Greif x FUTURES interview with talent Mafalda Rakoš

Mafalda Rakoš, Florian, 2019, from ‚A Story to Tell‘. The figure in the back was drawn by Florian, he suggested to add positive words connecting to his recovery such as „Goals“, „Selfcare“, „Friendship“, and „Love“.

Our community manager interviewed Mafalda Rakoš, one of the talents Der Greif nominated to join FUTURES in 2022. They spoke about Rakoš' practice and her upcoming plans for 2023, including a workshop she is leading at Werkstatthaus, in Stuttgart, Germany from 28.3.–31.3., the application process for which can be found here.

Der Greif: Hi, Mafalda! Firstly, congratulations on being selected by Der Greif as a FUTURES talent. Can you tell us what this nomination means for you as an artist? Mafalda: Hi! It’s on me to say ‚Thank you‘ for your nomination, much appreciated. For me personally, it meant a reconnection with the international photo community… I always like these meetings. 2020 and 2021 happened quite online, so happy to be back to a program that happens partly in person. Generally, the nomination felt much like an appreciation of the work I have done so far and helped to bring the projects I’m currently developing a bit more to the stage.

Der Greif: Would you be able to give us some background on how your studies in Anthropology have informed your photographic practice? Mafalda: I hope so! I studied cultural and social Anthropology in Vienna prior to enrolling at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna and later Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. When someone asks me about my practice, I always say that it’s located at the intersection of Anthropology, art and documentary photography, and that it also actively deals with mapping out that intersection. For Anthropology, I wrote two theses, one was about ‚How to Represent the ‚Other‘‘ in the framework of contemporary documentary photography (2016), and one was empirical work on the societal dimensions of eating disorders through interviewing by asking participants to draw on top of photos (2017). I would say that I didn’t become an anthropological practitioner in the straight academic sense, but still, in my work, I’m continuously employing different methods (interviewing, observation, and a good portion of self-reflection) and theoretical grounding that comes from that discipline, but using them as an artist. In my projects about eating disorders (I want to disappear, 2013-2018, A Story to Tell, 2019-2021) for example, I started to play with a very collaborative approach toward the subject matter and our protagonists. We decide together where and how the picture is taken, we create symbols and metaphors that could somehow narrate and reference their experiences. There’s always a lot of talking and trying to keep it a safe space for this very big vulnerability that is often at play. Afterwards, a picture is taken, and very often, I come back after to ask them to draw or write on top of the image, visualizing their thoughts and feelings. Quite often, the documentation of this process becomes a part of the final work itself.

A question I receive most regularly concerns my position in this project. Am I speaking as an artist, (pseudo-)therapist, or activist. And the answer I found to that question is that my role is that of an anthropologist– seeking to find insights about a delicate matter to afterwards share them with the general public. But of course, there’s a big photographic heart pounding in my chest as well.

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Mafalda Rakoš, Video Still, Second Meeting with Florian and Leroy, 2019, from ‚A Story to Tell‘. In the video, both protagonists reflect on metaphors they can think of regarding their eating disorder, which are layered into the process of photographing and re-enacting these symbols together.

Der Greif: What has been the hardest part about representing people who have struggled with eating disorders through your images? Mafalda: Finding my approach. First of all, you are working with very vulnerable persons who often have had difficulties with setting boundaries ( not to generalize, it’s an observation from doing that kind of work). As one says in German, they’re not made ‚out of sugar‘, but still, one wants to definitely pay respect to their experience and insecurities. So that’s really the personal side: how can the project function both for me as the artist/publisher, and the person telling his or her story? Is it with, for, or about the protagonists? And on the other hand, the point we want to make about eating disorders is that they’re not only about food and body image but that they are much rather the tip of an iceberg and understood as an addiction. So that’s quite complex. So how do you avoid reproducing stereotypical representational patterns, create work that sparks empathy and a deeper understanding, and develop a certain… artistic handwriting at the same time? Finding the resolution to this conflict– working collaboratively, layered, long-term, through a slow, multi-platform approach aimed at different audiences – was both the hardest part and biggest gain. Two books were published that play an important role on this path, as well as moving image, talks and exhibitions, in which all the elements come together.

