I’ve known Dr. Karanka for a few years now after meeting him through HCSP. In addition to editing the regular feature Children of Weegee Fortnight, he’s the mastermind behind Dr. Karanka’s Print Stravaganza and a founding member of Mindfist. We had a conversation about his work as well as his various photogrpahy activities.
Where does the name Dr. Karanka come from? Is it true that you have a PHD? Are you a Dr. of photography?
Well, back in the day I had been travelling with Julian, a Scottish mate of mien after a conference. I was going to stick the pictures somewhere, so I needed a name for my account on flickr (don’t remember where I heard about it), so that was it. Many of the people I knew where Dr’s, and I was going to be one, so I stack with the Mr till I eventually got my degree towards the end of last year. So, I was Mr Karanka for years on flickr, but I always knew it would one day change. And I’m not a doctor in Photography, but on Psychology. All my research is on visual perception, so I guess that it does relate in a way…
What came first, the interest in visual perception or the interest in photography? And how do the two relate to each other?
Well, they were very different things for a long time. I used to photograph with my father when I was a kid, but back then I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. Then I grew up, quitted photography in my teens and became a scientist. During that time I rediscovered photography in a more personal way. When I was a kid most of what I shot were assignments for a magazine, so I had to stick to topic. When you grow up like a precocious editorial photographer you sort of don’t see it having any other purpose. But once I was on my tracks as a researcher, I could sort of see how you could do the same in photography. You explore visual areas… like when you get a flash for the first time and shoot the heck out of it… it opens a unique visual landscape with it’s unique aesthetics… and when you produce/find something interesting you try to further your knowledge of it by testing ideas. For example, you might have this crazy idea that what makes a photograph interesting is the inclusion of biologically meaningful things in unexpected parts of the frame, like eyes, faces, hands, then you shoot a group of photographs that are driven by that idea, and you might be right or wrong. I think that being trained as a researcher makes you methodical. Doesn’t mean that you can’t be mad or produce stuff that you have no control over, but you approach the work in a way in which there is always a way to further the work and keep it coherent.
The battle between form and chaos seems to be an important idea in your work. It’s like, when you’re out shooting in the pub, you kind of react and put the pieces of together as best you can, but of course you can never really know what’s going to come out when you develop the film. Whereas when you’re shooting a landscape with nice light and color, you kind of have a decent idea of what it’s going to look like. What is it about motion that’s so attractive to photographers? Is there really some hidden idea or message in those small, random moments? Or do we simply assign meaning to them after the fact?
I think my photographs don’t have anything to do with motion itself. They’re as still as any other, so to say. Photographying them, well, I find it more interesting to try to produce a still rich composition out of things that move. There’s just much more visual excitement around you in a way. When you go out to shoot a landscape, you have to walk a lot to get the slightest change in perspective, and often you can predict what things will look like. In an enclosed space with lots of people moving constantly, somebody moving a few steps closer or further away from you completely changes the visual landscape. It’s not that somebody’s closer, but now that person has a lot more weight on the final frame relative to the amount they’ve moved. I guess it’s shooting the chaos, as the river is ever changing.
On messages, there are little things here and there. I I like a photograph when you sort of don’t get the content, but after seeing it you have taken something with you that you didn’t have before. You’re sort of unaware that you’ve got the photograph, but after seeing a few you’re obviously more in the know than when you started. When I’ve been shooting Last Orders, none of the photographs summarizes the series, but each photograph works with the others to convey the meaning. Some of the photographs are very deliberately fragmentary, like the photograph of a man walking over a wall and the photograph of a big splash of drink. If you saw one on their own, they could belong to an infinite amount of essays or series, and for sure, they don’t have a single explanation to their meaning. When you see them in the context of the series, you might make a mind of your own on what they mean.
You’ve been working on “Last Orders” for a few years now. Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel, or do you envision this project going on for years? Do you think most photography projects need to be long term projects?
I’ve often joked that I’ll finish when I get a good photograph with a snowfall in it. I’m only half joking on that one, I’d really like to have it in. The problem is that over here it only snows some years, and chances are that you’re not out shooting if it happens (although I would kick my butt if I happened to be abroad again when it snows in Cardiff). It’s one of those images that shocked me when I moved over. All these guys going out into the snowfall and taking their shirts off singing. In a way that means that yes, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m hoping to finish the series next year. I was expecting to be done by now; I gave myself a three year deadline to do it, but I’m not satisfied yet. I guess that these small details, those last meaningful images that you think will put the project together are what make the difference between a one month shootout that can be good but not necessarily that meaningful, and something longer with which you’re fully sure about. That doesn’t mean that everybody would love it, though. Most people will just not get it. In the end it’s all about the full term obsession. It’s something I’ve seen in Japanese photography quite a lot. A photographer is so obsessed with a topic or series, that it just comes through the pages. You might not like the photographs at all, but there is this eerie amount of time that somebody has spent into putting the big picture together and fill it with cryptic statements here and there. It’s like a short term project is something good to look at, while a long term one is something good to think about. It’s permeated with intention and choices. You just know that a photograph is not there because there wasn’t a better one; it’s there because it is the photograph that the author wanted to be there.
How did Dr. Karanka’s Print Stravaganza come about? It’s a rather cool idea that seems to be building.
Out of nowhere! I must have told you that I was thinking about something cheap and cheerful that would be both something to hold a party around my birthday and a good way to put up a show. I went to bed with the idea and sketched the group the morning after. Less than a week later I was receiving prints and that rough sketch had been getting character by comments on the flickr group. Things like that it wouldn’t be a one off show but carry on, finding organizers for those shows, some basic donation system, etc. The only way that ideas seem to work online is by the snowball method. You can’t come up with something too elaborate and hoping it catches up.
Speaking of something not too elaborate, what is Mindfist and how is it coming along?
Pretty raw in every sense of the word! Calling it a community makes it sound too large and a collective maybe too formal. We’re just a bunch of people who ended up photographing and trying to do something with it, and out of those, the ones that sort of came along to the same place. Mindfist is full of drifters, so it’s hard to catch anybody, but that’s the way it goes. It wouldn’t exist without them, and I guess that that sense of dislocation sometimes comes accross in the images. There is a sort of extended Mindfist network, all those places where we have a tentacle or a friend, and that’s pretty powerful. In a way the Print Stravaganza is a tentacle of Mindfist too; we get pretty involved in it. Now we’re trying to get our own imagery sorted and then we can put it up on a wall somewhere.
All Photographs ©Joni Karanka