He’s been called a poet of radical photography, by none other than Terry Southern. By his own admission, he is a man who focuses his mind and lens on things unseen, things hidden or lurking in the shadows. Not one to shy away from a situation that lies outside the boundary of safety, Miron Zownir has always accepted the risks involved in portraying life with all its cruelty, its absurdity, its unconventional beauty and complexity.
It’s fair to say that you do not turn away from sights that are painful to look at or from situations that might even involve cruelty. How do you deal with your feelings when you approach them and indeed choose to come so close to your subjects?
This depends on the situation and every situation is different. What is true in all cases, is that I approach them with no prejudice, no expectations and thus without any fear. By saying that I do not mean that I’m not aware of potential threat; on the contrary, I have always been ready to defend myself if necessary. I have certainly never provoked a reaction which would have justified a violent confrontation. However, I have always known that I am being indiscreet; you cannot be taking the kind of pictures I am taking and not being indiscreet. Someone might not like it. Or, more often, people have not even been aware of me, or they didn’t give a damn about my being there because they were involved in something else. One has to be ready to make snap decisions and my decisions have always been intuitive or impulsive.
Do you go looking for these situations or do you rather recognise them, when someone else would walk away as quickly as possible?
Well, both. One cannot just wish things to happen. Of course you need an instinct to know where to go and what to look for. And then I have usually lived in neighborhoods that were considered slummy; especially in New York. My apartment had a window facing the Hells Angels Headquarter, one block to the West was a homeless shelter, one to the North a Police Station and to the East the notorious Alphabet City.
Was that a choice?
Not necessarily. I was not able to afford better housing, so I was always at the edge myself. In that sense, why should I go take pictures in a rich neighbourhood since I lived in a poor one? There I was much more integrated, it felt more natural than going somewhere else, knocking at someone’s door. In rich neighbourhoods the drama is being played out behind steel doors or covered by bodyguards. There’s this class of people that don’t take their fights or tensions out on the street; radical is in their case much more discreet. So if you’re doing street photography and you’re looking for interesting situations you are inevitably mostly confronted with people who have no choice but to live out their dramas in public, or whose living situation is so bad that they spend most of their life on the streets.
Let me go way back in time – you were born to Ukrainian parents in Karlsruhe. How did your family end up in Germany?
My father was born in East Galicia, as a member of the region’s Ukrainian minority. In 1939 after the invasion of Poland by the Germans and the Soviets, East Galicia all of a sudden was part of the Soviet Union. My father’s family were openly for the Ukrainian independency and against collectivization, so very shortly after the country’s annexation, they were deported to Siberia. My father had the alternative to flee to the West and that was what he did; but in order to do that he had to enlist in the Wehrmacht. So he was basically fighting five years with the German Wehrmacht. And then he spent another five years incarcerated in several Soviet War Prisons.
Where it became known that he was Ukrainian?
No, never. They didn’t know. Had they known, they would have executed him. How he did it, I never found out. Anyway, after prison he had the choice to head either to the GDR or to West Germany and chose the latter. There he met my mother and so the story goes. He made a new life for himself in Germany, without any Ukrainian contacts, hardly speaking any Ukrainian – since he couldn’t speak it with my mother. And he wasn’t in the habit to speak to himself.
Didn’t he speak Ukrainian with you? Didn’t he want to teach you the language?
He didn’t have the time, he had to keep three jobs at once, in order for us to survive.
You grew up in Karlsruhe. How was the atmosphere in the city during your childhood?
The first five – six years of my life, while I was living with my grandparents, the place was very dark and gloomy. There were still war ruins, everywhere. And in the streets the war cripples were no unusual sight. It was kind of an almost Kafkaesque background , claustrophobic and scary. It was in the 50’s in a suburb of Karlsruhe, it was not representative for the rest of the city.
In 1975, you left Karlsruhe for West Berlin. What was your plan at the time?
Basically, from very early on, I had a feeling that my hometown was too small for me; I wanted to see more. I have always been traveling around in my mind trying to discover the world, imagining countries I’ve never been to. But one of the couple of reasons that I left at that exact year, was that I wanted to avoid doing military service – permanent residents of West Berlin were exempted. The other reason was that I wished to study film. And there was a third reason, namely that my girlfriend at the time was studying photography in West Berlin.
When had you begun to be interested in film? Did you watch a lot of films as an adolescent?
Actually, my first fascination in life was literature. Later I became very interested in films. As a teenager in Karlsruhe I would watch a lot of retrospectives, had the chance to see the work of the Surrealists and was impressed by it; I loved the cinema of Luis Bunuel, I loved the Italian and French cinema, the American Film Noir, Polanski, Bergmann and of course Fassbinder’s films. But I also loved silent movies, especially those by Murnau, Keaton and Eisenstein. Already then I was a very selective movie watcher. My fascination for cinema was something that I had developed very early in my life, so I naturally thought that was what I would set out to do. But I was not accepted at the Film Academy in Berlin. Then I went to Vienna and applied to study film there, but once again I was rejected. Still, I had a strong urge to express myself so I borrowed my girlfriend’s camera and while she shot flowers, still lifes and did reproductions of paintings, I would go out into the streets and do photos of punks, of bums and of whoever crossed my way.
