I had the pleasure to exchange some thoughts with Valentina Abenavoli on her practice, her book 'Anaesthesia' and her publishing house AKINA Books. If you will have the strength to read till the last of her words you will not only rediscover one of the most endearing cross-section of contemporary photography but also some sincere personal considerations on the concepts of evil and empathy.
Few days after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, on The Washington Post, the journalist Maxim Mayer-Cesiano states that it is ok if we feel more sorrow and pain for a terrorist attack like the one in Paris then a similar attack in places outside the “white Western world”. The search for empathy has been one of the main drive that pushed you to start the project. Can you share with us the process/the feelings which later resulted in your work Anaesthesia?
Valentina Abenavoli (VA): Empathy is an imaginative projection of the other, a psychological identification, not an emotional reaction. The problem in the article is the prosaic underplay of the issue, the justification used for not caring about something unfamiliar: “the grief is a personal decision” does not mean anything in this context, because the grief on stake here is not personal but collective. It is the result of a misused nationalistic attitude, of a manipulative and sensational correspondence between one and another identity (or better said “us and the others”).
The reference point is not the individual, but society.
When the perception of the other happens filtered (by laptops, tablets, mobile phones, TVs, printed paper), the first experience of empathy falls in distance and gets accustomed to the short attention span the news are usually absorbed with. In the case of a terrorist attack in a Western city, the same news is adorned by the typical elements aimed to provoke the required empathic reactions: obsessive and private images, repetition and emphasis, personal details of the victims, sounds and voices for videos. What should be on trial in the article is the way we experience and understand a given reality of the others, and how it is manipulated by the media and abused by the governments. If we were to care only on an emotional level, we would not distinguish between Paris and Beirut.
I was of course shocked after the Paris attack; the brutality of the act was greater than any other terror related events. Shortly after I felt compelled to question and analyse the differences before and after Paris. At that time, I was traveling in Turkey, a country used to violence of that kind, the country where I live now. 'Anaesthesia' is the result of a long exposure to violence, both private and collective. The axis of the project moves around the editing of screenshots taken from several videos shot in conflict areas or in Western cities hit by a sudden attack, both by amateur and professionals, in order to create a sort of alternative fictional documentary of history in the same time it was happening. I tried to look for the reasons the evil side of human beings is fully expressed when needed, and why the empathy is widely exclusive. Moreover, at the time I was working on the book, my personal condition was really fragile and of a break down. Comparing my grief to the one of others helped me to understand better theirs.
© still images of the book 'Anesthesia' by Valentina Abenavoli, Akina Books
What is now, after this long journey, your opinion on the concept of empathy?
VA: When I decided to work on a book about the projections of the others, I thought one would not been enough. I imagined this trilogy, going from the collective experience to a more private one. My second book, 'A more', which is going to be released in September, exactly one year after 'Anaesthesia', takes under analysis the private sphere, the most intimate experience, the sex and the love. It is the empathy of one single person to another, the identification with the subject loved which becomes the object of the love felt. It’s again the supremacy of the ego, the distance between human beings, truly impossible to be called off at times. In the case of 'A more', I worked with pornographic material I bought in a flea market and found through collectors. They are old pictures of porn scenes, from the ‘30s to the ‘70s. The aim is to create clashes between the idea of empathy for one single person and the collective beliefs about sex and love. The text included in the book is a sort of short erotic novel I wrote, in which the person who speaks, the person who acts, and the person who experiences are interchangeable with the reader.
Text plays an important role in your book, next to the screenshots, in many pages we find quotes from many sources, from philosophy to politics, from poetry to interviews you found in these videos. How did you approach the research for the right text? How working with the cinematic editing helped you in expressing your feelings?
VA: The text in 'Anesthesia' was meant to be academic, with an analytical approach. The aim was to investigate causes and effects of two main concepts, strongly connected to each other: evil and empathy. The result is a critical stand, which offers more questions than answers and flattens the international relations differences, considering individuals afar from any national identity issues. The ambiguity of photography allows a certain degree of interpretation regarding the factual information of the subject portrayed and the extrapolation of quotes from the original text offers a wide range of points of view. Above all, the work expands the concept of caring, or not, depending on the personal involvement and question everyone’s positions. It takes enough intellectual honesty and emotional intelligence to give a straight answer.
I spent three months without sleeping almost at all, obsessively watching videos of the most horrifying scenes and reading any kind of text in which the concepts of evil and empathy were found. It was a sort of catharsis, on a personal level, and a big responsibility, for the book and my work in general. But I survived.
© still images of the book 'Anesthesia' by Valentina Abenavoli, Akina Books
In the past few years many documentary photographers have used several “unconventional” techniques in their practice, generating a debate about where precisely the medium of photography finishes to be considered as such. In your opinion, should photography have a role or an obligation in the representation of these events like a war or a terrorist attack and where do you think your practice stand?
