a conversation with Jože SuhadolnikACCORDING to his slim bio Joze was born “in the midst of the revolutionary 1960s in Ljubljana, Slovenia (Yugoslavia at the time).” Child prodigy with a camera, he started documenting the punk scene in Ljubljana at the age of 13. By 16 he was working as a photojournalist for his first press agency and being published in a newspaper.
Jože Suhadolnik has worked for Reuters, Associated Press and EPA, and ended up founding the Slovenian press agency Bobo while working for the leading daily newspaper Delo. During his career he has had 30 exhibitions and published six books: hidden gems that were somehow “lost in distribution”, flying just below the radar of the Western photobook scene.
Despite his success, he’s not interested in photo awards, lists or flaunting his achievements: he’s a man of few words, an old-school craftsman of photography, a film lover with an unforgotten punk attitude that has always seen him side with the underdog.
Jože is a politically sensitive photojournalist who is also capable of telling stories about his hometown through his intimate portraits. This sweet and sour contrast, present in all his work, piqued my curiosity.
You approached photography at a young age. Can you share with us the reasons why you were attracted in the first place and how your career has developed from that?
Actually I wanted to be a comic book artist, but the process of drawing was too slow for me. At that time, in 1979, I discovered Henri Cartier Bresson and Josef Koudelka. It was a real revelation. Also, I was part of everything that smelt rebellious; the punk movement was an excellent school for a 13-year-old wannabe photographer. It now seems quaint how we felt back then, when we used to travel from what was then Yugoslavia twice a year to Trieste on the Italian border to buy jeans, Brooklyn chewing gum and 20 rolls of Tri-X (they were worth an absolute fortune and lasted at least a few months), and a Yugoslav custom officer stopped you at the border and humiliated you for the next hour.
I’ve been to about 1,600 concerts on my count; there is lot to see, sure, but I am really oversaturated with concerts. At my first, Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1981, I was able to walk near Siouxsie on the stage! Can you imagine that today? On the other hand, people were arrested just for wearing a Sex Pistols badge.
Nevertheless, from today’s point of view growing up in Communist Yugoslavia was good. Everybody had a job and social security. We could travel around the world and newspapers and magazines were willing to pay you to do just that.
Your album, Neue Slovenische Kunst, documents that era. Do you have any anecdotes to share about the making of the NSK project?
It was frightening to see four crazy guys in old fascist uniforms with a Malevich cross on their shoulder, screaming on stage and making terrible noises. 30 years after I started taking pictures of them, there is still pressure from around the world to prevent some of the pictures I shot of Laibach’s band from being shown. In one of them they were kissing each other after the concert and their fans were not happy with that. Some members of the band were worried about being marked as a gay band.
From your projects I can see that you are very concerned with social issues and minorities. I’m talking about your series on refugees, Eritrea and orphans in Ukraine.
What attracts you to such issues?
Eritrea was a magazine assignment while Bosnian refugees and Ukrainian orphans were my idea. At that time, in 1992, there were some 20 million refugees around the world. I contacted UNESCO, suggesting that they pick two photographers from European countries to do a book and an exhibition to help raise money for them. They turned me down, but after two years, in 1994, UNESCO hired Sebastiao Salgado to do that story. Anyway, I managed to raise some money through magazines and newspapers to help improve living conditions and even provide a few scholarships for young Bosnians.
The Ukrainian orphans story a was bit similar: thanks to the article published, there were used computers on their way to Kiev within a month.
On your website you list your projects as “stories”. How do you tell a story through images?
In my projects I try to tell a story with an introduction, a climax and a conclusion. I’m an avid reader of novels and printed words and my work reflects that. I’m fond of telling simple stories happening around me.
Is there any interesting body of photographic work from Slovenia you’d like to share with us?
Oh yes. The work of Stojan Kerbler, Leon Dolinsek, Herman Pivk, Jaka Babnik, Peter Kostrun and Aleksandra Vajd influenced me in many ways.
About the Cirkus project, where does the fascination with circus come from? How was the series developed?
I always admired Mary Ellen Mark’s circus work. When I was visiting Moira Orfei for the first time in Italy I was fascinated. That was about 15 years ago, when I first started the series.
I’ve always been interested in self-sufficient communities. The circus is one of the best examples. A city with its own history, rulers like Signora Moira Orfei. When I was a kid, every time my parents found out that I’d been skipping school with my friends they would warn me: “Watch out. Gypsies could catch you and sell you to the circus!” Sometimes I wished they would. It was so cool thinking about being an artist riding horses, flirting with girls who were holding their breath, watching stuntmen fall from that big tent ceiling. Their daily life is not too far from that naive fantasy if you add animal abuse, Bulgarian mechanics, a Russian circus band, Romanian acrobats, 16-hour days, the smell of horse and camel piss, a rhinoceros with clipped horns and the constant travelling hours after your last show.
Thanks to Matthew Parry for the text editing
All pictures copyright by Jože Suhadolnik
Balkan Pank is now a book.