by Ksenia Belash

There is something quite fascinating about Tanya Zommer’s project Dailies. It is tricky to showcase it in an online format, as it deserves, or rather needs to be seen as a whole - as a time-based, performative work. I was lucky to have experienced it in a way it was supposed to be shown: a slow yet continuous stream of images projected upon the gallery’s wall.

Executed in the form of an intimate diary, Dailies falls into the tradition of works which blur the division between public and private spheres, thereby politicising the latter. Even though Zommer does not identify herself as a feminist artist and her approach is intuitive rather than theory-driven, her work resonates with a number of ideas originating in the feminist discourse. Dailies thematises the biopolitics of gender, family and motherhood, which become particularly pronounced when it comes to such sensitive issues as surrogacy. Zommer’s performative conversation with her husband presented as an audio piece accompanying the work, is particularly interesting in this regard. Through an agonistic dialogue it reveals the internalised and often unquestioned beliefs and convictions of the interlocutors, but also points to the potential of the dialogical approach to eventually transform the power discourse.

The second major theme permeating Zommer’s work is representation of the body. By exposing herself in a less than flattering way, something that the artist herself describes as a challenge, Zommer not only exposes and challenges the current unrealistic beauty standards, but also points to the fact that ageing female body is practically excluded from today’s youth-obsessed popular culture. Her project seems particularly daring in the context of post-Soviet countries, where after the end of Soviet Union, obsession with visual perfection and unrealistic standards of female beauty has become an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon and still remains largely unchallenged.

Zommer's project made me think of the Deleuzian concept of repetition. By ritualistically perpetuating the same small gesture- the act of taking a photograph, the artist manages not only to affectively connect with the process of pregnancy and eventually internalise it, but to also gradually transform her relation with herself, her husband and the medium of photography. It is this slow, troublesome transformation - characterised by the uncertainty of the end goal - that reaches the viewer on the affective level, rather than rational level, transforming him or her in turn.

© Tanya Zommer from the series 'Dailies' 

I first saw your project 'Dailies' exhibited at Fresh Faced, Wild Eyed at the Photographers’ Gallery. I would like to hear a bit more about what had preceded it, as I know that you have been doing photography for quite a while now. Could you please tell us a bit about your background?

Tatiana Zommer (TZ): It all started when I began my studies at the art faculty of the Moscow University of Printing. I then went on to study photography at the Photography Academy, where my tutor was Vadim Piskarev, a commercial photographer who was shooting still lives and fashion for magazines. I suppose this encounter has largely influenced the direction of my practice. It wasn’t long before I also started shooting for major Moscow magazines. I was primarily doing commissioned portraits, but sometimes fashion as well. And then something started to change, as I was not happy with myself anymore. I was constantly perfecting my technique and everything was fine, but something was not quite right. There is a famous story by Patrick Suskind “Depth Wish” (Der Zwang zur Tiefe), so this is what I craved — depth. So I started searching for this elusive depth in all kind of possible ways. At first, I tried shooting my own projects for the magazines, but it didn’t work out. For editors it was “way too artistic”, whereas at portfolio reviews that I went to, I kept hearing that my work was too “commercial” and “polished”. And I couldn’t quite understand, what exactly to do about it. Eventually I got seriously depressed because of not being able to find a sense of direction. And then I thought I should try to learn something new and decided to apply for an MA in photography at the Central Saint-Martins, in London.

Would you say that studying there has had a significant influence on you and your practice?

TZ: Yes, it certainly did. Even despite the fact that I didn’t get what one would typically expect from education, as one understands education in Russia. There were almost no conventional lectures, no exams, nothing of the kind. It was all very different, in an environment, which was excessively relaxed. And yet, little by little, the work was being done. As a result of my communication with our tutors and fellow students in those two years, my style and the whole vision completely changed.

© Tanya Zommer from the series 'Dailies'

This is what I also noticed. Your earlier projects had this very clean, polished aesthetics. Even 'Seroga', which is conceptually closer to 'Dailies', has this pronounced emphasis on visual excellence: it is quite theatrical and has all those formal markers of perfection, in terms of composition, light, style of retouching. Whereas 'Dailies' feels very different. It is much more cinematic and, even though it is also staged, it feels much more raw and alive - which of course corresponds to the idea of a diary. I wonder whether this move away from the polished aesthetics was intentional, in line with the concept, or whether it just happened organically?