VA: I thought we were already over the discussion about the medium of photography! I would spend hours digging into dystopia and fiction, discussing around the concept of reality and its representation, the subjectivity and the impossibility of emotional identification with the subjects, the interpretation and the manipulation. Photography is limiting and useful to nothing else than entertainment of the eyes, if not linked to any of these words. Documentary photography will always be on trial, because photography is ultimately subjective both for the maker and for the viewer. The relationship between aesthetic and social issues is a complex crucial balance, often hidden behind ethics and misjudgement of the aesthetical level. It all depends on the subject portrayed and the integrity of the photographer: if the “unconventional” techniques fit the matter and help the content on a visual level, why not, I don’t see any discrimination. If the intentions of the photographer are to impress with mere aesthetic, then I am looking at aesthetic, and manipulation of the content, and the message arrives distorted.
Photography will always take just a portion of reality and lie about it. That’s the beauty of it, and its ambiguity. I would prefer a photographer who talks about what he/she knows closely, his/her own country for example, over someone who goes to the other side of the world to document an issue from his favourable safe position. It is not a rule, obviously, and many photographers have great sensitivity nevertheless. It is again a matter of empathy. The problem appears when apparent democracies or authoritarian regimes take documentary photography as a tool to manipulate the information, redirect what is portrayed in the picture, or even worst accuse the photojournalist of being associated with terrorism. This kind of things are happening all the time and it is scary.
You have also created a short film titled 'The Horror of Love', as you stated in several interviews it is an alternative take and extension of the book and was created for the opening of a solo exhibition at JEST gallery in Turin. Can you tell us more about this work?
VA: 'The Horror of Love' has the fluid irregular form of the video, shaped around the time it is made: a sequence of scattered recording, memories, symbolism and metaphors, as well as retakes of the documentaries I watched during the making of 'Anaesthesia'. It is the opposite form of the final eternal book. I felt the urge to work with different media to explore the possibilities of understanding an image and being manipulated by it. Both video and book are different outputs on the same subject, they both carry repetition, subtitles, sequences. The video is closer to the personal experience I had while working on the book, that’s why is an alternative take but at the same time an extension of it.
I heard some people cried reading the book, I saw people crying in front of the video. This is overwhelming.
© Valentina Abenavoli, still images from the film 'Horror of Love'
You are not only a photographer but also a publisher, with Alex Bocchetto you have founded the successful publishing house AKINA Books. Compared to when you are working on editing projects with other artists, can you indicate the differences or the potential conflict in having to edit your own photographic work into a book form?
VA: I would not call myself a photographer, I was never good enough to be one. I prefer to be the person behind the person who is behind the camera. The publishing house, AKINA, and the collaborative process with Alex and all the artists we worked with (or still working on), are the most incredible achievements of my life as a professional, but also as a human being. AKINA is strongly related to my identity and Alex’s and the direction the editorial line is taking is a mix between the two of us.
'Anaesthesia', as well as 'A more', were made in a very short time. Usually the collaborative work takes more time since feedback and opinions are overlapping each other and strengthening the final result. With my books, I took the risk of working on my own, showing the PDF almost ready to be printed, trying to keep absolute control over the editing and the designing. I had great help from Alex and from our printer Ufuk Şahin just at the end of the process. They know how much I am opinionated over my own work, and moreover they can stand my crisis filled with doubts and insecurity. It is completely different when I work for someone else. I prefer to listen, to interpret, to analyse, to question, to improve, to shape the work around discussions and mutual exchange. I cannot use the same sensitivity with my own work. I have to be tough with myself and I can accept critics just when the work is almost done. That’s the only way I can trust what I’ve done and put a distance to it.
When you started with AKINA Books the world of self-publishing was an already growing trend, today it seems that almost everyone has the urge to make a book or zine of some sort. This democratisation of the photobook has certainly produced and brought to light many new artists, who 5/10 years ago never would have had the chance to bring to the market their own work. From my point of view this is certainly a good thing, for some others it has instead generated a certain overcrowding. What’s your opinion on this topic? How do you see the near future of publishing?
VA: Publishing is not a profitable industry. It is sustainable for surviving, in some cases, but it has never been profitable. The saturation of the market is not the real problem, although random quantity often decreases an overall quality and the audience is not addressed in the right way. In a crowded market, the competition on contents strikes in, and this is a good challenge. Valuable content takes time and risk. It is subjective to the taste of the producer, but it has to be universal for reaching the audience.
