, curator of Kunst Haus Wien. She fell in love with this picture and bought a print from me. And then, after a long time, a few months ago, she wrote to me, saying she was making an exhibition on life in the country, and asking me if I had anything relevant. I sent her pictures, and she chose two for the exhibition (Über Leben Am Land). And then, a few months later, she contacted me again, saying the exhibition was to be part of the remodelled Vienna photo month, and she thought this picture from my Happiness series would be the perfect official promo pic for the festival. I was very pleased, and found it a great honour, but I had no idea the photo would be all over Vienna. And then we went to see the festival, and I was shocked to see how many surfaces bore the image. The festival itself was a great experience, I got to meet exciting people from the profession, I had a lot of press coverage, and people who saw those photos have been contacting me ever since.
For some time now you have been at work on a new, taboo-breaking series, called Four Walls, Three Holes, which features girls and women with their sex toys. Even today, it’s a risky, courageous subject in Hungary. How do you find subjects?
I first posted a wanted ad on Instagram. A lot of people contacted me at the time, many of whom later changed their minds, either before we could start working together, or during the process. However, those I have taken photos of are all very pleased, happy about the pictures. Sometimes very serious, grave things come to light about the subjects during the shoots. Which we tend to discuss during the sessions.
One reason to start the series was that even though women may discuss such things with each other as masturbation or watching porn, the subjects are still taboo. Often, the woman in a relationship won’t tell what makes her feel good, what gives her pleasure; a lot of people have horrible sex lives. Nor are the limits clarified, people don’t know what can and cannot be done in a relationship, in sex. And 90 per cent of Hungary is like that, with sex, verbal aggression and masturbation all taboos, and “the place for a woman is in the kitchen” a dominant view.
These aren’t very simple situations, and a project like this hinges on creating intimacy. Do people find it easy at the shoots to open up?
That is usually the case, though I make an effort to let them feel at ease, because this is an awfully difficult situation. I try to make them laugh, and tell them things about myself, the same things I expect from them, so the situation can be that of mutuality. So it’s not a case of me interrogating them and soaking up all the information; instead, I also tell them about, say, my sexuality. I have taken photos of myself for the series. I have a book and an exhibition in mind, and make interviews with them during the shoots.
What’s your impression in the light of the shoots? How do the women you have photographed relate to sexuality? Have you formed a general image?
Those I take photos of are by definition very open because they agreed to be photographed. They let me inside their private sphere and tell me stories about themselves, which makes me terribly grateful to them. These encounters are very inspiring, because it is liberating to talk about these things. I want to point out that lots of toys have been added to my collection since I started this project, because the girls can almost always show me something new, something I haven’t seen or tried, and I’m the curious type.
And how do viewers react to your pictures? What’s the feedback you get?
Many people are surprised that such sex toys exist and are used. People generally get very curious, some are surprised to discover how prudish they themselves are. Olivia Arthur, a Magnum photographer, said she would now look at Hungarian women with different eyes.
So it’s not a case of me interrogating them and soaking up all the information; instead, I also tell them about, say, my sexuality. I have taken photos of myself for the series.
In recent years you had several projects whose themes were related, such as the Happiness Book and Practitioners, which each take a look at happiness from a different viewpoint. Also, this group may well include Beyond the Curve, which sort of erects a shrine to your life, yourself and your marriage, offering a personal example for happiness.
That was indeed such a period, I can see the trajectory myself. Happiness Book was a guide to being happy, to what you need to do to that end. I too found the subject important, because I recognized in myself that Hungarian trait of complaining all the time. I tried to show the opposite, to point out in a funny way that life is less shit than we tend to take it to be. The texts for the book were written by Vera Vida, and they included simple, everyday tasks and advice, like “draw something,” “eat something nice,” “meet your friends,” “take a boat to work.” I performed the “tasks,” and it was therapeutic for me as well, noticing how I started to attract positive, good things by adopting a different attitude to the world. So that book was mostly about the practice. Then it occurred to me to broaden the circle and find people who do something for their own happiness. And that was the source of Practitioners. That project was to offer an example, to make the whole subject of happiness more tangible, more real—to show what methods people use to work on their own happiness. While making Practitioners, I also noticed that life was especially appreciated by those who had a tragedy or illness in their lives. Those who don’t have a problem often create one for themselves.
Then I narrowed the circle again, and started to study myself, my marriage, my figure, whereas Four Walls is another broader subject, although, because I also photograph myself, it is also personal. And it is again about happiness. I think what I’m essentially interested in is how we feel good. All the problems in the world stem from frustration or from certain people being frustrated. It would be so great without this. It’s a naive notion, of course, but small things like this make the whole thing better.
I’m always interested in generalities, what it means to be happy, to be a man, or a woman. And I have missions, I want to prove to people that it is possible to live happily, and possible to appreciate life after a tragedy. I have naive intentions to make the world a better place, but these are still grave subjects. And of course it’s wrapped up in glamour, which makes the pictures good to look at; if you take a look and smile, you already feel a little bit better. What you see is of course shiny and kitschy, but always focused on humans, and there is always something behind it, I don’t merely group artificial flowers. What I do is never an end in itself, because I always try to fill it with meaningful content. Of course, every artist is narcissistic and egotistic to some extent, but for some time now I’ve only been touched by projects that are socially sensitive.
