“I Might Place a Photo of Merkel Next to a Picture of an Orgy”: Marginalized People in Miron Zownir’s Works
The ancestors of a German photographer Miron Zownir come from the Ukrainian Carpathians. For the past 40 years, he has been capturing anti-heroes in the major capitals of the world — Berlin, New York, Moscow, and London. Suffering, pain, and cruelty are almost the main characters in most of his photographs. In 2017, he released a book called Berlin Noir, which untied photographs taken in Berlin in different decades. Zownir told Bird In Flight how he learned to shoot intuitively and why a photograph of Charles Manson is more interesting than a portrait of Angela Merkel.
German photographer, filmmaker, screenwriter, and writer. Lives in Berlin. In 1980, went to the US where he spent 15 years taking pictures of marginalized people in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Published several photo books.
— My father was Ukrainian. He came from the Carpathians not that far from Lviv. My first visit to Ukraine was in 2011, and since then I made at least seven or eight other trips to all parts of the country.
I didn’t have any preconceptions and I got rewarded with many intense impressions. But as everywhere else on my photo missions I was looking for the darker side of life and it was sometimes shocking to see how many people I met who lived in open misery and poverty at the edge of existential extinction.
I’m self taught, the classic autodidact. I went out on the streets and focused from the beginning on subjects and people you still associate my work with. Down and outs, renegades, outsiders, homeless, psychotics, exhibitionists, loners, and punks. I was sensitive to violence, injustice, anger, or sadness. I didn’t have any photographers I was influenced by.
Whether something will come out a great picture or not isn’t a question I’m asking myself. I never raise technical questions, chose a frame or perspective according to any standards. I rather photograph like a sleepwalker and go with the flow. I guess that’s intuition.
I guess intuition is something contrary to an intellectual approach. All you choose is a direction, an area or an event. But wherever you end up or whatever you might encounter you respond according to your impulse, feeling, or whatever triggers your interest.
I always took my photographs not thinking if anyone else might be interested in them or not. If you are serious about your work, you are always your first and most important judge.
I definitely don’t have any expectations regarding other people’s responses. That’s up to them. Every response to my work is legitimate.
I definitely wouldn’t mind taking photos of Charles Manson. But Angela Merkel wouldn’t be very interesting for me from a visual point of view, only in a historical context. Anyway, nobody would ever hire me to make photos of Merkel — for fear I might place her in my next photobook next to an orgy or a junkie.
New York, 1983
New York, 1982
New York, 1981
New York, 1981
New York, 1982
Los Angeles, 2016
Los Angeles, 2016
During the last 60 years there have been several major cities in Europe that have been a Mecca for nonconformists. Paris in the 50s, London in the 60s, Amsterdam in the 70s. But from the 80’s and until now, Berlin could claim that title because it was the only metropole that didn’t get gentrified and it was still possible for unestablished artists and outsiders to live and create without too much existential pressure.
After the fall of the wall Berlin became more cosmopolitan but it also became more ruthless, tougher, anonymous, dangerous, and more expensive. It’s only a matter of time before Berlin gets as capitalistic and cynical as any other great City of the past.
A photo itself can’t bring about any changes. You got to have a whole network behind it. Influential media or a powerful lobby that promotes it. If it isn’t on the agenda of the popular media or if you get censored by a politically correct opinion-maker your photos won’t make any impact. In the overwhelming effort of the media-industry to disinform, manipulate, or entertain, many good revealing or important photos don’t get published.
If I’m on a photo mission I take photos. I’d only stop with a gun to my head. Or if someone would be injured and needed a doctor — in this case, I’d rather call an ambulance than take photos.
If my pictures are still here in 50 years, I guess they might raise some astonishment and some questions.
I definitely don’t believe in an afterlife. We didn’t exist before we were born and we won’t exist after we’re dead. It was a chance in a billion, all odds against us, that we ever were born — but we never return.