What do we really have to say through books? Are we giving to art a new meaning to be appreciated and valued for its economical and emotional worth? Are we, in the photography industry, the only literate to acknowledge the importance of a photobook? Is mixing photography and text, and illustrations, and cinematic sequence, and narrative, enough to open up the market? Why the hell do we produce photobooks? And why the audience does not understand the costs involved? They can buy a jumper for the same price, use it for a couple of years and then throw it away.
For a long time, I questioned the market, the trends, the issue of photographers who never get paid, the masturbation over design, the vanity publishing, the lack of interest, the lack of content. I believe we are all part of the problem: artists, publishers, designers, collectors, gallerists, critics, sellers, customers even. The ego follows its own benefit and produces monsters and clashes in the chain. It seems we are always stuck around the same matter, as a starting point of a discussion, without finding any solution, and carrying on trying hard.
AKINA never asked for money to produce a book, and will never do. You can imagine how hard it is. We are that kind of outdated independent idealistic publishers who discover a photographer almost unknown, fall in love with the project, and have the craziest idea of publishing it without bend to the requests of the trends. We believe so much in what we publish that we are ready to take any risk. We spent countless hours in binding books by hand because we did not have money to pay someone else to work on our behalf. It became our identity and shortly after a trend, but it all started as a cheap way of producing books. After 5 years we are able to produce long print run, but the money issue is always there. We are barely surviving. Happily ever after.
I give you a practical example: print 700 copies in offset, good binding and paper. Let’s say it costs you 7000 euro. Price the book 4 times the production cost per copy. Include in your calculations the shipping of the pallets from the printer to your house, the percentage to Paypal or to your bank for international transactions, the packaging to ship the books. The first 200 copies are sold easily, if it’s a good book. 30% to 40% of the income will go to the bookshops, 60% in case of a distributor. With 200 copies sold you are even, more or less.
Bare in mind: I did not calculate the photographer investment in producing the work to be published, nor the editor time in working on the sequence, or the designer fee, or the rent of your house (or in the best cases warehouse) where to store the books. I did not calculate office rent, bookfairs, planes tickets, hotels, when you promote the book. I did not calculate the cost of living, nor taxes, nor collaborators fees. You still have 500 copies to sell: they are money to be produced, they are your investment for the future, they will be your income and the repayment of your debts. You scream on social media to share your vision, your book, your work. You receive likes and for a moment you feel that everything will go well. You hope the book is sold out quickly, in order to claim its importance and value, by stating the time it was sold within. At some point, you completely forget what the book is about: it is an object to be sold. Some bookshops will buy 5/10 copies one time, and after they sell them they won’t restock your book again, they don’t have physical space and they want to attract new customers with new books. Others buy much more, you are lucky and blessed, but you cannot count on them, as they have the same problems you have, they are stuck with books, they often pay you after they sell the books. Some customers wait to buy your book because they know there are still 500 copies available, they don’t act on impulses, they think twice and one more time, until the book is forgotten and the opportunity missed. If you have reviews you will sell few copies through your website after someone talks about your book. A quick epiphany and then the void again. Then you go to book fairs, you sell 40/50 copies more. It’s enough to cover some expenses for the trip, gain some money, spend them in drinks with your friends, and pay your rent. One day someone will come across your website and buy one copy of your book, after months. That day you will go to a restaurant to celebrate the selling.
What’s next? Both for you and AKINA?
Next? I didn’t have a single day off in months, and until the end of the year AKINA has planned the impossible! New publications, exhibitions, talks, book fairs, workshops, freelance design for self-publishing, one trip after the other. It is a hectic life but I feel I cannot stop myself, it is the life I chose. With Akina we just released two new books, 3 AM by AM Projects (Daisuke Yokota, Tiane Doan na Champassak, Olivier Pin-Fat, Laura Rodari, Thomas Vandenberghe, Hiroshi Takizawa) and CONTROL by Çağdaş Erdoğan. We are working with great photographers such as Yusuf Sevincli, Harit Srikhao, Thomas Vandenberghe, Simone Sapienza, Yusuke Katsuo Takagi, Erdem Varol, Soham Gupta, Anastasia Soboleva, Prasiit Sthapit. In the meantime, my exhibition “AMORE” just opened in Athens at VOID, curated by the inspiring and excellent thinker Natasha Christia, who believed in the unfinished trilogy about empathy before the second book “A more” was even written. I am half way, in the exact center, and this exhibition is an important benchmark for my work: I am now collecting material for another video and ideas for the third book. You know, sometimes I walk by the Bosporus in Istanbul to have some time off, but it doesn’t work. Even there I think about books. Beautiful view, though.
© still image of the book 'CONTROL' by Cagdas Erdogan, Akina Books
© Cagdas Erdogan from the series 'CONTROL'