From the Urals to the Carpathians – faces, lives, and destinies through the lens of Mátyás Szöllősi
2022. December. 19.
A volume of selected and new poems by writer and photojournalist Mátyás Szöllősi will be published in autumn. In addition to preparing his book with the title Szabad, the young MMA scholarship holder has visited and photographed Transcarpathia several times since the outbreak of the war, and he has been making his comprehensive series of portraits of Transylvania for a year.
You came to the Ural Mountains in connection with an archaeological documentation, the research of destinies of people and the origins of Hungarians followed. How did you develop your curiosity about faces, places, and stories?
The origin of Hungarians was the topic of the archaeological research series that I documented between 2015 and 2019, I think this is how it is totally accurate. My interest in faces, places and stories goes back to my childhood, for example, I was interested in visual arts at a very young age, I drew a lot, I also visited the Pannónia Film Studio, and in addition, I have been reading a lot since I was ten years old. I was also lucky enough to travel from the1980s. Since I have been to many places, both physically and mentally, I developed the need - even if this obviously did not come true immediately in the form of writing a prose text or making a series of photos - to record the things that happen to me, the way I experience and interpret them. My parents are musicians, I also played music for a long time, and I feel that the musical experiences also greatly helped me to be able to switch on and off from time to time, to be able to change the pace. This is essential for writing, but it is also extremely important during photography.
Many parts are intertwined in your career but writing and photography appear as the two main lines most strongly. To what extent do you experience this like being in a kind of storytelling role, as a sense of mission?
I think I have more awareness. I think those who know my work can see and experience this. I don't usually think about what my mission is, I rather focus on what interests me, what is relevant for me and for others, and what are the topics that are close to me or may come close. What I can be the best at. I think that I am in a constant search both within myself and with regard to the outside world, and I try to connect and synthesize the things I find during the creation. I love to write, but you can't always write. I feel like I shouldn't. I felt quite a few times, when I "overdid it", that it was not thought through enough, not sufficiently matured. Photography helps me see more clearly. To spend more time in a situation, to examine a problem from several aspects. And yes, it helps in storytelling, seeing things in their process, helps in recalling, observing people's behavior and characteristics. I can only really switch off while taking photos. I feel very free then.
It can be seen from your works that you do not only document places and people, but also try to deal with current, live topics. The challenge of today's information society is to identify with the flow of the world. As a creator, do you feel this kind of pressure, force?
I certainly feel something from this, but I don't experience my activities as a compulsion, fortunately I don't have to compulsorily deal with something that I'm not interested in, or that I'm only interested in because it's trendy. For example, the Bashkirs are definitely not like that. Although when I look around, I see an upswing in dealing with Transylvania, which in a certain sense paints a false picture of this multifaceted place, I trust that with my upcoming photo series I am not strengthening this part. Maybe it's more the speed that bothers you, that most of the time you don't have time for certain things, because the world encourages you to watch/do/want the next thing before you've really experienced the previous one. I often go to places where this thing is less present in people's lives, or if it is present, the generation whose representatives I photograph in Transylvania, for example, does not feel that life is so urgent. It is good to experience this kind of existence, the pace that is theirs. The kind of tranquility pleasantly delights the eye.
The force and impact of the war in Ukraine can be felt in many countries of the world, mainly from an economic point of view. You also recorded the situation in the Subcarpathian areas inhabited by Hungarians, where deprivation appeared on an unprecedented scale. As a photographer, it is not easy to work in such conditions, could you tell us about how you organized the trip and your stay there?
