Text by Nikola Lorenzin
All Images © Wiosna Van Bon
Wiosna Van Bon (1992) is a half-polish, half-dutch photographer with a great interest in psychology. Central to her work are people and ethics, specifically marginalized groups and individuals, those who, despite everything, persevere. Fascinated by themes such as power, behavior and identity, she uses her images like poems in which rhythm, metaphors and symbolism are key factors. While researching her subjects, she regularly observes a shift in her perception, sometimes even in her opinions, leading her in an attempt to trigger the same dynamic within her audience, finally creating empathy and room for discussion. She works as a freelance photographer, both on personal and commissioned projects.
At the age of six, when her parents and sister had left the house and she had to walk alone to primary school, she would put her coat on and instead secretly go out and knock strangers’ doors, asking them if she could sit at their place for a while. Three months later, some of these strangers knocked back to inform her parents that they loved her visits, just not at quarter to eight in the morning. “My practice as a documentary photographer stems from this genuine curiosity and empathy for other person’s life”, says Wiosna. It is at the same age that she received her first analogue camera and understood how much the visual language appealed to her, observing later in life how it worked as a special tool for entering a normally inaccessible place, moving from conversation to silence, when portraying a person.
Wiosna usually starts with a thorough research on the topic, going from talking with organizations to stepping in direct contact with the individuals and communities involved. During the whole process, she recognizes the importance of being resilient to changes, as her opinions and perspectives might might shift and her research question, or even subject, can be adjusted according to those. This is the case of Family Stranger, her last finalized long term project, published as a photobook by the Eriksay Connection last year. After focusing for six months on the lives of detainees and questioning whether she had the authority to tell the story, she turned her point of view by 180 degrees and decided to explore the perspective of their families. “There is a big stigma. I noticed that this is not an easy subject for families to talk about. Most of the children I spoke to were concerned that it could create more distance with people around them and didn’t like talking about it”. Wiosna goes on to explain how even for adults “the topic is perceived as a taboo. They try to continue with their lives as positively as possible, but at the same time, they are often confronted with the hard consequences of the choices made by their criminal family members”.
Family Stranger, shortlisted for Aperture First Book Award at Paris Photo and The Author Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles among others, features a cover that seems a perfect abstract synthesis of the whole work. Geometric lines that look like prison bars, a black rectangle suggesting a window and an individual behind it. The cover recalls a photo of the sequence, in which we are confronted with the page of a diary “where, after setting some rules, father, mother and children wrote their thoughts and feelings to each other. It’s been very special being able to read these conversations, which also inspired the folds in the book”. At the core of the photobook, there is the combination of textual elements and images, often presented in fold out pages within the sequence. While on a portrait session, Wiosna always brings an audio recorder with her and asks her subjects if they are fine being recorded during their conversation. “I developed a system throughout my research, for which I build a rhythm on the basis of invisible psychological phases, which later on determine the order of images and texts within the sequence”. This rhythm, as well as the way the images are employed in the narration, takes inspiration from her love for poetry. “I like to write poems in my daily life besides photography. I find fascinating that poems, just like images, leave a lot of room for personal input. Little is said, but much is meant”, she adds.
The book is made of black pages, representing the family visits and life in prisons, and white pages, representing the life that goes on in society. The Japanese binding reinforces this idea of two split worlds, while the choice of a thin paper suggests that there is a contamination between the two. The black parts appear now and then within the sequence, “so that the lack becomes visible. I wanted to make it clear that the prison sentence continues and that the family members are also serving a kind of sentence in their own world”, she says. Distant and rational, yet very human and delicate, Wiosna’s visual language guides us in experiencing a constant sense of taboo, enhanced by her choice to never depict people frontally, both as a way of protecting their dignity and expressing the shame they go through. Shame which eventually is transferred onto the viewer, for living without breaking such a violent stigma, that sounds so much like a deafening silence. “I have used the book in various ways, both in the art world and beyond. I presented it in the social domain, but also in public spaces, like a town hall. It travelled to talkshows, newspapers, television and it’s been discussed on the radio. Once, I’ve been asked by a prison to make two exhibitions, one for the employees and the other one for the visitors”, she says, concluding that “the purpose of Family Stranger is to create awareness on the struggles that families endure, hopefully helping to break down the taboo by opening a conversation about it”.