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Interview

Ulla Deventer: “Becoming a documentary photographer never felt like an actual option for me”

text:
Futures Photography
Date:
November 11, 2019
Nominated for Futures by FOMU, Ulla Deventer was born 1984 in Germany. In her works, Deventer questions the interdependencies of women on social norms. She explores the female body, ideas of beauty, taboos, and sexuality.

“Being an artist is a driven, exhaustive progress but I feel gifted with the intensity of life that goes beyond any materialistic fantasy,” explains. Recently, she has been involved in a collaborative project with women in Havana, Cuba, and started her Ph.D. studies at Kwame Nkrumah University Kumasi in Ghana.

In this interview, Ulla talks about her career and inspirations:

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Can you explain us a little bit about your inspirations? What are the main themes in your practice?

I am fascinated how sexuality reflects norms and taboos of society. Sex is omnipresent and everyone has opinions about it, especially when women are involved. Inspired by my long-term research on sex work, I am interested in taboos about female sexuality and the female body. As a woman you are constantly controlled and judged - about motherhood, abortion or just your self-determined life. It is very telling to me that sex workers are widely victimized but we would never question any woman inside a classical relationship which is based on economical dependency, that, in many cultures, comes along with the sexual domination or even abuse of men. I am most motivated to research interactions with people in everyday life – sometimes it can just be a conversation with a taxi driver as well as very personal experiences. Essential for all my projects are women with that I collaborate with because I can reflect and understand myself.

Everything is a new angle to look at my work for me to take something out of it. Being an artist is a driven, exhaustive progress but I feel gifted with the intensity of life that goes beyond any materialistic fantasy.

How do you see your relationship with photography? How do you deal with this medium to express your art?

Ever since I was able to hold a pen, the urge to express myself visually has been embedded within me. I was constantly creating something visual and later produced little video and photoshoots with my friends. I have always been a socially and emotionally driven person with very diverse friends, which contributes to what created my awareness of crucial, social differences. At 19, I was an intern for the fashion photographer Iris Brosch, who is still a huge role model to me, given her very empowering perspective on women. During this time, I learned to work with analog colour photography. Even up to today, the dark room is still the best place to edit my images.

At the same time, the commercial fashion world exhibited too much of a superficial bubble to me. I need the vibes of the real world; the beauty of the unplanned. This only exists if you work on the streets. Becoming a documentary photographer never felt like an actual option for me.

Studying fine art means it will be a long and probably never-ending journey, mainly towards my inner self. Over the years, I felt limited by photography and became involved with other mediums. Domestic textiles along with recorded stories are some things that fascinate me these days. Everything I do is based on stories, but it wasn't until recently that I started to record them. Voice is an extremely powerful tool that immediately reaches your subconsciousness; similar are textiles, being associated with intimacy. I am only beginning to work in multi-layered dimensions in the space. There are many ideas on visual sound installations that I hope to experiment with in the future.

Can you tell us a bit more projects that you have been working with?

My lowest moment was when I spent one entire week in a rehab centre in a small village of the Russian Ural Mountains with women who went through heavy drug addiction. There, I really started to question the conventional way of documentary photography when it comes to social issues. The more closely I got with the women, the more it felt inappropriate and voyeuristic. The third day I stopped taking pictures and was just there, with them. We were sleeping together in a dorm and I was sitting on my bed reading. Suddenly, one of the women came to me, sat down on the bed in front of me with her son. She started telling me her whole life, about her boyfriends, how she got HIV and finally infected her son, everything. I never asked for it. This situation taught me a lot about my position in general – which is a very powerful and therefore dangerous one. We can turn it into an abusive relationship to our protagonists if we don’t handle their stories with an ethical sense of the responsibility we have. From this moment on I knew this can only work in the long term if you are involved and in a collaborative approach. We later on organized a shooting in their living room that we ended with a beamer show at night. Some of these images that totally break our cliché of the drug-addicted women are still my favourite sI have done so far.

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My lowest moment was when I spent one entire week in a rehab centre in a small village of the Russian Ural Mountains with women who went through heavy drug addiction. There, I really started to question the conventional way of documentary photography when it comes to social issues. The more closely I got with the women, the more it felt inappropriate and voyeuristic. The third day I stopped taking pictures and was just there, with them. We were sleeping together in a dorm and I was sitting on my bed reading. Suddenly, one of the women came to me, sat down on the bed in front of me with her son. She started telling me her whole life, about her boyfriends, how she got HIV and finally infected her son, everything. I never asked for it. This situation taught me a lot about my position in general – which is a very powerful and therefore dangerous one. We can turn it into an abusive relationship to our protagonists if we don’t handle their stories with an ethical sense of the responsibility we have. From this moment on I knew this can only work in the long term if you are involved and in a collaborative approach. We later on organized a shooting in their living room that we ended with a beamer show at night. Some of these images that totally break our cliché of the drug-addicted women are still my favourite sI have done so far.

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How has been the experience of being a talent selected for Futures? How can Futures help with your career?

Art grows by exchange but as artists you tend to be very much in your own bubble, overwhelmed by finding a balance of money, jobs to survive, administrative duties, research and finally pushing your practical work. Some gifted can afford assistance for it but for most of us, this stays an extremely demanding structure in that you are constantly doing the job of several people. I believe that a platform like Futures can support us by providing us with a structure and network that we would never be able to build on our own. Futures can link us to opportunities and people that are rewarding for our personal practice. I see it as a growing progress and network that is enriching in any sense.

Can you share with us a little bit about your plans for the future after being part of the platform? Do you have any new project in mind?

This year felt like a run for me, I never had time for a break but was constantly producing. What I urgently need is to rest and reflect. I at the same time just started my Ph.D. studies at Kwame Nkrumah University Kumasi in Ghana and see this as the perfect spot for exactly doing so. Their global and universal driven academic perspective is highly enriching in any sense and I couldn't imagine a better place to progress my practice.

I am about to edit a new project that is inspired by my long-term collaboration with the sex workers. It is again a collaborative project with women that I just started in Havana, Cuba, but that I will open up to other places. It hits me how this country is still represented by sexualized portraits of the female Caribbean beauty whose only duty it seems is to seduce the men. The only deliberated voices of Cuban women can be found in independent press whose writers are traced by the Cuban government and risk their freedom. The machismo society is very interesting for my research as well because it is a universal issue. This time I work with women who live on the margins but vouch for their self-determined position. I am about to integrate the male perspective as well. I research on sexuality and power, our ideas of the female and interdependencies with social norms. I am interested in the idea of a family in our restless and scattered world.

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