When Practitioners was published on Huffington Post and Vice, a lot of readers sent me emails telling me how much what I do meant for them. Such feedback was really touching, this is what makes photography worth doing.
Was kitsch always important for you, or did it enter your life at some point?
I think kitsch has always been present in my life. But I also remember a particular point, after which I started to take photos differently. As a teenager, I used black-and-white film, because that was what I considered artistic at the time. I was probably sixteen when I put in the first roll of colour film, when I was to take photos of Zita Nagy, who had been my classmate since we were six, and we still continue to have similar tastes. I remember I thought now that I was using colour film, it should be very colourful! Zita’s parents were artists, and their home was full of inspiring stuff, colourful lamps, textiles of all sorts, and knick-knacks, which we used as props. I loved that shoot! I remember being very anxious about how my teacher, Péter Tímár would respond, but he was very appreciative. From then on, I used colour film a lot.
What does it mean to you, why are you using it?
Abraham A. Moles says kitsch is the art of happiness. Kitsch is closely related to pop culture, which many people like to look down on, but which I think is important. The very intentions I have make accessibility important. With me, the use of kitsch is closely related to humour and irony, even self-irony. I love camp things.
You’re often invited to take part in the campaigns of Hungarian designers, and you usually take along your “sequin” style.
I’m often approached with a specific request to be myself. Which I find stressful, to be told to be like the style I represent. But often the other artist and I are similar, and we shape and inspire each other. The team makes a lot of difference. But then, applied work is totally different from my own projects, where I do everything myself. Take Four Walls... for instance: when I go to a girl who agrees to participate, I don’t take along a stylist or a make-up artist. I want things to be real. I want her to put on make-up the way she always does, and want her to put on her favourite dress. This isn’t a beauty shoot, it’s about something else entirely. However, when it comes to beauty photography, the makeup artist or the stylist makes all the difference. I’m lucky to have long-time collaborators.
How did you meet these people, how did you get to do fashion shoots?
I studied at the Grammar School for Fine and Applied Arts, and they have several programmes like that, such as fashion and textile designer, and all kinds of friendships were born in the study circles of the school. For example, I have known Nóri Sármán and Orsi Poppre since grade seven, we went to Gyula Gőbölyös’s drawing club together. I became friends with a lot of people back then, so this line goes back to very long ago. At the end of each term at the Grammar School, and then at MOME as well, we photographers were regularly asked to photograph the exam pieces. These collaborations can be fabulous, I’m very often approached with such requests, and I love these jobs. I recently photographed musicians, and I got to arrange things like a director. The result was very exciting. What I’m good at is creating atmospheres, and there are a few people we love to pick each other’s brains with, and are receptive of each other’s ideas. When it comes to a retrospective at age 80, I don’t how I’ll fit all these jobs in. But it would be a shame to leave them out. (laughs) These collaborations lie somewhere between autonomous and applied photography, and that’s exactly why I love them so much. They include, to name only two, the nacci campaign with Orsi Poppre, and my pics for Réka Lőrincz’s jewellery. I like very spontaneous things, and prefer to use what I find at a given location. It’s much better than having a concept beforehand, and then fretting over having everything on location.
You’re easy and relaxed, smile and laugh all the time, while you work quite a lot and teach at MOME. There must be some system to your work so you can complete the projects and survive from day to day.
Let me show you my calendar, all right? (laughs) I have these little coloured boxes... No, seriously, when there is work to be done, I take it very seriously. Work is always deadly serious for me. Especially in the case of major commissions: you have to handle the situation and the client well, while you need to be flexible. You have to listen to what the client wants, but you also want the result to be good. It’s a complicated thing.
You’re known to construct and arrange everything for your own projects. Those who see your pictures for the first time may find this surprising.
Films have always been a source of inspiration, now even more so than photos, and particularly documentaries. It would of course be far simpler to apply an effect to an image, but it’s such a great feeling to construct something—it amuses me. It’s like the magic of film. Back at MOME, Gábor Máté used to encourage us to experiment, and that was where I got hooked on filters. He told us softening filters were frequently used in films when women appeared. As they enter the scene, their skin becomes soft. I recently watched Cocteau’s classic, Beauty and the Beast, and that’s what happened, from one moment to the next the soft filter was put on Belle’s head. (laughs)
The concerns of Beyond the Curve and Four Walls... also include how women appear in the world, how we women see ourselves and how the world sees us.
I think the Instagram-world causes a great deal of frustration, and I’m very angry with it. But when I was making Beyond the Curve, for instance, I got hooked on curvy girls, because you can find lots of influencers of this kind. I too had been convinced that slim girls look better in photos, but then I realized that once you stop being bombarded by the message that you must be a woman with a perfect, hairless body, your opinion, your values, your taste, will change. We must learn to love our body, because every body is a good body. If you see lots of people lovingly photographing their stretch marks or hairy body parts, or being proud of their large bums, you will start seeing things differently. So in this regard, Instagram is after all a great thing.
(Translation: Árpád Mihály)