Photographing the Void: interview with Paul Paper

Despite the formal presence of the word «contemporary» in the official names of some exposition spaces around the city of Minsk, in Belarus contemporary art is seen with a suspicious eye. It is left misunderstood and thus even evoking fear: who knows maybe in one of its multiple sense layers something really unpleasant can be discerned. Misunderstanding and grumpy look of the viewers’ are also supported by the fact that in our country teaching art as well as many other humanitarian disciplines do not go further than the presenting material of the 1980s – the period when in Europe and the USA actually the most curious things started to develop. Belarussian viewers and artists rarely face really thought-provoking art and as a result they simply have not yet developed their “eye muscle” which would allow them to enjoy the non-obvious.

The relations between the Belarussian photography and contemporary are even more complex and controversial. At the ruins of the once powerful state, young and angry minds longing for a new language to describe the changing reality were actively engaged in picturesque experiments: in 1990s the art association “Belarussian Climate” was active, as well as the famous workshop headed by Valery Lobko, several individual conceptual artists developed their projects, like for instance Ljudmila Rusova. However, at the level of institutions, these initiatives were not supported, their activities – not documented and analyzed, left out of the broader context.  Maybe that is why nowadays contemporary is sort of re-invented, and in many ways thanks to the work of Gallery Ў and periodic activated performed on the platform of NOVA Gallery.  

In the attempt to meditate on the experience in the contemporary, I had a long talk with Paul Paper, one of the bright young photographers and curators from Lithuania. Paul is the author of several conceptual photo-books, being in charge of book stands representing Lithuania at international fairs on photography and publishing. He also curated a few serious photo and multimedia projects in Europe and the USA.  

Paul, hello! Can you, please, start with introducing of your own “story” in photography. What was your own way in the contemporary, where does your interest to photography come from?

I began as a photographer, purely practical-based and I took photographs and did not think much about them. I guess I would describe my photography as an intimate photo-diary of the everyday. I did not really think that much what I was doing, but trusted my senses. One might think of it as a kind of photojournalism, but taken in a very intimate environment - I mostly shot my friends, - trying to find some intuitive details.

Фотографируя пустоту: интервью с Паулем Пэйпэ
"Brave Enough (For the Haunted Mansion)" by Paul Paper, 2008

I was doing very every day photographs, capturing very simple moments trying to find some beauty in them, it was my way of coping with life. These photos are all small, nothing big is happening there. Because life is rarely these big moments that you see sometimes presented in photography. A lot of life is passed just in days spent with some people doing nothing special.

It is strange that in those early years of my photographic practice, when I was doing this more intimate photography, more photography about people, my works were understood by way bigger audience. I think that there is probably something more universal in the emotions that photographs convey and that you share something about your life, that you want to share with photographs and other people can recognize certain emotions maybe they have gone through. So there is something really universal in photography as a language. Which is also why photography attracted me.

Later I was doing my Master’s at Stockholm and I began reading visual theory more and more, thus  gradually becoming very conscious of what I was doing and why I was shooting pictures like that. There was a moment when I understood that I could no longer photograph as I used to. There are so many photographs in the world and it is very hard to contribute something meaningful. I had this kind of crisis, a kind of photographer’s block. I wanted to find a new way of approaching photography. And I did.

In 2012 I made a project called “Untaken Photographs”, it was released as a zine by a Japanese publisher called Booklet Press. For more than one year instead of taking certain photographs I wrote them down. I had a notebook and absolutely had an opportunity to take them, having a camera with me. But then I stopped myself: no, I would not do that, I would just write them down. I described in a short sentence what I would photograph: a ray of light, for example. I also noted down a date, and whether it was vertical or horizontal. I am aware that I am not the first person to come up with this kind of concept, but it was very personal and it helped me somehow. This project… it really helped me to see what and how I see “photographically”, in process, changing my way of looking and it was really a self-discovery.

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One of the layouts of the book “Untaken Photographs” by Paul Paper, 2012

So, what you did, you actually substituted the tool of registering reality, because instead of using the camera, you were using the words?

Yea, in a way. Or I was kind of translating. I think a photograph is already a translation of what you see and what you think a nice, good, or smart, for whatever reason, image is. And then you translate it, and sometimes the translation goes better, other times, it is not so good. And this is what a good image depends on. So I am translating the image through my metaphors of what is photographic to words. And I think it really helped me to see what I think are photographic scenes, so say, why I think that I should take a photograph of this kind of person looking sideways in front of the sun… or something like that.

But still visually (or verbally) you remained within the same topic? I mean still it was like a photo-diary? If you had been using the camera, the pictures would be the same? You just changed the tool?

Partly, but my shooting was evolving as well. In general it changed to from people towards objects. Maybe I thought that shooting objects is more appropriate to this situation we find ourselves in, more in dialogue with what is going on, with the digital. It is also about people, but I somehow expressed the void. I wanted to show that people were so displaced in this automatic society where everything is calculated, where digital is so prominent. I was looking at the photographs of objects and thinking: this is about people emphasizing the void.