Did everyday life in West Berlin provide a lot of material for someone with an eye for the unusual or the unconventional?
Of course it did; it was dark, and gloomy and walled in. There was still the threat of communist invasion, there were a lot of radical forces at play, there were a lot of draft avoiders, there were people who didn’t fit anywhere or did not make it elsewhere. West Berlin was a place where one could get by pretty easily. Rents were so cheap, after all. But it was also a city that didn’t seem to have that much future or perspectives.
How was that apparent?
There was not much investment, everything was ran down, whatever was destroyed or whatever collapsed simply was not replaced. Or if it was replaced, then it was by something as cheap as the Plattenbau standard at the other side of the Wall. It was a city I never felt comfortable in.
Because it was ran down?
Well, why would I want to go on living in a city that is grey, dark, aggressive and desperate? Also, I always hated the weather. I lived here for a while, I made photos, I documented a Zeitgeist; but I didn’t feel that comfortable. Even so it was and still is a fascinating city. Maybe I got sick of it because when I’ve lived too long in one place, I’m definitely ready for a change. But I have lot of connections to all kind of creative spirits that I would miss somewhere else.
You were not part of the punk scene yourself, right?
No, I was always an individualist. And I never cared to belong to a group. But of course I was young, my head was almost shaved, I was dressed in a way that could in no way be considered conservative. It was easy for me to get access to those people, because I guess I looked interesting enough for them to accept me. But more importantly, I could understand their way of life and their “fuck you” attitude towards the establishment. I mean I wasn’t a poser. I was in a way a misfit myself. Someone who didn’t conform to a way of life considered necessary or normal.
At the time, did you visit East Berlin?
Yes but I would go there rarely. East Berlin was even more depressing, it was even darker; a rather anonymous city. And I had no connections to anything or anyone there, so I had very little reason to go.
Not even to take pictures?
No, I didn’t focus on that.
And then you left for London. Why did you decide this move?
For a change; I wanted to discover a different city. London was the most dynamic place in Europe at the time, it seemed like the logical choice. So I went there, found a flat and moved in; on my own.
Did you get a job in London?
I was mostly walking the streets, taking photos and thinking about my future. I was considering options. I stayed there for a year and then went back to Berlin and then in 1980 left for New York. After Berlin and London I was ready for New York from the beginning.
And you ended up living in the US for fifteen years.
Nine years in New York, one year in LA and the rest in Pittsburgh.
Was it difficult to make a living in New York when you arrived there?
No, not for me. From the beginning I found ways to make a living. Things were more open than in Berlin, and there was more flexibility. In Berlin one would get temp jobs on which it was very hard to make ends meet. Whereas in New York there were so many opportunities; more clubs, or places where one could somehow do the hustle. It was a walk on the wild side with all its ups and downs, not as monotonous as to survive in Berlin.
Where did you live in?
In Lower East Side, with my girlfriend.
You lived in New York at the time of the AIDS epidemic. How dramatic a change in the city’s life did it bring about?
I had arrived in New York just before the open outbreak of AIDS, which actually caught my attention in 1982 when Klaus Nomi had an Aids benefit event at the club I was working in. Until then New York was exploding with sexual energy, it was exploding with new outlooks, with all kinds of inputs from artists and creative minds. It was a very liberal time and it was a very outspoken time. On top of that, in the early 1980s there was very little racial or political tension. It seemed like everybody was enjoying a new, free way of life – but exactly that changed dramatically all of a sudden. From one day to the next there was a threat hanging over everybody.
Looking back would you say that New York was way more liberal than the other two European cities you had lived in until then?
It was more exciting, there was so much more interaction. Let me give you an example: In West Berlin you had your punk bar, your hipster bar, your whatever bar. Whereas in New York there were places were everyone was there, together – from a drunk, to a punk, to a street bum, to a professor, to a gangster. In the Lower East Side, it was all very relaxed. There was a lot of crime too and you always had to be on the look out not to get victimized. But it was a way of life that was much more unpredictable and explosive and exciting than anywhere else I had lived.
Your pictures from Fuck-Piers -once New York’s most famous cruising area- are a monument to a lost era, to a long-vanished microcosm. Was it hard to gain the trust of the people who went there?
In terms of gaining trust, the first advantage I had was that most of the people I made photos of thought that I was gay, which I’m not, but I didn’t run around introducing myself as a hetero. They saw a guy with a shaved head, unconventional clothes, lots of energy and they immediately classified me as being gay. This worked to my advantage. The other thing that helped was that I would always return to the same spots, so I became a familiar figure. Most of the time I had no trouble taking pictures. After all many of those people were exhibitionists, too; especially the transsexuals. But there were certainly some situations where the persons involved were not pleased to see a camera – maybe they were lawyers, doctors, or in important public positions and did not want to be photographed with their paints down to their angles. So I sometimes got into difficult situations, I have even once been pointed at with a gun.
