Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Klavdij Sluban. East to East

Klavdij Sluban is a French photographer of Slovenian origin based in Paris. He was born in 1963 and now in age of 48, he continues the development of his rigorous and coherent body of work. Sluban learnt the subtleties of black & white printing under the guidance of Georges Fèvre. Although he held a Masters' degree in Anglo-American literature, little by little, he gave up teaching to commit wholly to photography.

Never inspired by immediate and sensational current affairs, Sluban's numerous photography trips are permeated with literary references ­ for example, Beckett, Milton. The Black Sea, the Caribbean, the Balkans, and Russia can be read as many successive steps of an in-depth study of a patient proximity to the encountered real. His deep blacks and backlit silhouettes convey to his photographic style uprightness and accuracy free of didacticism or exoticism. In 1997, his work Balkans Transits, which he published with François Maspero, was awarded the RFI (International French Radio) prize.

In 1995, Klavdij Sluban created a photography workshop for teenagers in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Fleury-Mérogis (South of Paris, the biggest jail in Europe). The Adolescents were taught a creative approach, development and printing in photography. Their work is regularly shown inside the jail. Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson attended several times a year from the beginning of the project, as did photographers William Klein and Marc Riboud who also attended to encourage the participating adolescents.

Τhis commitment was pursued in the disciplinary camps and prisons of Eastern Europe - Ukraine, Georgia, Moldavia, and Latvia ­ and in the disciplinary centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. By offering us pictures of those places he is familiar with and of their inhabitants to whom he is a true partner, Sluban unveils the problems of closed spaces and constrained horizons. And by doing so, he brings to both our consciousness and senses the fractures of a confinement enhanced by the internalization of perceptions.

Klavdij Sluban is a traveller for whom high seasons and travel commerce mean little. From countries generally considered unvisitable, too poor, too sad and grey, he brings back a harvest of pictures, always in black and white. The basis of his photography is time and people - people he would not dream of staring at. For Sluban is no paparazzo of reality, he is a photographer on a human scale, aware of the shifting frontiers of a profession which allows so many different interpretations, including the most idiotic ones.

His new book "East to East" brings together photographs that he has made during extensive travels in the East, frequently following the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Sluban's use of deep blacks and backlit silhouettes embues his work with a highly individual photographic style. These powerful images are remarkably moody and atmospheric and permeated with a strange melancholy and an overwhelming sense of isolation. This is deeply memorable work.

This explains the way he constantly calls his work into question, often remaining silent for long periods as if he suddenly doubts his strength at the threshold of his own eye. This inner silence, which is at the origin of all his pictures, is in fact his most precious asset. He brings before our gaze those who, in Haiti, in Cuba or in the republics around the Black Sea, stubbornly exist far from our well-worn clichés of social success.

But it would be useless to see these pictures as appeals for witnesses. In the East as in the West, Sluban works alone, a free spirit, with no commitments other than those he imposes on himself, and expecting nothing in return.

His tools are a good pair of shoes, a black box, and his Leica. In his pocket, a book and his faithful compass.

From the interview with Brigitte Ollier (in "Klavdij Sluban, Transverses", published by Editions Paris Audioviuel/MEP).

A simple question : What's the Black Sea like ?
Really black! It's the poor relation of the Méditerranean, which is luxuriant, flamboyant, bluer than blue. In autumn and winter there's an atmosphere of desolation which probably continues in the warm seasons. In winter the greys are really striking, everything is interiorized, everyone hibernates within his own thoughts. Everything is the opposite of demonstrative, but it's not empty. Intensity is never where you'd expect to find it.

The Black Sea borders seven countries, from Turkey to Bulgaria. Did one of them have a particular impact on you ? 
No, I have no preference. Of course I have a soft spot for the self-proclaimed republic of Gagauzia, in Moldavia. And I'm also fond of the self-proclaimed independent republic of Transdniestria, even if it's not such a nice place to live.

Is it hard to come back to Paris after this kind of trip ? 
I only allow myself to drift during a trip because I know I'll be coming back home afterwards. I'm aware of the limits of this, but I need to work within such a frame.; otherwise I'd probably never accomplish anything. Even for my trips to prisons, I proceed in the same way: I stay three weeks inside.

Three weeks for the trip - how long does it take you to prepare ? 
I usually know a long time in advance that I'll be leaving. It starts with an attraction for a country, and in this waiting period I often meet someone who has already been there. The way I perceive things comes from what I read, written texts that help me feel things from the inside. When I get to the country, I feel ready in my own way. Leaving itself is one of the worst forms of torture ever invented. I fight against it, but when I'm on a trip, I'm so completely involved that I sometimes realise almost by accident that I've got to go back home. When this happens I'm like a diver coming up to the surface in stages. Then I'm quite happy to come home and I stay in Paris long enough for the next trip to take shape

When you get back do you grab your contact prints to check the "results"? Or do you calmly wait for the next stage ? 
I'm not impatient, I wait. On the other hand I love getting back from Moldavia for example and looking at the year-old contact sheets from Haiti. This way of distancing myself from experience is essential for making the right choices, and it can only happen with time. As there are failures, my trips in preparation allow me to make more incisive choices. There are boxes for the first selection, boxes for the second and boxes for the third - like divisions in football. And it's been known for third-selection pictures to get promoted to first division! All this goes on at night, when I'm alone; I arrange the pictures into groups, always working towards an ideal.

All photographs ©Klavdij Sluban

You can visit his website for more info and photos  http://www.sluban.com/