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DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER ANDREJ BÁN TAKES PICTURES BEHIND THE SCENES

A Slovakia you might not know

THROUGH his photographs, Andrej Bán comments on the Slovakia of today. But it is not the people in the spotlight who are of interest to him. He prefers to aim his camera at those who are in the background.
During election rallies or popular events, like pre-Lent carnival, he does not shoot pictures of politicians and artists on the stage, but instead he captures the individuals behind the scenes. In his photos he tries to portray the characteristic habits, customs, and behaviour of the authentic Slovakia, which, he says, are disappearing. He also follows the lives of people, their emotional responses to changes and their struggle to make it in the new reality.
Bán is a founding member of the organisation Slovak Documentary Photography (Slovenská dokumentárna fotografia). Using grant money, the organisation supports documentary and journalistic photography projects that bear witness to developments in society.


CELEBRATIONS in the village of Čierny Balog during pre-Lent carnival.
photo: Andrej Bán

THROUGH his photographs, Andrej Bán comments on the Slovakia of today. But it is not the people in the spotlight who are of interest to him. He prefers to aim his camera at those who are in the background.

During election rallies or popular events, like pre-Lent carnival, he does not shoot pictures of politicians and artists on the stage, but instead he captures the individuals behind the scenes. In his photos he tries to portray the characteristic habits, customs, and behaviour of the authentic Slovakia, which, he says, are disappearing. He also follows the lives of people, their emotional responses to changes and their struggle to make it in the new reality.

Bán is a founding member of the organisation Slovak Documentary Photography (Slovenská dokumentárna fotografia). Using grant money, the organisation supports documentary and journalistic photography projects that bear witness to developments in society.

Bán recently completed one such project, which was sponsored by the Juraj Vaculík Creative Studio (JVCS). The money he received allowed him to travel around Slovakia for a year, and the photos from his travels can now be seen in Bratislava's Profil Gallery. The Slovak Spectator spoke to the photographer on March 13 at the opening of the show.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why is the exhibition called The Other Slovakia?

Andrej Bán (AB): I used this title five or six years ago, and it's a theme I've been working with for the last 12 or 15 years. Back then, Slovakia was dominated by various groups, each wanting to claim Slovakia for themselves and remake it in their image. They wanted Slovakia to be this or that: Some of them wanted it be nationalistic, others liberal or conservative, left or right wing.

By using the title The Other Slovakia I wanted to point out that I am opposed to this. It was my personal, inner revolt against these restrictive, sectarian groups. [My pictures show] a different Slovakia, but I'm not looking at it through rose-tinted spectacles. It's not a view of the country through its sights or the beauty of its nature. It shows the everyday life of everyday people, and I think that's what makes it different.

TSS: You are the first person to receive the JVCS grant. How do you choose events or locations for your work?

AB: Usually it is not the events themselves [that attract me]. It is usually the action that is happening behind the scenes during the events. That is where things are happening; there is always something interesting going on in the background. Be it the celebrations of independence [vatry zvrchovanosti, a popular event with bonfires commemorating the country's sovereignty - ed. note] or election rallies. That is one way to work. The other way is to travel without plans, to go to eastern or northern Slovakia, to wander around and wait and see what you are going to encounter. I am not trying to show pictures that have news value. I am trying to show other dimensions or meanings.

TSS: How many pictures have you taken throughout the year?

AB: I must have shot about 600 roles of film, or about 21,000 photographs.

TSS: Why do you shoot in black and white?

AB: My pictures of Slovakia have always been in black and white. I like the reduced spectrum of black and white photography. It suits me.


PHOTO entitled Polar Bears, taken south of Bratislava.
photo: Andrej Bán

TSS: Do you have a favourite region in Slovakia for taking pictures?

AB: I took many pictures in central Slovakia, because you can find some forgotten people there, in the mountains. But I also have photos from Bratislava and from the east [of the country]. [My photos] come from all over Slovakia.

TSS: And how are the Slovaks as subjects of photography? Are they photogenic, do they like to be photographed?

AB: I don't know. Somebody else should judge that.

TSS: But have you ever had unpleasant comments, people snapping at you because you were taking their pictures?

AB: No, they don't usually snap at me. But when I feel that they mind, and people usually show that non-verbally, I don't take pictures.

TSS: Does the opposite ever happen? Do people get the feeling that they can trust you and tell you their life story?

AB: Sure it does. But [The Other Slovakia] is not about reporting. I do talk to the people but I don't write articles about them.

Only a small amount of [my] pictures have been published in the media. I don't work on assignment because most of my photos are intended for an exhibition or a book. In a year, or two or three, when I feel like I have [shot] 70 outstanding [photos], I would like to publish a book on the other Slovakia.

TSS: What do you get out of photography personally? The audience only sees the result of your work but what is the feeling behind it?

AB: It's an amazing feeling, because you can be a wanderer, you are free and independent; you don't work for anybody but for yourself. That's the most precious thing.

What: The Other Slovakia - photo exhibition.
When: until March 30, open Tue-Sun 13:00-18:00.
Where: Galéria Profil (Profil Gallery), Prepoštská 4, Bratislava.
Admission: free.
Tel: 02/5443-0459.
Information: www.profil.sk or www.photodocument.sk

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