Der Greif: How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your work? Mafalda: More time to think, a pause. Later some disappointment about cancelled shows and stuff that didn’t happen… we all had that … feeling isolated from many people I enjoyed being in touch with, so I’m now all about building relations again, especially with friends in other countries, and appreciating that we can now reconnect. The effects of the lockdowns on our collective psyche is also an aspect of a project I’m currently developing (All in this together, ongoing), and of course, people are still busy processing it, which I felt when hitchhiking, like last summer from Greece back to Austria (Stop & Go, ongoing).

Der Greif: How does your personal stake in the themes your work considers affect the way you photograph? Mafalda: Hm… I guess it’s why I picked up the camera in the first place. For me there has to be this obsessive interest or fascination that creates the drive to really dig into the topic. I think it’s similar for every photographer or artist. One feels that as well when looking at the work of others. I would say making that very literal, very transparent, by showing up myself in some pictures or videos is an extension of anthropological self-awareness. All of my work so far builds on a dialogical moment, where people speak with or amongst each other – and through creating the setting, and asking questions, and admitting to my conversation partner, I naturally became a visible part of that conversation.

Der Greif: What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned through photography over the past year? Mafalda: I have a hypothesis… that photography very often serves as a magnifying glass for the interests and fascinations of the maker. If you look at it like that, the medium itself is more of a vessel, an excuse to go out and do something you otherwise wouldn’t do. Through my work I feel that I gain insight into what moves me and in bright moments also why. In certain periods, I also work a lot on photographic commissions, which is a whole different mode but I would say I also learned a lot through encountering a great variety of editors, journalists, art directors, assistants, protagonists… you always learn something, just by being in the world and observing, that’s also why I love this field so much.

Der Greif: Do you believe in the ability of photography to generate societal change? Is this one of your aims, why or why not? Mafalda: Thank you for that question! I agree with many who believe that the idea of a single picture saying more than a thousand words, and that it alone can generate societal or political change is outdated (see, for example, Lewis Bush’s essay in FOMU’s Trigger 1st edition, ‚Impact‘, 2019). I can hear many voices attempting and struggling to find a satisfying 2023-update for this idea. It seems to be hard to let go of completely. There's this image of saviourhood, of someone going to places with a camera to raise awareness, spark empathy and generate change through the dissemination of a humanistic worldview, which has been subject to critical discussion as well. I personally find it important not to focus on the scale of change and remain humble in order to not to resign out of frustration.I think photography is definitely capable of making an impact, can be micro, can be macro, can be anything. Think of Laia Abril, or my good friends Sina Niemeyer and Ulla Deventer. To me, these women are inspirational because they care so much about the subjects they’ve chosen, and I’m very sure that their work is nudging change. For my own work, I am very driven by the idea of creating awareness and self-reflexiveness and telling stories that are emotionally moving and somehow enriching to the audience. Can also be for different audiences, I’ve done some shows in hospitals and eating disorder conferences with my work for example, which I always found a very deep and interesting experience. To sum it up, I believe that contributing to a world that is a better place – more just, more empathetic, more inclusive, … – is super important to have, maybe not as the ultimate goal, but definitely as an intention! And to have fun along the way, of course…

Der Greif: What happening right now in contemporary photography particularly excites you? Mafalda: It’s self-reflexiveness! I’m following the increasing merge of theory and practice with great interest, if I can say it like that. There’s a lot of interesting writing and research, and increasing complexity in the discussion of how we deal with ,Others’ in our photographic practice.

Der Greif: Can you tell us where your work is headed? What’s next for you in 2023? Thanks for talking with us!

Mafalda: I’m going to do a workshop for the first time in March along with the first physical presentation of a quite slow-cooked project I’ve been working on since 2021. I’m also experimenting more and more with video and might go hitchhiking again in summer. There’s a new publication on the horizon and the fixed idea that this year, I’ll manage to take good care of myself and sleep 8 hours every night. Because that’s most crucial, too! Thanks for your interest! ❤️

The workshop will be held from 28.3.–31.3. at Werkstatthaus, a transdisciplinary platform for art and crafts located in Stuttgart, and circle around the notion of dialogical portraiture. Workshop Open Call