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"Photographer’s Dilemma" by Paul Paper

Do you also think that photography is becoming interdisciplinary? I have noticed that contemporary photographers often work together with designers, artists, and so on. And it seems to me that exhibition as a format of presenting pictures is going old-fashioned. Photography is actively borrowing and making use of the tools of other disciplines.

Yes! Just in April we were doing a talk and a discussion series at the National Art Gallery here in Vilnius. It was called “What is Not Photography”. The title was chosen partly to indicate the difficulties in locating the boundaries of photography as a medium and discipline. Where does photography start and where does it end? And I sometimes feel as if these boundaries were almost forced upon photography before. Like this is art photography, this is where it ends, and that is photojournalism, that is fashion photography and so on. These boundaries used to be quite established. And now they are becoming really blurred, even the boundaries between photography and other disciplines, for example, sculpture.

During the discussions there was a sense shared by a number of participants that the way of doing pure photography is a bit old-fashioned. Which I think is slightly unfair because I believe that one can still make a pure photography and be really contemporary, as so many practitioners’ work clearly demonstrated. There are always visual and contextual “clichés”, kind of “shortcuts” of definition, determination of what contemporary (art, photography) is at a certain moment in time. Somehow today it feels contemporary if you mix photography with objects, for example. So today it is really very hard to talk about photography as a closed discipline.

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Exhibition at Crooked Nose coffee club with Gabija Jankauskaite

Can we say that contemporary photography is becoming, on the one hand, broader because it is open for cooperation with other means, but on the other hand, it is becoming more narrow, more subjective, more personal. Fewer people can understand it, because it requires scientific critical whatever vision... preparation.

I think that is right. There are less people who can relate to the conceptual art photography. Because you have to go through a certain thinking (or period of thinking) about photography in order to understand that the images are actually related to the situation that is today. To appreciate that there is a thought running behind it.

And this is actually one of the features of contemporary photography – this need for more and more visual and cultural knowledge to be able to understand photography. I am not sure that it is becoming more personal or subjective. Maybe it is becoming more charged with this cultural collateral knowledge that you need to have in order to be able to decipher an image. For it to become somehow meaningful for the spectator. An the field is so broad, so in this sense there are way more steps to be done to enjoy.

And you as a curator when selecting young Lithuanian artists and arranging exhibitions for them, what criteria do you use? What are the things that you use as priority, as the criteria to ground you choice?

I guess for me the criteria by which I try to judge works is their ability to be in dialogue with today, with what is going on today. The philosophy on which I judge photographs is based on Vilém Flusser’s ideas. He said that the majority of photographs are simply doing what a camera can, so they are kind of fulfilling the camera options and it is not a good photography, it is automatic. It does not question our values.

According to Flusser, there is a minority of photographers who are able to question our values by giving images which we do not automatically reveal how to decode. By seeing an image which is not obvious and not an image which you have seen many times, you cannot but start to reflect on them. Why is this image presented as a good one? Or what is its intention? It questions the notions that you take as self-granted.

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"Reading "The Trial" by Franz Kafka in the appartment where Julian Assange used to live" by Paul Paper, 2012, Stockholm  

My point is that you have to constantly renew your relationship with images. You have to be in a dialogue with what is around you, with the problems. But not in the obvious way, in a more subtle way maybe, in a more thought-out way. Well, I guess that would be my definition about what I am looking for in photographs.

So, being in dialogue with the current situation happing in the world can be also named as one of the requirement to a contemporary photographer. What other things can be important? Since today, thinking in broad terms, for a contemporary photographer sometimes it is not even necessary to take pictures. Like you did it in your book Untaken Photographs”.

I think a contemporary photographer is one who is sensitive to the issues that affect our life today and maybe they are not so obvious so they are not yet analyzed. One can feel they are somehow in the air. And with the tools like photography which we have developed we can grasp these issues.

Everything is becoming digital, everyone is becoming more professional, everything is calculated, the void of intimacy, the void of spontaneity is felt. So by grasping these and a lot of other things that are pressing at the moment, being sensitive to them through pictures we can reveal aspects of today, which are unspoken of, hidden of a normal view . That is for me I guess who a contemporary photographer is.

And then there is another question which is connected to that but a bit different. How much is sensitivity and this way of being in dialogue with what is going on today affected by the market? By what you think would sell, by what you think you would do for your grant, for your name, for what would exhibit well… That is another question. And I think a lot of work done in photography is affected by people being conscious by that. At least the way of presentation. When they do a book or an exhibition, they think about that. The market is really strong and it is affecting us.

So for me those photographers who still stay true to his/her message are interesting. Those who find their way of being conscious about the hand of the market, sometimes even emphasizing it, tricking it, so it becomes obvious that they did it for the market. In doing so, they smartly criticize the market.

And when you curate exhibitions, do you also manage to sell any of the works?

