Catching up with Issue 15 guest editor Tobias Zielony


We’re featuring what our Issue 15 guest editors have been up to since the issue was released at Paris Photo in November 2022. Each of our 50 guest editors on the issue selected an image by an artist from our international open call to feature in a spread next to an image of their own in Issue 15. To see their work in the issue order your copy. Our guest editor Tobias Zielony is known for his photographic depictions of young people living on the fringes of affluent societies and social acceptance. His recent show “WATCHING TV IN NARVA” was displayed at KOW Berlin from January 31 - March 4. His work is also currently on display until March 31 as a part of the 10th-anniversary display “Politics of Touch” by the European Month of Photography in the Charlottenburg neighborhood of Berlin. Additionally, his work is being featured at the Kunsthaus Wien as a part of “MINING PHOTOGRAPHY; The Ecological Footprint of Image Production” as curated by Boaz Levin and by Dr. Esther Ruelfs.

Tobias Zielony, The Fall, 2021, exhibition view at KOW 2023, photo: Ladislav Zajac, courtesy the artist and KOW Berlin.

For the photography lover, the highlight of Zielony’s exhibition at KOW Berlin was certainly the images shown from his series “The Fall” and the series of 19 prints that intersect and stretch as one on the walls of the gallery’s second floor. These moody and colorful pictures were captured in Poland and Estonia in 2022. Characterized by the political situations in each country, the images also bear a trace of the possible threat of Russian invasion with the ongoing war in Ukraine nearby. Here we will focus primarily on Zielony’s video works, for those that were unable to attend the exhibition.

The images exhibited upstairs are complemented by a thoughtful two-channel video installation titled “Watching TV in Narva”, which first debuted at the Museum Marta Herford in 2022. A 16-minute-long tribute to Narva; an Estonian city on the border with Russia. The legacy of the Soviet occupation still looms large in Narva. The city was heavily bombed during World War II, and many of its historic buildings were destroyed. After the war, Soviet authorities began a massive rebuilding effort, with the goal of creating a showcase city that would demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system. As a result, Narva's architecture is a unique blend of pre-war buildings, Soviet-era apartment blocks, and modern structures.

The Soviet occupation also had a profound impact on Narva's demographics. Many Russians were brought in to work in the city's factories, and the Russian-speaking population grew rapidly. After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, many Russians in Narva found themselves stateless or holding alien passports, which limited their rights and opportunities. The situation has improved in recent years, but tensions still exist between the Estonian-speaking majority and the Russian-speaking minority.

Zielony considers themes around the demise of the Soviet Union, as many people living in Narva are still officially stateless or held so-called alien passports. Zielony's footage is recorded in a dark interior, illuminated only by the flickering light of a television screen. Several young people comment on the television program as they zap through the channels, reflecting the diverse languages spoken in Narva - Estonian, Russian, Ukrainian, and English. Scenes from the ongoing war in Ukraine alternate with feature films, series, esoterica, and music, creating a surreal and unsettling atmosphere. The Estonian government shut off major Russian news stations to curb the influence of Russian propaganda during the war of aggression against Ukraine in the spring of 2022. The content on television reflects the climate of violence and uncertainty that permeates everyday life in Narva. Despite the apocalyptic tone of the tribute, it is a reflection of ordinary life in the city, and the young viewers' faces light up with the reflexes of daily life.

Zielony’s consideration of how still and moving images relate continued in KOW Berlin’s Showroom where he presented his new “Wolfen”. The project consists of a two-channel video installation and a glass display case and explores the intersection of art and politics. Two films are projected on opposite walls of a darkened room. The films depict the lives of young people in the German city of Wolfen-Nord, exploring their struggles and aspirations. The films are shot in black and white, adding a sense of timelessness and universality to the stories they tell. The glass display case contains a number of objects that Zielony collected during his time in Wolfen-Nord. These objects include discarded clothing, empty bottles, and other debris. The display case serves as a physical representation of the environment that the young people in the films inhabit.

By depicting the lives of young people in a struggling community, Zielony offers a commentary on the social and economic conditions that shape their lives. The project also challenges traditional notions of art and photography, using a multi-channel video installation and a glass display case to create an immersive and interactive experience for the viewer. As always, Zielony's work serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of understanding and empathy in a world that often seems divided by conflict and misunderstanding.