by Bärbel Praun

© Mika Sperling, Breeda en Sestre (Brothers and Sisters), 2015

For the third time, the Vienna Photobook Festival was held in June with its focus on the photobook, initiated by Anzenberger Gallery and Ostlicht.Gallery for Photography. With 80 international booksellers, lectures (e.g. by Colin Pantall, Michael Mack, Nicolo Degiorgis and Ania Nalecka) and exhibitions the event offered a quite overwhelming program. Also, 30 photographers had the chance to show their dummies and unpublished photo books at the Book Review. The ViennaPhotoBookAward’s first prize was won by Mark Duffy with his book ‘Vote No. 1′, the 2nd prize went to ‘Instant Tomorrow’ by Dmitry Lookianov. After their reviews I interviewed three photographers: in an intriguing and personal, yet very different way they tell stories about origin, identity, family and friends, hopes and dreams. Today we want to introduce to you the work of photographer Mika Sperling and her book ‘Breeda en Sestre (Brothers and Sisters)’, 2015.

For your series ‘Breeda en Sestre‘ you travelled to villages in Russia, Germany and Canada, can you tell us what the story is about?

MIKA SPERLING (MS): My story is about Russian Mennonites who today live in German villages in Sibiria, within Germany and in Manitoba in Canada. Although they have been living apart for up to two decades, they are still connected by their faith, their traditions and their Low German dialect. I focused on the young generation and let them tell their stories through interviews.

In your images as well as in the interviews accompanying them one can sense people’s longing for a home, their connection to family and community on the one hand, and a very strong melancholy and stillness within this world on the other hand. Having experienced and documented their daily lives have you found some answers regarding your brothers and sisters?

MS: As a child my oldest sister took us to Sunday school as my parents did not raise us religious. I was thirteen when I stopped attending church services and never thought I would come back with a camera and the idea of a project about them. Working on the project has challenged me in many ways, as I have been forced to face my personal fears about being judged for being not a faithful Mennonite anymore. It was a very personal process and I am glad I met so many people who let me inside their lives and thoughts, because one way to gain trust was to open myself completely and I became quite vulnerable. Three of my sisters are members of Brethren Churches in Germany. I included them in my project because they were the first ones to trust me with my intentions. Another reason was my desire to include myself in the project through them.

© Mika Sperling, Breeda en Sestre (Brothers and Sisters), 2015

Please tell us about your approach turning the series into a book. 

MS: The more I photographed, the more ideas I got and soon I was overwhelmed by the amount of directions the story could go into. The photo book is a medium that can make storytelling with multiple layers. I also wanted to include a lot of text so I thought of a book dummy from the early beginning.

© Mika Sperling, Breeda en Sestre (Brothers and Sisters), 2015

Talking about the Vienna Photobook Festival now: what were your review talks like, have you received any useful advice and feedback? Would you recommend other photographers to attend those events?  

MS: The reviews were very informative and interesting and I felt inspired in many ways afterwards. Each one had individual thoughts and preferences but they agreed on one thing: in breaking a story down to the essence, it will make it stronger and easier to understand. One of the reviewer, Colin Pantall, took special interest in my personal background as a woman and photographer who used to be in the community. He pointed out that it might be the most interesting thing to read my thoughts I developed during the process of shooting and living with the Mennonites. I can recommend the review for anyone who is thinking about telling a story through a book and wants to get an idea of the various possibilities what it could be like, but don’t expect right or wrong answers, because there are none!

© Mika Sperling, Breeda en Sestre (Brothers and Sisters), 2015

Are there any book discoveries you made at the festival you would like to share with us? 

MS: Stefanie Moshammer’s ‘Vegas and She’ published by Fotohof was something I enjoyed as the magic of Vegas has always been something that fascinated me.

Mika Sperling was born in Norilsk, Russia. She grew up in Germany, in a family of ten. She lives and works in Darmstadt, Germany. 


Mika Sperling 
Vienna Photobook Festival Part 1