Interview: How collaboration has made two photographer’s stories more powerful
This month’s Q&A: Creatives Speak interview is with documentary storytellers Gabriela Bulišová and Mark Isaac. Yes, that’s right–two creatives in one interview.
I’ve been following both of them for some time and got curious about the collaborative nature of their work. Besides often photographing and filming together, they also work very closely with their subjects. They elicit their subjects’ input and consider their photo work a collaboration between all parties. I find the way photography and collaboration intersect fascinating as a documentary photographer, and I was curious to hear how Gabriela and Mark had started working together on projects.
Since I wanted to learn from the way they navigate photography and collaboration, I asked if they’d be up for a collaborative interview, and they said yes! I hope their views will inspire you like they have me.
Their film and photo projects are interspersed, and because it gives important context, I’ve included their notes about the photographs.
Have you been conscious of your creativity since you were young? Do you have any early memories that show creative expression was important to you?
I was in art school since I was 3. My mom tells me that as soon as I could hold a pencil in my hand I would draw. Then, as a teenager, I was dissatisfied with my paintings and drawings and I abandoned art for many years until I found photography.
When I was growing up, I was more of a writer. I created newspapers for my neighborhood as a child and an underground newspaper in high school. I also wrote poetry, and had visual interests, including painting and drawing, but I never took them very seriously.
How did you become interested in photography? In photojournalism? Do you have any other other creative practices? What inspires your creative work?
I was given an old manual Minolta 35mm film camera by a friend who was cleaning his closet and he thought I could use it. This was in 1997, after I moved to the United States. But I had zero experience with photography and did not know how to use a camera. However, soon enough I realized the camera was becoming a tool that helped me navigate through the cultural shock of moving to the US from the former Czechoslovakia. It also offered a complement to the English language — I could express myself visually rather than through a broken form of a new language. It truly became an extension of my eyes and mind.
My other interest is also visual. I’ve been known to say: “When the fingers don’t photograph, the fingers draw.”
What inspires my creative work? Life…daily events, encounters with people, books, news…Mark.
Like Gabriela, I received a camera as a gift. I started taking classes, and got progressively more interested in image-making to the point where I went back to school for an MFA in Photography and Digital Imaging. My interest was at first almost entirely in fine art photography, but I was exposed to photojournalism primarily by witnessing what Gabriela was doing. In a very significant way, getting involved in photojournalism myself was a way of “coming home.” That’s because my main career for many years was in politics. At first, I tried to turn away from politics and activism by embracing fine art photography, but I think we can never really turn away from core interests, and I was compelled to get involved in photojournalism for the same core reasons that I was interested in politics — as a tool for achieving change.
Tell me about your experiences living overseas. Have they helped shape the way you photograph? Where do you spend most of your time? And have you created any photography projects while living abroad?
These are big questions. Each one could take pages to respond to. I first started traveling abroad thinking that was the only place to find interesting stories. Living overseas definitely shaped me as a person, and introduced me to diverse cultures. I hope it also widened my perspective as a photographer and documentary storyteller. And later I realized that there are stories everywhere, even in my own neighborhood — I just had to look for them. So for a while, I worked primarily locally and regionally, in the United States.
This is the first time I’ve lived abroad for more than a month or two. It has been a truly life-altering experience, often times difficult, but almost always rewarding. I felt something similar to what Gabriela said earlier about using photography to supplement spoken language. Since my Ukrainian and Russian language skills are not ideal, I could fall back on photography as a way to express myself in a community where basic interaction was often difficult. We were able to create two major projects — one a documentary film on a proposal to flood a national park, and the other a still photography project about the incredible diversity in Southern Ukraine. Both of these projects were exceptional experiences, especially from the standpoint of meeting and working with tremendously giving and caring individuals who will now hopefully be lifelong friends.
Memoria was photographed in the only penal colony in Ukraine for women ages 14-20. It focused on the important recollections of the women who live in the penal colony. For 13 participating women, Gabriela and Mark created diptychs that include a portrait of each individual and an image of a place, object, photograph, or article of clothing that is particularly important to their memory. In some cases, the participating women are minors, so their faces cannot be shown. The women were also interviewed about the object they selected, and their explanations are included here as text.
I am curious about photography and collaboration. How did you decide to work on photo projects together? Has it taken time to figure out how to make the relationship symbiotic or did it come about organically?
