Interview by Claudia Bigongiari
All Images © Emilia Martin
Emilia Martin defines herself as a storyteller working within photography, sound and writing. Born in Poland in 1991 she moved to Netherlands to study at the Photography & Society Masters Programme of the Royal Academy of Art. She is still based in the Hague, where the big city lifestyle and mundanity brought her to research the unstoppable relationship between man and cosmo. A distance that we have always tried to reduce, or rather to control. With the long term project The blue of the far distance she dives into the environmental crisis of light pollution, the truthfulness of images, and image maker, her belongings and identity.
Claudia Bigongiari (CB): Hello Emilia, a warm welcome from Pellicola!
You work as a narrator and image maker, tell us what you like auto these two means of communication, is the writing reaching points you can’t with photography and viceversa?
Emilia Martin (EM): I am fascinated by communication – I see photography, or image making at large as a wonderful tool to communicate something that is not always tangible, but also leaves some space for ambiguity, mystery. I see a lot of similarities between poetry and photography – with both of these mediums I can communicate something otherworldly, something difficult to grasp. What I see particularly in photography is the fact, that the photographic process is very much grounded in reality. Even when I “manipulate” my images, I have to point my lens at something and this “something” always takes place in the “real world”. But photography does not communicate reality – as it has been discussed and argued by many, it is a highly subjective medium, that even when used for documenting or reporting, cannot escape the subjectivity of its maker. I am very much conscious of that fact and I like to play with it when working with photography. That is the main reason why I am fascinated with manipulating the images, creating collages, playing with subjectivity. I deeply believe that some personal, and hopefully universal “truths” can be communicated when I embrace my subjectivity as a maker, not pretend that it is not in place.
Writing allows me to communicate something different than images. I don’t think of myself as a “photographer” or a “writer” – sometimes I use these words to clarify what it is that I do, but I see myself as a storyteller, a person led by curiosity and a desire to connect, to explore. I think writing, image making and sound, which are the mediums I am particularly involved with in the moment, allow me to communicate, connect, all in their unique and particular way.
(CB): Do you remember when you started taking pictures, was there someone from who you inherited this passion, or did you find it on your own?
(EM): When I was very small I was fascinated with a pocket film camera we had at home. I remember staging images with my toys and pets and photographing them. I was fascinated with the idea of exploring some parallel realities. Perhaps I felt that a camera could allow me to see something that I failed to grasp otherwise? In many ways, I think it did exactly that.
Image making was always present in my life, but I only started acknowledging its importance and potential when I turned twenty – prior to that I dreamed of being a writer. After I graduated from a BA literature studies I got a job as a cabin crew in the Emirates Airlines. The job was particularly lonely and confusing. I was flying around the world with an ever changing crew, spending time in countries and cities that I knew nothing about. It soon became clear that a camera was not only my tool to document what I saw, but a guide to process the world around me, an attempt to understand what I came across and ultimately draw connections between things that I chose to notice and photograph and better understand my position in the world. I soon left the job and pursued education in photography and art.
(CB): The project we are dealing with here is The blue of the far distance, a multi layered analysis on the unstoppable discourse man vs cosmo, where distance means the connection to something vast and limitless and the feeling of being as tiny as comforted by the attempt of modify and control that vastness. Can you tell us something more about when you started your research?
(EM): At the beginning of the pandemic my life drastically changed. I broke up with my ex partner and was devastated about the misogynist and homophobic political situation in my native Poland where I lived at the time, I decided to leave the country. I felt lost.
I applied and got admitted to a Photography & Society MA program at the Royal Academy of the Hague, packed my possessions and my two cats and drove to the Hague. After many hours spent in the car around midnight, not far from the Hague I noticed a strange light. It was bright and powerful, resembling sunrise. What I soon discovered was that what I saw was light pollution coming from the Dutch greenhouses – the biggest producers of vegetables, fruits and flowers in Europe. Fascinated with this mysterious light I started researching light pollution and its impact. It led me to a question: if the history shows us that entire civilisations, beliefs and cultures were built based on the observations of the night skies full of stars, how does a capitalistic reality under the starless, polluted night sky impact our ability to connect, to wonder, to tell stories?
Historically and culturally starry sky represents the connectedness, the ancestral knowledge, the unknown, the sublime. Walking by the sea near to where I live, unable to see any stars, or celestial objects (except Elon Musk’s SpaceX) I asked myself how the starless sky above me reflects the reality I inhabit and how I could challenge it with the use of images.
American professor Dachner Keltner proved with his research that experiencing the feeling of awe and vastness while looking at the endless universe above our heads impacts us as individuals and societies. According to Keltner stargazing leads to greater health, feeling humble, generosity, collective acts – the values contrary to the ones promoted by the capitalistic systems.
Through The blue of the far distance I wanted to look at the environmental problem of the light pollution but also, most importantly dig deeper and along with my audience wonder on what stargazing means in the current capitalistic times, how we, as individuals could reclaim it and what it would imply.
