Dominic Hislop
'how, when and why'

Interested in the social effects of the economic transition taking place in Hungary, I successfully applied for a 7-month British Council residency award in Budapest starting in January 1996.  After being seduced by the city's eclectic architecture, spaces and vibrant street life and finding this to be a stimulating environment for me to work in, I decided to stay longer. This turned into a total of about 2 years before I returned to Glasgow to study on the MFA programme. During this time, most of the works I made were responses to the politics and social use of public space and took the form of temporary photographic, poster or sticker interventions located in the street or metro.

I met Miklós through my contact with the Intermedia department at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. We discussed the idea of giving out single use disposable flash cameras to some of the city's many homeless people so that on the one hand this very visible and everyday present social issue could somehow be documented, represented and discussed in an art context which was at a time of such great change, surprisingly void of any social or political content. On the other hand we wanted to address the question of how to deal with that representation so that myself and miklos as artists wouldn't fall into the trap of futher dispossessing the participants of their ability to speak on their own behalf. After a month or two of applications, phone calls and meetings, we secured enough sponsorship to buy and process films from 40 cameras. As the sociological definition of homelessness covers a broad range of living situations, we decided to distribute the cameras not only to to people who were at the most extreme case of sleeping rough, but also cameras were given to people sleeping in overnight shelters, women's shelters, young people's shelters, and the longer stay one month contract shelters. We consulted with the resident social workers to select participants from shelters but approached people on the streets or in the metro ourselves to ask if they'd be interested in participating. Each time we arranged a meeting one week later to collect the camera then arranged a further meeting to return a copy of the photographs and record an interview about the pictures. A portion of the funding was used to pay each participant for their involvement.

With the only brief being to record 'whatever is interesting or important to you in your everyday life' (in the knowledge that it will be publicly exhibited), the participants made their own choices about how to appoach the project and what to include in their pictures. Further, in presenting those pictures alongside a corresponding piece of text taken from the recorded interview about their work (rather than their lives) when we got the photographs back after processing, we tried to allow the participants to determine the context (who are the people, where is the place, why is it important) for each picture and so complete the circle of representation. In this way we hoped to avoid an ambiguous or emotional interpretation on the part of the viewer and ultimately make a connection that located the homeless experience within the broader condition of poverty being experienced by much of Budapest's inhabitants as a result of the political and economic changes.

The work was presented in two exhibitions. One was in the the established art context of the Budapest Galéria, (Budapest III., Lajos utca 158.) Around 100 colour photographic enlargements (3 to 4 pictures by each participant) were exhibited along with their corresponding comments. The exhibition was opened on 19 March 1998 by Sándor Kardos, filmmaker and curator of the Horus photographic archive, and ran until 19 April. A 20 page black and white catalogue including at least one photograph and text by each participant was available during the exhibition.All participants and social workers were invited (about half attended) to this opening as well as the usual gallery mail out circle. Although it was our status as artists that got the show in the gallery in the first place, we tried to deflect attention away from us so that on the posters and invitations, the main focus of attention was on the photographers names and when radio and television stations sent reporters to the opening, we duly passed them on to speak to the creators of the work. To have homeless people as the artists on show, proud and actively responding to the reporters questions created quite an unusual and provokative situation in what is usually quite a guarded elitist and apolitical art scene. The show was a big success, gaining a lot of media attention, pulling in more crowds than normally come to the gallery in a year and was subsequently extended to allow more people to see it.

The other exhibition was held two weeks later from 2 - 5 April in the main hall of the FSZKI Dózsa György út homeless shelter, the largest homeless hostel in Budapest. Whilst there were issues relevant to art in Hungary that made it important to show the work in the context of an art gallery, we felt it was equally if not more important that the work be shown in a homeless context so that it could easily be seen and reflected upon by more people in a similar position of homelessness and so that visitors from outside the hostel would have to step in to this unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable context to see it. The content differed in that the full interview transcripts and ten smaller sized pictures by each participant were exhibited. The opening was more of a screening and discussion event in which two TV programmes about the project were screened. One was an arts programme which featured an art theorist critiquing the work and the other was a half hour documentary, made in collaboration with Sándor Kardos, for 'Háló', MTV1's social documentary series. It features many of the project's participants discussing both their own and others photographs and a short film directed by one of the photographers, László Hudák. A lot of the participants attended and contributed towards a lively discussion with us, each other, residents from the hostel, social workers and people from outside about the project and homelessness in general.

In the effort to take the work to a broader public, a series of 20 postcards were made and given to Hungarian homeless foundations to be sold. We also made a web site which documented the full interview texts and ten photographs from each participant.