TZ: 'Seroga' was the first project that I worked on during my MA course. This project is still important for me, because I believe that Seroga gradually developed into 'Dailies'. How did it happen? When I started working with the themes of motherhood and autobiography, I took a path of least resistance. This is why stylistically the photographs from the first project are so similar to what I had been doing before. They are, indeed, very clean, minimalist and very elaborate in terms of their visual presentation. But I kept hearing from the tutors that I had to get rid of this kind of aesthetics. Yet at the time I couldn’t understand what they meant. I had always associated photography with aesthetics, so I could not understand how could one get rid of it.

© Tanya Zommer from the series 'Seroga'

Also, I had an impression that I was already being very open-minded in my approach. I felt like I was already exposing myself. Then eventually I realised that, while being overly concerned with aesthetics, I was losing something else. And that, on the one hand, I was indeed exposing myself, but, on the other hand, I was also distancing myself from the viewers, whether it be through the means of the doll [the doll, named Seroga, was a prop that Zommer used in her project] or through the means of some formal compositional devices.

And then I did an experiment, which was an important step for transitioning from 'Seroga' to 'Dailies'. Me and my husband went traveling in December and what I was shooting at the time, was already not a fictional set-up, but a story about us and the doll in real circumstances. We kept going from place to place and I was carrying the doll around and photographing it in different hotels and locations; and I was also making the photographs of me and my husband, but the doll was also somehow present in these photographs. It was then that I realised that what had been missing from the project so far, was a sense of real-ness. Therefore I decided to record a conversation between me and my husband, which one could also call a performance, or a performative conversation. I simply asked him, whether he wanted kids and then we kept talking for about an hour an a half. And this conversation turned out to be very difficult, a blow to my ego in fact, but it also demarcated a turning point for my life, because I realised that, whereas I was quite happy with the way things were, my husband really wasn’t: he wanted to have kids - which came as a huge surprise for me. So, in the course of the conversation, we agreed that we could not ignore this issue any longer and needed to do something about it - and then, after long consideration, we decided to go for surrogacy. But this whole situation completely bedazzled me and I had no idea, what was happening to me and my projects, everything seemed to be coming apart. So I decided that from the first day of the assumed surrogacy process I would start to make a diary - some kind of an immaterial pregnancy diary. Yet in two weeks we got our first results from the agency- and it was negative. Despite that, I decided to continue working on the project and it was then that I realised that this project may not be about motherhood, kids or inability to have kids, but that this project was about me and my husband: our relationship, our family, everything that was happening between us and the way, in which us, two adults, were actively looking for ways to cope.

© Tanya Zommer from the series 'Dailies'

When I started working on the project, it was not easy. I didn’t have any plan as to how to proceed, or how it should look. I didn’t know whether the photographs should be staged or not. So I took what I felt competent at as my starting point and decided to experiment along the way. My style has been changing throughout the project.

How did you know when it was time to release the shutter — did it normally happen as an intuitive reaction to a particular situation or was it decided in advance? And how did your husband react to that, was it difficult for him as well?

TZ: In the beginning, several weeks into the project, my husband was quite unhappy with the process. He was bored of it and also, perhaps, wasn’t ready to expose himself, as I was. So we had a lot of conflicts, but eventually, through those conflicts, we came to understand each other better.

And then, in regards to releasing the shutter, I didn’t have any particular strategy. I would just put the camera on a tripod, so it was just sitting there, until the moment felt right. When I had some spare time, typically over weekends or in the evening, I would shoot. When the project was in its initial stage, I kind of wanted the picture to reflect my mood during that particular day, but later on I gave this idea up. And generally, I tried to improvise, to get rid of my preconceptions of how a picture should look. So one can say that these images are staged, but, paradoxically, they are also not staged.

© Tanya Zommer from the series 'Dailies'

Did you always warn your husband that you were about to shoot him?

TZ: Of course I would warn him. My plan wasn’t to make a documentary project about our everyday life; had I meant to shoot it this way, I should have kept to this strategy throughout the whole year. But also, importantly, I don’t feel that this way of working would have suited me. I still like the feeling of being in control. And yet I was constantly trying to weaken this control, to embrace contingency. By the way, I started shooting on Hasselblad with a digital back; and because it only has a manual focus it was impossible to do any reportage-like shots. But once during our travels, the shutter broke, which made me terribly sad - I thought it was important to maintain a consistent style. But then I realised that the most important thing was to keep shooting every day, and I started using iPhone. It made me understand that, just like in life, one day can be magnificent, the other one bad, it is impossible to keep it ideal. And I saw this embracing of contingency as an act of overcoming something. Content-wise, it was tough to expose the imperfections of my body, to show my swollen face, with all those wrinkles, tears etc. I guess this is how the reality found its way into the pictures. And now, looking backwards, I see, that despite the staged nature of the images, it is in fact a documentary project.

