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.
'how, when and why'
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
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.