The lively and colourful results of the project contrasted with photodocumentary's gritty black and white tradition of 'no comment' aestheticizations of poverty. Such emotive images deprive the 'fallen' subject of any context to their life and identity beyond stereotypical notions of the shameful condition of homelessness and evoke a sense of helpless sympathy in the viewer. The 'inside out/sajat szemmel' project challenges the viewers' liberal instincts to feel this self satisfied sympathy. Instead of being a collection of stereotypical homeless images of old men sad and begging they often capture people using the camera as most 'ordinary' people do, proudly showing off, having fun with their friends and children, and documenting unusual or amusing sights. There were many different approaches. Some people chose to take it upon themselves to document homelessness as a journalist might, going round, sneaking up to people sleeping on benches and taking their photo. Others doing something similar were more aware of the ethics of taking a stranger's photograph and mentioned in their comments that they asked permission, gave some money or a sandwich before taking their picture. Some took the opportunity to take pictures of  their children, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, fooling around. Some used the camera more seriously, taking pictures only of objects that had some poetic, metaphorical meaning for them or of places that suggested memories from childhood. Some pictures were without comment as we couldn't relocate the photographer to do the interview. During a discussion at the Centre for Culture and Communication (c3) for the opening of the web site, an audience member working in advertising became angry that we'd allowed images of homeless people looking relaxed, doing 'ordinary things', drinking and having fun to be seen by the public as he felt that unless we showed shocking images of people looking desperate and downtrodden the issue of homelessness would lose public sympathy. But, rather than employing this kind of contrived sensationalism, we believed it was the pictures' 'ordinariness' and their refusal to accomodate that split often desired by the viewer between their own life and the homeless experience which was one of the strengths of the project.

The exhibition has subsequently been invited to show in a number of cities across Europe. In 1999, it was part of the 'Hungarian Art from the Nineties' exhibition at the Akademie der Kunst in Berlin and was shown in Aarhus, Denmark at IMAGE photographic gallery. It was part of the 'After the Wall: Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe' exhibition which opened at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999 and later toured to Budapest and Berlin in 2000. It was included in 'Cooperativ', in Ulm, Germany at Stadthaus Ulm in July 2000.

After the completion of the photographic project in 1998, Miklós continued to work with one of the photographic project's participants, László Hudák and his circle of friends, the 'Tequilla Gang' on the making of a film. The film, part fiction and part documentary, was directed and filmed on video and super 8 by and László and social worker, Lénárt Imre. 'Tequila Gang' was premiered and nominated for one of the top awards at the Hunagrian film festival in 1999. It has since been screened at various European film festivals as well as being shown alongside any subsequent exhibitions of the 'Saját Szemmel/Inside Out' project. Funding for the project enabled László and the 'Tequila Gang' to move out of their homeless shelter and begin renting a flat together.

I think that one reason why this project created such interest in Hungary was that homelessness was a relatively new phenomenon there, (it was 'officially' non-existant before 1989) and the generally, the public were themselves having to cope with a more precarious existence financially than what they'd been used to before the changes. When faced with the relatively sudden appearance of rough sleepers and beggars on the streets, most people were still unsure of how to deal with this new situation and unlike in the west, were less equipped and organised to cope. As well as the strength of the images and texts themselves and their documentary qualities, perhaps one reason the project may have been interesting to people outside of Hungary was because the results of the political changes provided a symbolic mirror to flaws of the western system, which although well known and documented in the west could perhaps be exposed and seen more poignantly through the disturbingly rapid emergence of the same symptoms in the transition from a socialist to a capitalist economy.

Unfortunately, I can't say that the project changed anything politically but then, realistically this wasn't the goal of these couple of photographic exhibitions. I only mention this because a prominent Budapest newspaper levelled criticism at us along the lines of 'but what was the point if they're still homeless?'. The opportunity to make political changes was outwith our hands, but the project certainly provoked a lot of media attention and raised the profile of homelessness as an issue to be discussed in the media. From that point, campaigners and committed social workers were given a platform to air views. Also, the project played a positive role in breaking down some public misconceptions of who homeless people are and helped forge a better understanding that their situation is not so much a case of the failure of the individual to adapt to a changing society but rather the failure of a changing society to accommodate all its individuals. Another criticism was that it is a kind of sick joke to give cameras to people who need food. But as many of the participants told us, the issue of food isn't easy, but if you know where to go, there are soup vans, kitchens or hostels that can provide something to eat when you really need them. So, when some money becomes available, the main priority isn't to buy food but is to use it to find ways to escape the situation for a while, the easiest being through alchohol. And as any of those artists starving in their garrets would have told you, no matter what level of income, 'man cannot live on bread alone'. As evidenced by the enthusiasm of most of the participants, and their proud involvement at the exhibitions, for many people, the opportunity to use even such a simple creative tool as a camera provides for something hopefully more lasting and positive than escape through alchohol and almost as essential a human need as food i.e. that of expression and reflection.