I visited Transcarpathia much earlier, starting in 2016, that year I took photos in a house in Beregszász, where nearly fifty families lived in serious conditions, and there I met Viktória H. and her family, with whom we have been in contact ever since, I try to help them regularly. When the war broke out, it immediately became obvious that, in addition to the refugees, those who remained in Transcarpathia also needed/will be in great need of help. If there is a war in a country, it is felt by all areas, and we know that Transcarpathia was in a devastating situation even before the war. The roads are disastrous, the infrastructure is in ruins, many houses have no heating, not to mention salaries and pensions. The emigration was already strong starting in 2014, and unfortunately, most of the young people do not return to Transcarpathia, especially now, so mainly those with small children and the elderly stayed there. I didn't think much, I gathered what I could, I told a few friends that I was going, who also contributed so that I could take various useful things with me. While I was there Viktória and her family helped, as well as Jána Timkó, János Szimcsera, who is the deputy mayor in Nagybégány, Egressy Mariann and Dianna Cséke, the latter is the head of the Help to Help Transcarpathian program, and fortunately many others. The tension was palpable, even though the fighting had not spread to Transcarpathia. Everywhere I went, understandably, the talk was almost exclusively about the war. Since then, I have been there twice, I have met and talked to several people, and fortunately, based on the published pictures and the conversations I have had so far, quite a few people have been able to find out about the situation of the people living in the Beregszász and Ungvár districts.
What was it like to experience the ordeal of a country whose drama is now making headlines around the world so closely?
I have not been to a place where there were actual fights or war scenes, but I have met many people who have, and I have also interviewed people who came from Kyiv, the Kharkiv area, or Mariupol. They told me about shocking, terrible things. I couldn't really convey what was visible in their eyes, how broken and tormented many of them were, and how full of life some of them are, who want to go back because they don’t want to lose what they have been working for a lifetime. Basically, I've noticed - I'm thinking mainly of the older generation now - that they have no intention of leaving their homes, leaving the house, animals, the place where they live, until they are shot, but as a matter of fact, they would not set off even if the fighting started there too. Many people have asked me how this is possible, why these people don't come over to Hungary. It is difficult to talk about this, on the one hand, because I myself have not lived in a country where a war would be going on, and on the other hand, it is often difficult to support a feeling, a spiritual peculiarity, with rational arguments.
You visit regions where you experience deep human dramas, either you are talking about those left behind in Transcarpathia or Ukraine, or the inhabitants of distant regions. These are astonishing and shocking scenes even for an outside observer. As a photographer, how do you process the traumas experienced on the spot and afterwards? Which of these was your most memorable job?
The processing is in progress, it will not happen overnight. Not only because I got to know many people during my stay abroad, many of them also got close to me, which makes these people's pain and grievances from various areas even more relatable. I have noticed that I sleep worse at home since this has been going on. It does have an effect on me/us as well, not only in an economic sense. There is a strong pressure, since it is close to us, and the news, social media and the flood of confused information make it feel even closer, constantly present. Unfortunately, politics and public life do not necessarily help either. In recent decades they have rather ruined the lives of many people I have met out there. By the way, my friend Andrea Tankó supported me throughout this time. We regularly talk about what we have seen and heard outside, and I think the writing itself also contributes to this. For example, how I described the story of meeting an old blind lady living in Nagymuzsaly. That one hour remained with me so strongly, it was so difficult and yet uplifting that I had to write about it and put it into words. When I sometimes get discouraged, something pulls me down, I try to recall moments, for example from these visits, because there were plenty of them. When we laughed, I saw that they were happy to receive something useful and important, or when I had a good conversation with someone, and they told me about something that meant delight for them.
There are examples of people who are facing difficult circumstances, and if an outsider gets involved, it can later affect their lives... What is the afterlife of your works?
When I decided to go to Transcarpathia to take photos immediately after the outbreak of the war, it was not a secret that my aim was that the published pictures would change something in their own way, help people in the world face the problems of the people living there. The published pictures obviously greatly inspired those who contacted me to offer money, tinned food, medicines, etc. I tried to supplement the pictures with texts and personal stories from time to time, and this made it all the more effective. I think that's how many people really understood that this is happening now, and that it is indeed necessary to help. So, my answer is yes, it is possible. Of course, not always, it does not happen in all cases, especially if someone is recording pictures/scenes in a combat situation. It is completely different then, but I had more space to act.
During your travels, in addition to the sad experiences, you get to know and experience countless micro- and macro-stories. How do they affect your writing, how much of it is being written in you in parallel as a result of the events?
