Empowerment Through the Lens
Manca Juvan, photographer, curator, photography mentor, and director at APIS Institute, sits down with VantagePoints for a conversation about her work and her journey as an artist. Manca has travelled extensively and used photography as a tool for experiencing and learning about the places she has travelled to. Above all else, Manca is a storyteller. Her most well known projects, “Guardians of the Spoon” and “Unordinary Lives”, share a new perspective on the people who lived in the Italian Fascist Camps and Afghanistan, respectively.
Manca shares with us her experience working with the APIS Institute, a space for cooperation between vulnerable groups, artists, the academics and the general public. Since its establishment in 2012, APIS has strived for a more comprehensive treatment of marginal, overlooked, misinterpreted, but socially important topics. They want to remind and encourage reflection, to establish a culture of dialogue and empathy as the primary values of humanity.
VantagePoints Editor: How has your personal experience influenced your photography taking?
Manca: Well, I’m not sure whether it was my personal experience that shaped my photography or my photography shaped me. I think it went hand-in-hand because I used photography and journalism in the beginning. For a short time, I studied journalism, and have used it, as well as photography, as a tool to enter the worlds that were not my own or were different from my own.
Similarly, the camera was always a type of passport to take me or give me permission to enter other people’s lives. The camera was an excuse to ask questions and to get to know other people and cultures and societies and so on.
VantagePoints Editor: What do you try and evoke in your photos and more generally throughout your photography?
Manca: I consider myself a storyteller, so there’s always that layered storyline that I try to evoke. But more than that I try to evoke some sort of human connection between different people. I’ve always been learning by getting to know other people. I think that photography actually gave me an opportunity to grow as a person and to become a better version of myself.
For me, a good picture evokes emotion in a person that’s looking at it. But of course, photography by itself cannot do that. The viewer has to actively look at an image, and participate in it.
VantagePoints Editor: What does it mean to actively look at and participate in a photograph?
Manca: It means that we look at it with an open mind and an open heart. That way it can have an impact on us.
In the broader sense, what I want to do with my work is, ultimately, to touch people and make them rethink the stories that I’m telling. Make them rethink “others”, and to realize that actually, deep down, we’re not so different. I like to use photography in such a way to wake up the empathy or bring out the empathy in people and provoke certain questions, for example about stereotyping.
I think in today’s world where we’re actually overcrowded and oversaturated with images, some people say it desensitized us, maybe even dehumanized in some way. On the other hand, there’s so much good work being produced now that hasn’t been produced in a way or seen before. There are many more opportunities.
VantagePoints Editor: One of your most well-known projects, “Unordinary Lives”, based in Afghanistan shone a light on the lives of the people and gave a perspective outside of the common war narrative. What did you learn from shooting your Afghanistan project?
Manca: Well, I was 22 when I went to Afghanistan. My perception of the country was through the perspective of the Western media, that it was served on television and in our newspapers, it was, I must say, very different. In Western media was all this discussion of fundamentalism and the Taliban. When you get there, of course, you see the reality is much more complex.
I am Slovene, and I was 10 years old when there was a war in the Balkans, and I was in a totally different world then. I was in love with horses and I was riding every day, etc. So for me, we had a 10-day war and I actually never felt like this was anything dangerous.
So, Afghanistan, personally, was really an opportunity to see and learn about how hatred, media manipulation, and political manipulation, can lead to war; and what war means and how it influences the life or ordinary people.
It was amazing to see how optimistic people in Afghanistan were in 2003, for example, and how fed up with the Western community they were in 2009.
VantagePoints Editor: Do you think that images can be equally as polarizing as they can be made to bring people together?
Manca: Definitely. That’s why the context is so important. Actually, I think the context is what gives image importance or value.
One image can be used as a polarizing image by another publication or by another person. I think it’s especially important, today, to really build trust because you really don’t know who to trust with all the different information. And unfortunately, the media here, but also in the West, too, has lost a lot of trust from the public.
For example, in Iran I was working for an agency which sent me to a demonstration to take some photos. The demonstration was in front of the Dutch embassy; Iranians were protesting a movie made by a Dutch politician that was against Islam. When I got there I was shocked to see that this was mainly just a PR event. There were very few people protesting, compared to the media presence, and they were brought there by a bus. The images we ended up seeing on the wire, however, were close ups, appearing more aggressive, more dynamic with the protestors having a fist in the air and shouting something, than what it really was.