At the moment I curate two series of exhibitions. One is right now going on in Austin Center for Photography. It is called Blog Reblog. We do it with a colleague and a good friend of mine, a curator form New York - Max Marshall. Each of us has selected a group of 100 photographers and then we randomly paired them together. Another exhibitions Sraunus started in 2010 and ran through 2013. It is a travelling show that was exhibited in 8 cities worldwide.

What is a bit special about these projects is that they are actually projector-based shows. In Blog Reblog we use 2 projectors because each pair is shown together and in Sraunus we show images one by one. So there is nothing to sell in the old sense.

I find this format of presenting photographs to be rather contemporary – we actually bring images that are not material. It also reflects how young people consume images online. Images which are in a feed all the time, you see an image and you know that there is a new one appearing in 2 minutes. Or even seconds. And usually our projects are very short-termed. From 1 -2 nights only show to 4 weeks, which is an exception. For us they are more like an event. Easy, flexible and democratic.

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Images randomly arranged in pairs from “Blog Reblog” project curated by Max Marshall and Paul Paper.

Photos by Jessica Williams and Anthony Smith

 What about publishing self-made photo-books? I know that nowadays the phenomenon of self-publishing is very popular, also seen as a smart way of showing the results of one’s work. Books are simple to make, sometimes you can make only one copy or 5 or 10, not more. They are personal, you decide on the sequence, create the cover, make selection, etc. Is self-publishing also flourishing in Lithuanian photography?

In 2012 with a group of friends we organized Lentyna: an event dedicated to self-publishing and artist’s books. It was a 2-day event at the National Art Gallery in Vilnius formed by three parts: workshop, talks and the exhibition. We invited publishes from Europe to show their work and had a separate stand for Lithuania, and everyone could submit their books for the showcase in it. It was not only photography, but self-publishing or artists in general. We got a pretty impressive number of submissions.

I think that was one of those events that helped people realize that making a self-published book or a zine is a viable practice and, technically, rather easy to do and affordable. First of all, it is acceptable and gives people so many ways of doing it, so many formats. Cheap, affordable and free in this way that you are not so much limited by what you want to say. There is no editor who would control your work.

And then it is a very tangible product, because you have in your hands.

Yes, exactly, it is an idea that you have a finished project, It is an art piece as is, for example, a series of photographs hanging on the wall. Moreover, it is small, portable, not expensive to make. You freely put the photographs in a certain order directing the reader through your story.

I think that generally with some notable and important exceptions, photo-books in Lithuania, especially during the 20th century, were mostly editor-initiated photo-books. A lot of older generation artists still prefer to go the usual way, they become important and when they are 40 or 50, and then they make a hard-cover book which goes thorough the censorship of the editorship and the market. There was this idea that the photographer must be important enough to make a book. It was not so much seen as a process of developing one’s thoughts and artistic ideas, but already as a retrospective. Whereas now the idea that a photo-book is an object in one’s artistic development is becoming more wide-spread.

Very recently I was at Self Publish Riga at self-publishing Riga a first edition of the festival dedicated to artists books and self-published books. It is part of the new photo-festival Riga Photomonth, which is itself a part of the Riga EU capital events this year. For it I curated a stand of Lithuania contemporary artists books.

In Vilnius there is an increasing number of artists who self-publish their work. Some of those books are  pretty laborious with a lot of work put into that. They invest in the format, size, cover, in how the book will look from the go, in comparison with the old way where you were mostly interested in photographs, which will appear in the book and maybe in the sequence.

Interestingly, a new group of artists’ book recently appeared here – books published as a part of education, that were done during students’ life, as a task, or an exam or a final project. Mostly those were from Lithuanians who are studying abroad, for example at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. That was something quite new, and then there were books made from small independent publishers from various countries.

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“Contemporary Photography” by Paul Paper, 2014

And my last question… Your blog is named “The More I Shoot, the Less I understand”. And I really like this name which makes one meditate about the nature of photography. But if, vice versa, if we try to reword this sentence into “The More I Shoot, the More I...” How would finish this phrase?

If I would have to choose the more and more construction… Hm.. I guess it would relate again to being more self-conscious about what I shoot. So, the more I shoot, the more conscious I become about what I am doing, what kind of pictures I am taking, why these subjects are so prominent.

But aren’t you contradicting yourself? Because in saying so, it might mean that thanks to photography you actually understand more, not less.

I know more about my personal motifs, which is something but it does not help that much in the overall understanding of photography. Knowing this small personal area and then reading a lot I realize: wow, photography is so big! There are so many different contradicting and culturally established ideas about photography, when photography does and why it works in the way it works: so many aspects that are working in photography, both within it and with it. In dialogue.

So, those are different kinds of understandings. One refers more to a grasp of my own motifs, but not an understanding of what constitutes a photograph or what makes certain pictures worth better than others. Or why certain projects are more up-to-date or more in dialogue with what is going on and others – not so much. Why certain series are rediscovered and they suddenly become interesting. It is still a mystery. That is I don’t know anything about that.

The text was first published at