Mark’s art was/is more conceptual and experimental rather than documentary. Our collaboration was unplanned, rather unexpected and truly an organic development. At first, we would discuss projects I was working on, then we started to help each other and finally, we realized we were collaborating. Till then, I was primarily working solo and at first, Mark worried that his presence would disrupt intimacy with people I photographed. But that was not the case at all; our presence offered opportunity for even richer dialogue. And, when we started with audio and video, it was very natural to have two people on a team and share tools and responsibilities. Plus, it is a wonderful gift to have an honest and creative partner who I can work with to plan, execute, and edit projects.
What happened, from my perspective, is that Gabriela got very interested in issues related to incarceration in the United States. This was almost a decade ago, before all the recent attention to the issue in the media. I started to be exposed to what she was doing and got interested in this topic myself. And bit by bit, I started helping her in different ways. Finally, I read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and I realized that I had been blind to a tremendous injustice that was happening in our midst. And then I decided I was all in and wanted to help Gabriela as much as possible with this issue.
But the unique and wonderful thing that happened is that the collaboration then proceeded very naturally and without any conflicts or problems. We found that we work very seamlessly and intuitively with each other.
Prior to collaborating with Gabriela, I worked on a lot of projects in which I was appropriating imagery. And the return to actual image capture was surprisingly enjoyable. I learned a tremendous amount from Gabriela specifically about documentary practice, or I should say, the strategy of bridging the divide between documentary and fine art practices.
The Koger-Harris Family
The Koger-Harris Family, living just outside the nation’s capital, has ample experience with this negative impact. William Koger, the father, lives with his mother, Sandra Koger, and three boys – Isaiah, Demetri, and Dashawn. But it is the absence of the mother, Sherrie Harris, who has been imprisoned at Hazelton Penitentiary, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia since 2006, which looms over the household. William took on the unexpected role of primary caregiver to the children, but he has been in and out of jobs and in and out of prison. After being injured in a car accident, he is unemployed and often in pain. Sandra, the grandmother, also provides extensive care of the three boys, but the family is stretched financially and often unable to afford food or medicine. The children are emotionally scarred by their mother’s absence and sometimes withdraw into their shells or act out. Only when pressed do they express their intense yearning for their mother to come home and provide them with the love they are missing.
According to the Urban Institute, the experience of a parent going to prison will have a “significant impact on the emotional, psychological, developmental, and financial well-being of the child.” Children have difficulty visiting their parents and often lose contact. They drop out of school more frequently and are more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. Separation due to a parent’s incarceration is often accompanied by stigma, ambiguity, and a lack of compassion and support. In the case of the Koger-Harris family, the three boys found out for the first time that their mother was in prison when their grandmother took them to visit her at Hazelton Penitentiary. The children now expect their mother to return in 2016, but prison records show she will be released a year later.
Locked Apart makes clear that family members – and especially children — of offenders are among those who are victimized when a crime occurs. Like the voices of crime victims and their families, the voices of offenders’ family members must be heard. This contributes to the hope that victims, offenders, and the community can repair the harm caused by crime and create a peaceful future in which all are contributing members of society.
How have you gone about making collaborative projects with the people you photograph? And was this a goal from the outset of the project?
Collaborating with Taylar Nuevelle of “Who Speaks For Me” was unplanned. I met Taylar while working on an assignment about visitation policy at the Washington, D.C. jail. I quickly understood that she had an amazing and powerful story and I liked her as a person. Soon after we met, we realized that our work should go beyond the assignment. Taylar is an excellent writer and gifted storyteller and she was ready to share her story publicly for the first time. Taylar brought all the photographs she was distressing to her therapist who, actually, tried to convince her for two years to engage in art therapy as part of her healing process.
With Taylar, at first I was letting Gabriela take the lead because of her assignment, but when I met Taylar and got to know her, I felt there was a really good rapport among the three of us. And the project became one that was carried out equally by all of us, and we all are credited for it. It’s about the manner in which the prison system is operating as a dumping ground for people with mental illness, but instead of receiving treatment, people like Taylar are subjected to additional physical and mental abuse. And our method of working was definitely a breakthrough. We began by making portraits together with Taylar and then she started to distress them to represent the pain she felt from abuse, both in childhood and in prison. And we passed them back and forth, working on them until we felt they were finished.