© Tanya Zommer from the series 'Dailies'

Something that I wanted to clarify: was it a conceptual restriction that you shoot one picture per day?

TZ: It was one picture a day minimum. It was important to not miss a day. In the beginning, I sometimes shot two photographs, when I had inspiration. Adhering to the diary format was quite easy: it gave me a sense of structure, of some productive routine. And also, because it is quite tough to shoot the same thing day after day, your brain starts to work differently. You start to create something interesting not for your viewer, but for yourself.

'Dailies' is certainly a very intimate project, would you also consider it therapeutic?

TZ: Yes, I would call it therapeutic. It was running alongside the pregnancy that I was not part of. I didn’t intend for it to be therapeutic, but now, retrospectively, I understand that it actually was. For one year and a half I was working with nothing else than myself and my sense of guilt that had been haunting me for all these years. When I was working on 'Seroga' I wanted to oppose the society, which I saw as trying to involve me in something that I don’t want to be part of. I thought that this pressure to conform to the established ideal of a happy family with a kid was traumatising. But a year later, I understood that it was my own internal problem, my own sense of guilt that I had to deal with. With surrogacy, this sense of guilt skyrocketed. I felt that I was using someone else’s body, not going through this important process myself. I guess, my project helped me to accept this reality, it made me think about it every day, a bit like a symbolic burden.

What were your sources of inspiration, if you had any? When I saw your project, the first names that sprang to my mind were those of the “founders” of the autobiographic diary photography Nan Goldin and Corinne Day. However, it may be more relevant to remember the exhibition 'Home Truths' that took place at the Photographers’ Gallery a couple of years ago. In particular, the project “Annunciation” by Elina Brotherus which your project seems to share some conceptual and formal concerns with. Did you see this exhibition and, if so, how has it influenced you?

TZ: Well, to give a short answer: Goldin, Brotherus and the exhibition - all of it has significantly influenced me. I saw “Home Truths” when I was working on Seroga - I even went to an artist talk at the Photographers’ Gallery, but I wouldn’t say that Brotherus’ work in particular was that influential. However, I saw a lot of correspondences between what she was doing and with what I was doing then, that is 'Seroga'. I paid a lot of attention to composition and noticed how she also did the same. She also, as I’ve read, was inspired by the art of the old masters, and it was very relevant to what I was doing. I also was looking at Flemish, Dutch and Renaissance paintings for inspiration. But on the other hand, that exhibition, even if it impressed me, made me also quite sad. It made me realize, that women are very lonely and helpless, indeed, when they have to face their tragedies, or, well, problems. This is what we have to deal with. And all works in this exhibition were permeated with this feeling, not only Brotherus’ series. So I guess, the whole of the exhibition influenced me. As an artist, I absorb everything I see around me, and often unexpectedly I notice similar things that I have in common with some other authors that work with the same theme. I don’t see a problem here. I think, we are all inspired by each others’ work, by art and so on; we then transform it into something that is our own, something different. And as for Nan Goldin, I spent a lot of time thinking about her series I’ll be your mirror. It has influenced me a lot - in a way, it was because of her that I decided to give up the idea of the artificial lighting. So her work was one of my key references. I think that her work also sits in between staged and documentary photography, and this is what I liked about it.

Have you considered making 'Dailies' into a book - a question, which hardly any photographer can avoid these days?

TZ: Yes, I have indeed been thinking about creating a book. It is one of the possible forms that the project may take, along with the slide-show. Actually, before I attended Rob Hornstra’s master class, I had had some very unrealistic plans in this regard. But after the two days of his workshop, all of my plans had to be strongly readjusted. I realized that making a book is a very complex process; not only in terms of distribution, but also in terms of design. I will definitely keep researching the possibilities and will keep looking at what others are doing as well. But at the moment, it is not one of my priorities, my daughter is still very young, so I will give it some time; I will keep working on my project and at some point will return to this idea.


Tanya Zommer