Zsuzsanna Dominika Ihar (b.1995) is an analogue photographer tentatively based in Sydney, whose practice has an evolved around capturing the leftover sensoriums of the Soviet Bloc, with particular attention paid to flows of labour, everyday life, as well as industrialised and militarised ecologies.
Having grown up in the former USSR, Zsuzsanna is predominantly interested in the particular atmospheres of small-towns, which often turn out to be hotspots of uncanny historical and political activity. Indeed, in previous works, she has examined border towns cartographically and physically, split across national territory lines; ghost towns abandoned for 8-9 months at a time due to the necessity of seasonal work; and towns containing unexpected diasporic groups, distributing ideas of neat homogeneity. The tracing of often subtle and quiet stories is what interests her the most.
Where did your photographic journey begin, and what specifically about film sparked your interest?
We moved around frequently during my childhood, so growing up I was used to constant long-haul car rides, my belongings neatly folded up and stored in boxes, as well as the lack of stable homely spaces. The fact that most of my days were spent in either small rooms or cars, meant that painting and other creative forms were unsuitable and ill-fitting…I found myself anxious about having to carry around paints, canvases, sheets of paper, not quite knowing how to cram them into the compartmentalized spaces I was inhabiting. I remember finding a camera at a secondhand store, and I was attracted by its compact nature, the fact that it could be firmly attached to me, swinging against my hipbone, and I could capture, archive, and curate as I wished without the need for further resources. From that point onward, I had an inkling that I had found the medium through which I could engage with the world, both in an agentful and an intuitive manner.
The choice to begin moving toward film was instigated by a desire for restriction and a growing attentiveness toward form. I was incredibly trigger-happy when it came to the digital camera, amassing folders of data…and the photographs always seemed to remain data, never inhabiting a more lively form. Film for me became equivalent with liveliness, and simultaneously, austerity. Being able to turn away from certain potential shots in order to conserve and safe-keep felt like a mode of learning…..learning to lean into what moved and affected me personally, establishing an intimate hierarchy….or maybe even an economy of the visual that had the potential to communicate what was dear to me. It also became a political exercise, where I questioned intention and why I gravitated towards certain figurations within the visual over others, or certain subjects over others. Film forced me to consider carefully, as well as emotionally.
You are currently working with Sydney based artists and stylists to create bold and beautiful work that explores identity, cultural background and creative expression. You have a strong focus of portraiture within your practice. There is often an intimacy within your shots that speak of a connection beyond the lens. How important is knowing your subject, for the shots to have this quality? Can you speak on the process of trust building and collaboration within this framework?
Portraiture for me is storytelling, which has always been an exercise in collaboration and a writing together (at least breaking away from Western canons where fiction has often been guided by singular authorship). I always hope that when I take a photograph of someone it can become a form of co-authoring, or at least a dialogue. The context has to be generous enough to hold contradictions, differences, a wide spectrum of emotions. Everyone has a different relationship with the visual, as well as with the very tradition of photography (which functions within a colonial capitalist-field of relations). Acknowledging that is crucial to a trusting environment. Also knowing that trust is not stable, but waivers, becomes solid at times, leaky at other times….so a habit of checking-in with the individual you are photographing is also important to see what that trust is like at any moment. Whilst I love the familiarity of photographing friends, and celebrating their very real presence in my life, I feel like photographs can be a form of gifting when it comes to strangers, a solidification of a moment or a collaboration, that becomes a quiet ‘thank-you’ for that encounter.
Your practice has evolved around capturing the leftover sensoriums of the Soviet Block. For example your series батасы examines the ecologies of raw material alongside the historic highways of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the communities living beside. Much like your portraiture work, there is an intimacy and knowledge of your subject that moves beyond the frame. What is your process of approaching such intricate subject matter? And how do you go about approaching people to tell their stories?
Whilst photography as a medium is often accused of flattening — reducing subjects, politics, relationships to a glimpse, or an overly simplistic feeling of desire, disgust, pity, anger —, I think it does have the capacity to hold complexity, and provide a real methodology. Through батасы I attempted to trace the lines through which resources, ecological matter, labour, and care-work moves, which happened to coincide with a major highway. Intricate subject matters often can be best grasped via locating these kinds of crossing points; objects through which different political, emotional and archival bodies move. Whenever I go into the field I try to locate such objects. I also try to be attentive to local histories and archives.
Being a considerate guest has become key when it comes to making people feel comfortable enough to tell their stories. So many of my photographs came into being through the offering of a meal or a cup of tea, as well as afternoons spent listening and conversing with people. This tends to be the same regardless whether the place is my hometown or somewhere I’ve never been to before.
Scrolling through your instagram feed has a cross-continental feel. Stories intermingle with the connection of style, lighting and sensitivity to the subject. With Sydney being a tentative base, you are about to go overseas again. What is your destination and what do you hope to be shooting?
I am heading to Azerbaijan and Iran this week! I hope to craft a story about gestures of hospitality. How care is translated through uncanny acts….trying to map the vast vocabulary through which ‘foreigners’ or ‘strangers’ are made to feel a part of and privy to. I’ve been re-reading Derrida’s “Of-Hospitality”, and thinking about the role of the guest and the metaphor of the “parasite” — and its original meaning of “to eat beside”, how it may allow us to forge different codes of hospitality to enact not only at the level of the home but also at the level of the nation state. In saying this, I really wanted to begin attending to the existing arsenals of care that exceed and counter capitalist modes of guest-keeping and hosting. I felt both Iran and Azerbaijan offer two spaces where the relationship between host and guest has always been complex, blurry and a space of creativity.
What is your favorite film stock to use?
Fuji Acros 100. I have Stephen from Rewind to thank for kindly directing me towards Acros. I am incredibly grateful for his generous advice/suggestions, as I had previously been quite insecure regarding my ability to use b/w film with intent and skill. I always thought I was kind of stuck to Portra, often out of familiarity. It’s been really helpful to have someone provide advice regarding practical ways I can begin shifting my image-making.