My boss took only one of my images, where they raised their hands. I had a wide-angle shot, and the rosary on the hands, and that was it. He was not interested in the reality and how it really was. He said, “Please, next time when you go, you know, check the pictures of the fellow agencies”. And I was like, “What? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? It is like it was a moment of realization for me that I am part of this big propaganda machine, that I did not want to be a part of.
VantagePoints Editor: Can you tell me more about your photos taken in Iran. What was that experience like?
Manca: Iran is a special place for sure. I happened to live in Iran. I went to Iran first as a tourist because I was working in Afghanistan a lot, and I was very tired and I was like, OK, I just want to take a vacation and rest. Once there, I was very much surprised that it’s very different from Afghanistan, though they are neighboring countries, and the people are very much like me.
I realized we read the same books and we listen to the same music in spite of my previous perception of them being miles away and very different from me. So, I discovered that they’re really not the fanatics that Western media portrays them to be.
I ended up doing a personal project on the story of the Iranian youth, focused on the duality of lives between the more modern individuals, and the more conservative.
VantagePoints Editor: I read about your work with the APIS Institute, a non-profit aimed at using photography, video and other methods as tools for empowerment. Can you tell us a little more about how APIS does this work and some of the projects they have focused on.
Manca: At APIS we use photography, video, and sound, but also now with the recent projects, we use other artistic forms as a method of empowerment.
We work with different minority groups and migrants. Our last project focused on individuals with disabilities that went through training in photography, video, theater, theater of the oppressed, and dance, and then they produced their own show.
The theme was Identity. They explored their own different identities. Everyone has multiple identities and roles. They explored their identity, let’s say you have a disability, and other first recognize you by the disability, what they don’t see right a way, that you are not just, for example, on a wheelchair, or you are blind, or you are a refugee, but you are someone’s daughter, mother, too, you have many talents – you are a passionate poet, musician, etc. We tend to forget we are, each one of us, people of many identities. Out identity is fluid.
So, we explored this issue and there was a performance we had. The people that came were really moved by it, because they met real people who told real stories.
APIS also participated in the Slovenian president and Croatian president meeting on Rab island last fall, which, next to being this beautiful, now very touristic Croatian island, is also the location of the WW2 Italian fascist concentration camp, where many people died. And it was quite a big issue because the survivors always felt that they had not received an appropriate official recognition from the government officials and from the government or from the country.
So it was really important for them that the president of Slovenia came to the location, and that was part of this commemoration event, and actually spoke and addressed the issue.
At APIS we definitely focus on social change through art. One of the challenges we have faced has been trying to find other organizations to collaborate with
who do similar things as a way to reach a broader audience. The concept of art for positive social change is a very new idea in Slovenia and there is not a lot of funding for art. Right now we mostly rely on a combination of our own volunteer work, certain project grants or commercial work.
We have developed educational materials for primary schools, and the end years of primary schools and secondary schools. We have done this with our migration and fascist camp work. These tools were used both to educate teachers, to give them the tools to work with students. We also always collaborate with different researchers, academics from different institutes that are experts on the topics we work on and they participate in our projects as such or as mentors. So, we are kind of a bridge between the public, the educational community, and the professional/academic community.
And of course, we offer space for minority groups to tell the story about themselves. Since there is a lack of stories told from their own perspective in our spaces, I think it is important to help them enter a public space, discourse, through art exhibitions or an event, or any opportunity that allows their own voice to be heard through an artistic expression.
VantagePoints Editor: What gives you hope about the world? And then also, what concerns you about the world?
Manca: Well, on one level, love is what gives me hope because love is a fabric of beauty. Hope in the individuals that do good and try their best to do good.
On the other hand, what discourages me is our current situation of what seems an unstoppable flux of information that we are not equipped to read appropriately. We are flooded with information that has been manipulated, beyond our capacity of understanding. Media literacy is one of the most important issues that we should all be thinking about and learning about as a public, and on the other hand push the gatekeepers to work on the tools that will help distinguish the information we receive better. It’s so easy to manipulate people towards hatred, and division, and those emotions that only lead, as history showed us, to situations that no one of us, ordinary people, actually really want.