“Who Speaks for Me” by Gabriela Bulisova, Taylar Nuevelle & Mark Isaac
What is it like photographing in communities you don’t belong to? How do you remain sensitive to the way you portray the community’s issues and stories?
There has been a lot of discussion recently about being an outsider and photographing or working in communities we “don’t belong to,” as you put it. Mark and I pursue long-term projects; we make sure to get to know the people we meet and work with in depth. We’re very clear about our intentions. We discuss ideas with people, we don’t make promises we can’t keep. We listen to people and their stories. We try to make everyone we work with an honest and respected part of a project, as collaborators, co-creators, and even as friends.
I feel pretty strongly that something’s terribly wrong if we can’t go out and meet people who are different from us, try to understand them better, and try to convey something about their lives and experiences. Obviously, we need more women, people of color, and members of other marginalized communities doing this as well. But we need to be able to reach out across boundaries or we are doomed as a species. Ultimately it is each person’s humanity that defines their character and I think this is the most important consideration.
What’s a typical day for you look like? What kind of things do you photograph the most? What do you enjoy photographing the most?
It starts with coffee and ends with wine. 🙂 But in-between it is all work, work, work…either in the field, photographing, filming, researching, or editing, presenting or networking. That’s part of the beauty of being an independent freelancer, the days are always different and never boring.
That’s the good thing about this kind of work, there’s not really a typical day. It keeps our interest level high. And by going abroad, we’ve encountered so many diverse people and novel things that it’s been extremely fresh at all times.
I don’t think there’s one type of thing that we like to photograph the most. Maybe it is a cop-out to say that we love it when things go really well: when there’s a rapport with our partners, the camera is embracing the intended theme, the location is actively contributing to image-making, and things just come together.
How does your personal photography work differ from paid work you do? How do you keep a balance between paid and personal work?
There is not enough paid work! And, if we are hired for pay, it’s usually because someone liked our personal projects. Therefore, there isn’t that much difference between the two, although our personal work has a tendency to be more experimental.
Recently our strategy has been to rely heavily on large grants like the one offered by the State Department’s Fulbright program, which is offering the opportunity to work abroad for about nine months. And this grant offers tremendous freedom, so we don’t have to compromise at all for an editor, and we can really focus in on what we want to convey to our audience.
Although it’s really important to get to the meaty question of how creative people make things and bring projects into the world, I think creatives can help our community by talking about the financial side of owning a creative business. What have you learned about the financial side? Does photography pay your bills, or a portion of them?
For years I’ve been teaching as an adjunct professor, and I love the interaction with students and the learning process, but it is also a way to pay my bills. Grants are harder and harder to get, but it’s wonderful to be awarded a Fulbright grant (we are in Siberia for nine months, starting in September 2018), and to be recognized and financially supported for working on projects that matter to us.
I worked for years doing consulting on public policy and communications alongside my photography to make sure we could make ends meet. That was always a bit out of balance, with paid work usually demanding more time than I wanted to give it. Now, with the help of large grants, we’ve switched to full-time work on image-making. But we don’t have any illusions about how difficult it will be to maintain this approach. I think the honest truth is that the field has many more people producing high-quality work than it has money to pay them, and it’s much more likely to get worse than better.
God’s River (2018)
GOD’S RIVER is a short documentary film created by Mark Isaac and Gabriela Bulisova as part of their work in Ukraine supported by a Fulbright grant. Energy producers and environmentalists agree that climate change has significantly reduced the flow of the Southern Bug River, the longest river entirely within Ukraine. But the two camps differ dramatically on how to respond. The state-operated nuclear conglomerate, EnergoAtom, proposes to raise water levels behind Alexandrivsky Dam, flooding a portion of Buszky Gard National Park. But a unique coalition of veterans, academics, environmentalists and Ukrainian nationalists oppose the plan because it will threaten endangered plants and animals, submerge archaeological digs, and destroy Gardove Island, a place that is sacred to Cossack heritage. While some urge compromise, others claim concessions could permanently kill the river. Returning soldiers from the Donbas region forthrightly embrace the struggle as an extension of the war effort. If the Ukrainian Parliament approves the plan, they have pledged — along with their allies — to occupy Gardove Island, where a Cossack church once stood, and protect it “by all means necessary, including radical ones.”