Lately it’s become a little problematic to just pick up a camera and take a photo of a stranger. It is seen as an invasion of another person’s privacy. What do you think?
There are two things happening simultaneously: One is that, yes, since the inflation of camera and smart phones flashing photos like machine guns and the immediate reproduction possibilities through the internet many people feel somewhat annoyed when confronted with a camera. But there are also lots of people who, upon spotting a camera, put on a “discover me” smile that spoils any picture. We live in this world of superstardom where many feel that their life is only important if it is being documented and published. Both attitudes are not very helpful when searching for an authentic moment.
In 1994, while still a resident of the States, I had an exhibition in Berlin and at the opening the gallerist introduced me to Bruno. One year later when I just had returned to live in Berlin I met him again. Knowing his films and all about his past, I had been toying with the idea of doing something; I decided I wanted to do a documentary. But I was aware that I couldn’t rush it. After having spent thirty years in mental institutions, Bruno was distrustful of people. So it took a while until he felt safe with me and trusted me enough so that we could work together. But once he had opened up, he was very open. He played the mayor part in my full feature film “Phantomanie” and I casted him in a music video for Rummelsnuff called “Freier Fall” just one year before he died.
Apart from photography, you have also authored books. You have mainly written noir stories. What is it about a noir that makes it a good vehicle to tell your stories?
Well, I am doing all those photos, can you imagine me writing a love story? OK, this could also happen, but it is not very likely. Unless it would be something tragic like “Romeo and Juliet” or “Bonnie and Clyde” but in a totally different setting and style.
You earlier mentioned that your first fascination was with literature. What do you like to read, these days?
It is still a great fascination. I have read everything, from classic literature, to crime novels, to historical books, to philosophy, poetry or comics. I just finished reading “Shattered” by Richard Neely; a 1960s noir. Before that I was reading “Madame Bovary“, for the second time. And before that “In the belly of the beast” by Jack Henry Abbot for the third time.
Talking about your book “Down and Out in Moscow”, with pictures from the social unrest in the Russian capital in 1995, you have said that it was the most aggressive and dangerous city you’ve ever been to. You had gone there, originally, on a commission. What had been the initial plan?
I was there to document Moscow’s nightlife. But very soon I realised that the night scene was controlled by the local mafias, completely. I also realised that in that place life was expendable, totally – I have lived in Los Angeles, London, New York, Berlin…nothing even came close to what I witnessed in Moscow in the 1990s. People were dying right there on the street, it was a helter skelter situation, it was incredible…What I was confronted with was so intense that I changed my mission. I said fuck this nightlife bullshit, there is something really incredible happening here that can’t be ignored.
How long did you stay in Moscow?
Three months. The change brought on by the collapse of communism was evident everywhere in the former USSR sphere of influence, but in Moscow the criminal forces had so much ferocity, so much energy, so many possibilities to force their intentions on people. There was no help whatsoever from the state, no help at all. It just exploded and nobody even cared.
What were the reactions to the photos?
Most people would close the book after four pages.
Indeed the pictures are shocking. “It was Dante’s Inferno”, you’ve said.
Of course it was shocking, but to me that was not a shock that made me feel helpless or intimidated. I went there, I went really close and it felt like I was in a twilight zone. But I was still functioning as a photographer. In such situations I don’t ask questions, I don’t ask why, and I am definitely not trying to change the world. And that was a completely lost case, which made that stay in Moscow almost absurd, surreal. When I left, it was like getting out of a nightmare.
Have you been to Moscow since?
A couple of years later I was there again for an exhibition of my work. I didn’t get that involved in the city’s life, but at least on the surface things looked like they had been cleaned up.
In December you have a new book coming out, “Ukranian Night”. Were the photographs taken before the Euromaidan Revolution?
Most of them, yes. I received a grant from the Robert Bosch Foundation and travelled to Ukraine eight times, going all over the place; Odessa, Mariopol, Kiev, Sewastopol, Donezk etc. Then suddenly the revolution broke out, so last February I returned to Kiev in order to make photos of Maidan, which are included in the book.
Was that the first time you were travelling in Ukraine?
No, I had already had two exhibitions of my work in Kiev.
Do you have friends or relatives still living there?
I have an uncle, the last surving brother of my father. I met him for the first time while travelling for the book. To begin with, all I had was an address, given to me by a cousin in Chicago. It turned out that my uncle Stefan was living somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains. And even the address I had was dated a couple of years back. When I arrived in Lemberg, I asked the journalist with whom I was working together on the book if we could try to look him up. So we were driving to that address without knowing if we would meet anyone, and it was really a four-hour drive through the pampas. But we found him. He still lived in the family house. He had returned from Siberia to that house where he was born. He was in good health and spirit and we finished together a bottle of vodka.