In me too. They are actually written relatively soon, so that, as I mentioned, I already wrote a short story about my visit in April, which was published. For me, photography fills me up, observation, it's really the process when my body, mind, and soul absorb a lot of things that only show up much later, come out in some kind of transformed form. There are times when I really only start thinking about a situation weeks or even months later, and it's obviously completely different from the time when I was actually there, in it, but it doesn't have to be the same. It's just that it starts something in my brain, it triggers certain processes, even in relation to a text that is not specifically about this. This is similar to what happens to a person while reading. Many people have probably already experienced, especially those who create. When they read a text, it suddenly triggers their imagination, their thoughts, in relation to something completely different. It's like when you hear the splash of water, or when you're under water you put your hand in, and the body reacts, with something that is related to water. However, it has already been internally transformed, and then it appears in that transformed format. I'm trying to put it delicately and nuancedly, although I know it sounds very profane, but most of the time, as we well know, miracles are not born from sacred moments.
The goal of your scholarship work was to create and organize the exhibition in Ufa. What was this three-year process like?
For me, as for the others in the scholarship program, these three years were not about balance. Things didn't go quite as planned for either of us. Last spring, since it was not possible to travel to Russia due to the pandemic, it would not have been safe anyway, so I had to change my work plan. So I turned to Transylvania, continued working there and started to create a series of portraits showing the oldest generation. Transylvania is closer, I don't have to travel to the Urals, I can talk to most of the people there without any problems, and the terrain is much more familiar. The past year has been full of intense work, during which time I have been out there seven times. Fortunately, many people helped me, Sándor Buglya and László Haris supported the change, Transylvanian photographers Gyula Ádám and Fülöp Lóránt showed me the direction, and I received important advice from quite a few pastors, priests, and private individuals. Although I also have a very nice material about the Bashkirs, from earlier and from the fall of 2019, when I visited many settlements in the steppes surrounding the Southern Urals, this Transylvanian series is much more comprehensive now, more than 50 settlements, 8 large regions, nearly 200 people affects, so I think it shows the elderly generation living in Transylvania in a serious way. The world they represent, the environment that still surrounds them, those houses, gates, works of fine and folk art will disappear over time, or if they don't disappear - I'm sure they won't - presumably they will be forced into a much more closed and regulated space.
What will live on from the completed project and can even be woven into the future?
I am confident that my pictures, the series itself, will live on, on the one hand thanks to the Internet, and on the other hand, in the sense that when it is completely assembled it will become a serious exhibition, even a book. This thing is becoming completed, but the time is not yet. There is still a lot of work to be done with the Transylvania series, and although I made good progress last year, I have to say that I have to work on it for a long time, just because of the size, complexity, and diversity of Transylvania. I should say the same about the Bashkir stories, but now it does not depend on me at all, nor on the Bashkirs, much bigger and darker forces prevent the creation of images. I really want to return to the Urals. I didn't give up at all, just because of the love and commitment I feel for them, for the Bashkirs I have met, I can't give up on putting together a comprehensive photo report or a series of portraits with them. If I think about Transylvania again, I spent so much time there in the past year that I am only now really beginning to see how deep its layers are and how it is worth approaching, when it is worth going to where, who it is worth working with, what kind of work pace and attitude lead to the goal.
In relation to the feedback: have you experienced that the audience in any age group has become more socially sensitive as a result of your work?
I hope so. For the time being, my pictures live on social media, but there a lot, and in this regard, I can say that I have received a lot of feedback, and now I am not thinking primarily of likes, but of comments, personal messages, shares, which I can see with the accompanying text they were published. Many young people wrote, even surprised that they would not have thought that you could meet things, people, and places like the ones in my photos that I had photographed. Many people asked for advice and directions, I saw that many people encouraged people, referring to my photos and the characters in them, that it is worth visiting Transylvania. Most of the Bashkir material, together with the excellent text of the ethnographer Zsolt Bottlik, was published in the January-February Földgömb Magazin, and many people wrote and searched for it. I think a lot of people saw those photos, and such a world and community was revealed in front of their eyes, which was unknown until now, but now it is not completely so, and which definitely deserves to be brought closer to us.
More photos and writings of Mátyás Szöllősi can be viewed on his website.
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