Do you have any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet? How do you keep track of them? How about in the future? Do you think it will become possible to explore those ideas?
Many! We just spent almost 10 months in Southern Ukraine (Mark was awarded a Fulbright grant), and there were many ideas and possibilities for projects, but there was no time to execute them all. And, Mark is an incubator of creative ideas. He would need 20 lifetimes to get them all completed.
It’s true that I generate a lot of ideas. I have notebooks and hard drives full of them. Of course, it’s no guarantee that they’re good ideas, or that we’ll have time to carry them out. But I am determined to identify some of the best ones and pursue them. Several times I’ve had the experience of putting an idea aside for later and then seeing someone else take the lead with it. So I know that sometimes you just have to forge ahead more quickly and make it happen.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work? How do you stick with it when the going gets tough?
How to find new and creative ways of telling stories in an era when it’s so hard to break through to your audience. What medium or combination of media would be optimal for a specific project when it seems that traditional photography and video approaches don’t always get a story across. Again, this is why our collaboration can be highly beneficial because we can brainstorm, discuss and try a variety of creative solutions.
Lack of time is the thing that worries me the most. I wish I was one of those people who only needs four hours of sleep a night, for example, so I could just jump on ideas and carry them to fruition by working through the night.
Sometimes good ideas don’t pan out as expected in practice. Then a key question to ask is whether to press ahead, or try something else. Most often I’ve chosen to try to finish what was started. We all need to find our limits in that regard, and I think it’s really a personal choice. But we have to keep in mind what will make us most effective as artists and as activists.
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in becoming photojournalists or documentary photographers?
Do it if your heart’s in it. Documentary photography is a deeply meaningful and enriching profession. Be prepared to work very hard, for long hours, in conditions that can be far from ideal or comfortable, in situations and environments that may be upsetting, difficult, sad, and painful. Then, you will be rewarded by the unexpected gift of meeting beautiful and generous people and by listening to stories you would have never encountered. But if you want to be rich and famous, find a different occupation!
I think the important thing for everyone these days is finding the right way to be effective. I would urge everyone to take a hard look at how they feel they can make a difference in the current climate, which is truly a threatening one. And if photojournalism and/or documentary photography really feels right, then, by all means, plunge forward and contribute as you see fit. But the important thing is to contribute to solutions, one way or another.
What are you working on currently?
As we mentioned, we’ve just finished two major projects in Southern Ukraine. So for the moment, we’re focused on getting that work out through exhibitions and screenings, both in Europe and the United States. And we’re doing research and planning for our next major project we’ll be pursuing in Siberia. That’s Gabriela’s Fulbright project, which will explore the folklore of the indigenous Buryat people, who are very connected to the environment, and the threat of climate change to Lake Baikal.
How can people view and stay up-to-date with your creative work?
I’m posting regularly on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, much as I detest them. Until there’s a viable alternative, they seem like a necessary evil. And you can also find my personal work and our joint work at my website.
Gabriela Bulišová and Mark Isaac are artists and documentary storytellers who collaborate on intimate projects designed to bridge the gap between fine art and documentary practices, including still photography, video and installation focused on the impact of incarceration, the environmental degradation of our waterways, diversity, refugees, and borderlands. Their commitment to these issues is fed by a passion to significantly expand awareness and engender meaningful changes in policy. Most recently, the pair is working on long-term projects in Eastern Europe and Asia supported by the State Department’s Fulbright Program.
The duo both received an MFA in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Bulišová has received numerous awards, including The National Press Photographers Association’s Short Grant; the Sondheim Prize; and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls, among others. She teaches photojournalism at the Corcoran College of Art and Design at George Washington University. Isaac was a semifinalist for the Sondheim Prize and has been named a promising local photographer by FotoDC. His solo fine art projects have been exhibited in the United States and abroad.
Some of their recent joint exhibitions and screenings include: God’s River, short documentary film screened in Kyiv, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Mykolaiv, Ukraine (2018); Where the Rivers Come Together, Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University Gallery, Mykolaiv, Ukraine (2018); Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA (2016-present); the Boyden Gallery, St. Mary’s College of MD (2016); and Montpelier Arts Center, Laurel MD (2016). Their collaborative work has also been published by Smithsonian Magazine (2017); National Geographic Proof (2016), and Narratively (2015).
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