Q+A with Marzena Skubatz, the Photographer Capturing Remote Places Far From Home
Coming from Poland, currently living in Berlin, yet she will still tell you she lives “here and there”. Photographer Marzena Skubatz has travelled to a myriad of remote and inaccessible places around the world to captivate unspoilt landscapes and environments. Through photography, she explores the intimate lives and persistence of people in isolated places, where the senses of places are translated into pictures that oscillate between outer and inner landscapes. Due to her personal background, Marzena is investigating the notion of home in communities around the world facing ecological dislocation.
We recently took the time to ask her a few questions to delve deeper into her work as a photographer, the fascination of travelling, and environmental issues.
MH: Can you tell us a little bit more about what came first, the fascination of remote places and nature or the fascination with photography? Did anyone or anything in specific inspire you to pursue what you are doing now?
MS: The fascination for remote places came first, as I grew up in one. It was not as remote as the places I visit today, but it felt like it. I rarely spent time inside when growing up. I was that kid that likes to be on his own, climbing on trees or sleeping in the fields. There was not much technology around me back then. No phones, not many TV’s and no cameras. I got my first camera when I was twelve years old. I think the way I work with photography today and the way I choose my projects is in a wider sense somehow connected to these experiences.
MH: You have stated that due to your personal background, you investigate the notion of home in communities around the world facing ecological dislocation. Can you tell us bit more about your background, and what led you to explore and document this direction of photography?
MS: Sure. I grew up on a farm in a quite small village in Poland during the cold war. My parents decided to leave the country and start a new life in West Germany in 1988. This was one year before the Berlin Wall was opened and therefore still illegal to do. To limit the risk of being caught as much as possible our parents decided not to tell us (me and my brother) that we were leaving our home for good. I guess it was back then that I have started to think about the notion of home and places, and space in general. For example in my project “Heima/t“ which is a project about women who immigrated to Iceland after World War II, the notion of the word “home” within this context was romanticized and therefore instrumentalized by the nationalists. The traumatized young girls who left Germany to start a new life in Iceland knew nothing about the island. In “The Weather Report I“ I investigate the influence of weather and talk about a woman dealing with her everyday life at one of the remotest places I have been so far. In “The Weather Report II“ I take a closer look at the place itself and its micro cosmos. So I am interested in the sense of place in a wider sense.
MH: Since you currently live and work in Berlin, what role or impact does it have on how you create and tell stories?
MS: Berlin is obviously a hard contrast to the nature dominated places that I talk about in my personal projects, but it gives me the freedom to pursue my work and to look at it from a different angle. I do not find or develop the ideas for my projects here, but I like to do most of my editing here. I am surrounded by great colleagues, and we talk about photography a lot. These exchanges are very important for me and the development of my work.
MH: One thing is where you live and are located, but your work often takes place far from home, in unorthodox destination shaped by raw and vast nature. What have been your favourite destination so far and why?
MS: I spend a lot of time in Iceland, where I live at a place next to the sea with no Internet connection and no mobile reception. I love to be near or by the sea. It just fascinates me to look at the surface of the ocean knowing that there is a whole different world beneath it, we rarely think about.
MH: Your work seem to be rather colorless and conceptual, yet how do you work conceptually when shooting images of untouched nature? Since you can’t stage nature as if you were doing it in a studio, how do you prepare an image series?
MS: Every vegetation has its own characteristics, so I do not need to stage anything, I only need to know what I want to tell and how. So I guess the preparation is basically knowing the story that I want to tell and the mood I want to create and then I just focus on finding it. Working outside within nature is of course unpredictable most of the time, specially in countries where the weather changes very often. And with the increasing impacts of climate change, it doesn’t seem to follow any rule anymore. But the unpredictability is also what I like about my work. I get bored very easily and like to challenge myself.
MH: Recently you have been visiting many places in the cold North. Howcome?
MS: The raw nature of the North has something mystique for me. There are those long winter nights and the cold temperatures. I am fascinated that humans are able to live in those habitats and how they adapt and cope with those circumstances and if or how it reflects in their personality and lifestyle. I think areas with low or no population like the arctic tundra create a certain feeling of freedom.
MH: I imagine your fascination of nature, and specially remote and untouched places as you have visited, also reflects your personal awareness, care and love for nature, yet I can’t stop thinking your love for the natural beauty also makes you concerned of the current situation regarding environmental issues? If so, what concerns you? Do you experience such issues while travelling to these places or even shared concerns with locals living there?
MS: Regarding the current situation of our environment, there is unfortunately not a single thing that doesn’t concern me right now. The climate crisis is the result of aggressive destruction of our planet for industrial reasons in a radicioulsly short amount of time. It is such an important yet complex topic that I don’t even know where to start. The fjord where I live in Iceland is still dealing with the consequences of overfishing thirty years ago. This is a very small fjord, but it is still recovering from two years of aggressive industrial net fishing. Another example would be the Icelandic Forrest. In the 9th century, Iceland was covered with at least 60% of vegetation until settlement areas were developed and timber industries operated. Above all, the imported sheep were grazing their pastures that vegetation could not recover in the short polar summer. Climate changes and strong volcanic activity between 1600 and 1900 led to increased erosion due to soil changes. Today’s landscape of Iceland is thus the result of one of the earliest cases of drastic environmental destruction. So the history of humans destroying our planet is unfortunately a very long one and the current situation is already a disaster, I have hopes that the coming generation might do things differently as the awareness for that topic seems to raise, but we need to act now!
MH: How do you feel your work, when exploring and addressing the importance of raw nature not yet harmed by humans, can contribute to a better understanding of our threathen environment?
MS: Photography is a medium that has the beautiful quality to document the reality and create an emotion at the same time. Whenever I am surrounded by raw nature I feel very insignificant. This feeling is the key to understand that we as humans are only a very small part of something much bigger. In photographing landscapes the way I do, I try to capture and somehow communicate this feeling. I try to do it not necessarily by dramatizing the landscape, but more by creating a feeling of connection to the place. I would love my work to have the quality to sensitize the viewer for the beauty and uniqueness of our environment and therefore raise awareness of the importance to protect it. I also try to address environmental topics in my editorial work whenever I get the chance to.
MH: Would you be interested in documenting places defined by the opposite such as metropolitan lives, industrial areas or intensely cultivated agriculture to mention a few in order to address the environmental impact made by human activities?
MS: I am interested in places or spaces in general and do not want to limit myself in my work to a certain region. Industrial areas have a massive impact on our environment, the quality of water, air and our health. Intense agriculture and monocultures destroy biodiversity and the chemicals used poison our food and our soil. We can’t talk about environmental issues without addressing the most problematic ones at first, as these have the most impact in the climate crisis. For that reason I would be very interested in documenting those places. Personally I feel that the key to fight the arrogance of those industries is to focus more on solutions. We need to stop ignoring what is happening and start to support inventions and support the scientists who work on environmentally friendly solutions. There are already so many concepts to reduce the destruction of our planet. It will remain a difficult fight and I feel that we need to inspire more people to act immediately, and this could be done by showing and talking more about solutions. I recently worked on Assignement for Greenpeace and hope to get the chance to do more work for Environmental Organizations and NGO’S in the future.
MH: Sunrise or sunset?
MH: Rainy weather or blue sky?
MS: Both, but if I have to choose I would put blue sky first.
MH: Mountains or forests?
MS: Something in-between.
All images courtesy of Marzena Skubatz