Light pollution is considered to be one of the easiest environmental problems to be solved while at the same time it is also the least popular and discussed. The capitalistic fetish of light that often has no other purpose than to manifest (usually male) domination and power over what is considered to be nature, night or darkness has its price and it is much higher than we tend to imagine. In The blue of the far distance I invite my audience to remember what it means to stargaze, to wonder, to speculate about the world with the night full of stars and celestial bodies reminding us of who we are and where we came from.
(CB): When I say ‘the attempt of men to control this distance’ I’m thinking about the everyday pollution which made men erasing stars from the sky of industrialised cities and also about your collection of planetariums, hand crafted places where people can look at the stars whenever they want. Do you see the planetariums as acts of rebellion against the pollution or the consequential plan of the light contamination?
(EM): That is an interesting question. When I first visited Eise Eisinga planetarium in the Netherlands, which is the oldest working planetarium in the world entirely hand made by a man called Eise Eisinga I was simply fascinated with the very idea of planetarium, but specifically a hand crafted one. To me it represented an interesting mixture of obsession about a singular topic (let’s call it astronomy), an impressive manual craft but also a certain level of escapism. To structure a life in a way that everyday you can dedicate time and energy to a single idea of creating mechanical cosmos in your living room requires escapism. Unfortunately it is the kind of escapism that can often be afforded only by privileged men and not women, who look after homes, babies, food. These were my initial observations.
While making the project I visited and photographed dozens of hand crafted planetariums in the Netherlands, some of them absolutely blew my mind. My personal favourite was a tiny planetarium in Toldijk, a village in the Eastern Netherlands, where a man named Jan Olthof built planetarium and an observatory on his farm. The planetarium is structured as a circular space with a metal bench in the middle where a visitor sits while thousands of lit stars slowly move around them. It is my closest experience to floating in space, and it took place on a turkey farm in a distant village. I find it magical.
I don’t think that planetariums are forms of rebellion against light contamination, perhaps they are a result of it? I like to see them as forms of speculation, reminders of what it feels like to see a dark night sky and what it can do to a viewer on the emotional and psychological level. I believe that my photographs and hand crafted planetariums that I visited are very similar on many levels. My images are also a result of an obsession, fascination and a certain escapism. They are also constructed – some of them resulting from my subjective perspective as an image maker, some of them from my acts of painting on the negatives and therefore interfering with the image, and some of them from layering two images or more.
Photography, similarly to planetariums is also a tool for capturing something, making it one’s own. Similarly to planetariums I create space that is inspired by a reality or rather something that could become reality, but it is not. I hope to take my audience on a spacial adventure of awe and imagine a reality we could reclaim and inhabit.
(CB): Since you couldn’t look at the stars as clearly as when you lived at your grandmother house farm, you, also, found a way to create your own star system, editing the negatives and inserting fake constellations. Drawing stars is like photography itself which makes the invisible visible. Do you agree with that?
(EM): I think photography is a very unique medium. Unlike drawing or painting, photography is by design constricted by reality. You can easily draw something that doesn’t exist, but to photograph something that doesn’t exist it requires an effort of building or creating such thing or a certain “photographic manipulation”.
I don’t believe that photography is a medium of truth. Photography has historically served as a tool of manipulation, of representing reality selectively, a tool that served propaganda. Painting on the negatives is an interesting act for me because it plays with the idea of “photography as truth”, it tweaks it and brings a questions instead of a stating something.
(CB): As we said, the distance between man and cosmo is something we’ll never stop analysing, did you use some visual or narrative influences for your project?
(EM): I was very inspired by the writings of Rebecca Solnit, in particular with the “Field guide to getting lost” – a book which inspired the title of the project. It introduced me to a concept of the blue of the far distance, a perceived color of blue that human eyes see in the places that are distant. The blue of the far distance is also something that can never be reached – if we ever get to where we first saw it, the mystical shade of blue will escape us again. It represents a certain wonder of distance, of fascination with being in the place where we are not, of escapist desires.
I was very inspired by a wonderful book by Paul Bogard “The end of night” which takes a close look on the history of human relationship with the night sky, sleep and stargazing. I was very lucky to work on the project while doing my MA at the Photography & Society program at the Royal Academy of the Art in the Hague where I had an endless source of inspiration from my tutors and friends.
(CB): Finally Emilia, I would like to know more about the image of the girl illuminated under a rain of stars. You can’t see her face and she looks like she is suspended in the middle of other dimensions. Is that you?
(EM): It is me!
At the time when I created the image I was researching light pollution and the human relationship with light. I quickly realised that it was a difficult topic to tackle with the medium of photography that is basically designed to register light. I also realised that a design of my very own, human vision was not helpful either – unlike other species we can only see in the light and not dark.
In this image I allowed myself to play with this idea and use the light as a tool for hiding, making myself invisible.
(CB): Thank you a lot Emilia for sharing with us your amazing ideas and voice! Hope you enjoyed the interview.
(EM): I really did!
Thank you Claudia and the whole Pellicola team.