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Greif Alumni: Q&A with Julia Gat


We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us. Julia Gat is a photographer and filmmaker based in Marseille who was featured in Bindi Vora & Justine Ellis Guest Room. We have caught up with her to discuss her ongoing project “Mare Internum”, a photographic essay exploring identity in relation to the seascape of Marseille. The project is being developed by Gat in the framework of the Arles-based ENSP Mentorship Program 2024 under the guidance of photographers Laia Abril and Lila Neutre and is being presented from today, May 3rd in the collective exhibition “À l’oeuvre #3” at the Centre Photographique Marseille.

Der Greif: Hello Julia! How are you doing?

Hello! I'm doing alright, thank you for asking! The past few months have certainly presented their challenges and I’m amidst various new commissioned projects and showcasing past projects in exhibitions. I've certainly decided to make room for a new creative phase.

Der Greif: What are you currently working on?

I'm currently working on "Mare Internum", a photographic essay exploring Marseille's seaside, researching the construction of identity in relation to the sea. Conducted over the past few months, the project delves into how the coastline influences the daily lives and subconsciousness of local residents. I observe the metaxu: the interplay of contrasts between urban and natural environments, chaos and serenity, the warmth of bodies, and the blue of the waves. The title of the project directly translates from Latin to "internal sea," synonymous with the Mediterranean Sea. Intuitively documenting people and places dear to me, the inner sea emerges as the central character of a personal experience.

The project began during my participation in the Fotodok Talent Embassy Program, a transformative platform led by Lisanne van Happen and Femke Rotteveel, which provides opportunities for photographers to develop and present new work at Rencontres d'Arles and Encontros da Imagem in Braga. It has evolved further within the context of a photographic commission carried out by the Centre Photographique Marseille—Seasides [Bords de mer]. As part of the 2024 Cultural Olympiad, this first chapter of “Mare Internum” will be exhibited from today, May 3rd at the Archives et Bibliothèque Départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône in Marseille. Additionally, I’m now participating in the ENSP mentorship program, receiving invaluable guidance from mentors Laia Abril and Lila Neutre, and will present a further phase of the project on June 28th at the École nationale supérieure de la photographie’s auditorium in Arles. I’m incredibly grateful to create in such a stimulating environment.

Der Greif: What inspired you to delve into the topic of Mediterranean identities?

Between documentary photography and portraiture, my work revolves around long-term projects that explore the relationship between people and their environment. My first photo book, “Khamsa khamsa khamsa” – published by Actes Sud in 2022 – reflects on my four siblings and I and our childhood. With “Mare Internum,” I aim to expand the boundaries of the family circle by engaging with different beachgoers in Marseille. Photography serves as a catalyst for connection, and the seaside becomes a space that facilitates interaction.

I was born in Jerusalem and moved to the south of France with my parents and siblings when I was 10 years old due to my parents' cultural work. The seaside facilitated this move, as it was crucial for my parents to stay near the Mediterranean Sea. Growing up in an atheist household, the seaside was our sacred space. My father's parents come from Morocco, so the sea holds significant importance for him, serving as a symbolic link to his parents' origins. My mother's parents, originally from Eastern Europe, settled in Marseille briefly after WWII at the Villa Gaby, which served as an accommodation center for Jews before crossing the sea to the new State of Israel.

In Marseille I am surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds and with layered origins, with ties to Israel, Iran, Algeria, or elsewhere. Throughout the year, the seaside serves as a meeting point for us. Consequently, it highlights the political complexities of these connections: with some, due to politically conflicting passports, it is only because we live outside our homelands that we are able to meet at all. This dynamic has sparked my interest in the formation of cross-border connections. Despite the Mediterranean Sea and its coastlines being fraught with socio-political and ecological challenges, they also serve as spaces where identities and origins converge.

Der Greif: What does the seaside represent to you? And how do you represent it in your photographs?

I photograph the necessity of staying near the water, ultimately to remain close to distant shores. It's the proximity to the sea that brings comfort; an invisible link to memories and families. A mix of melancholy, nostalgia, and a longing for somewhere else, although we're content to stay here in Marseille. It is the intermediary space between the chaos of this world and the eternal emptiness of consciousness, where I choose to reside. Despite the turmoil of conflicting emotions, there's a peculiar peace to be found here. The seaside becomes a symbol of home, connection, and hope.

Der Greif: How do you envision your work growing? How important is research to you? And what does it mean to you to conduct visual research?

My work is intuitive: I photograph in a defined space near the sea, one or two people at a time, and I accumulate, organize, and archive photographs. The topics emerge as the project takes shape, matures, and slowly reveals itself, evolving with the people and places around me. I focus on staying attentive and observant, looking for a heightened sense of perception where emotions are tangible, a sort of emerging truth.

This project is going to be my focus for the next few years, covering various chapters and sub-topics. In parallel, I'm conducting extensive research, exploring related works and looking at (personal) history and anthropology. Currently, I'm mostly inspired by the serene compositions of the painter Agnes Martin and contemporary photographers such as Luigi Ghirri, Danit Ariel, and Marco Barbon, among others. Additionally, I have been touched by my parents' art and their relationship with forms, lights, and bodies. My mother is a painter and visual artist, and my father is a contemporary dance choreographer. Their work has made me sensitive to a certain precision of gesture, which I look for in my own practice.

Der Greif: How does your personal history relate to the topic?

My research is deeply personal, but the project is not an interpretation of my story or anyone else's. Rather, it is an attempt to achieve clarity by being present in a specific context, allowing the viewer to experience their own subjective narratives as they engage with the work. This does not make the work abstract; it remains an observation of people and places. And of course, it is connected to my personal history, as that is what led me to who, what, and where I want to photograph. But as an artist, I see my role as a means of channeling—being present, attentive, and conscious.

Recently, I have also noticed that the work relates to the concept of distance: nostalgic distance, the search for freedom, feeling overwhelmed, intimacy, and their relationship to history, family, origins, and surroundings. I am seeking harmony and alignment while navigating various forms of separation within oneself, with others, between countries, and in the world.

Der Greif: Do you think personal narratives can have an impact on the history of documentary photography? How so?

Personal narratives provide a framework through which artists can gain clarity as they introspect. However, understanding internal conflicts or the therapeutic powers of art are side effects—the goal is to unveil manifestations of truth. It doesn't always work; it sometimes fails miserably, but that's not the point anyway. The hope is, by focusing on stories close to me, to enable a direct link to the essence of the things photographed. In Hebrew, the words for 'faith' and 'art' share their root: אמונה / אמנות (emuna / omanut). I believe that the creative process is a doorway to the spiritual, manifested through craftsmanship.

For me, documentary photography is not necessarily about storytelling or concepts; it's about people. People and their well-being. I strive to uplift those around me, creating images that inspire hope for both participants and the audience alike. While documentary photography is intrinsically tied to reality, I find that solely emphasizing the world's issues can feel constraining, often magnifying the problems rather than the solutions. Instead, I choose to concentrate on moments of quiet resilience after turmoil. What remains clear is palpable emotions; the pain people feel is genuine. Whether it's personal struggles or larger societal challenges, I believe that art has the power to either deepen or alleviate wounds. In a world plunged deeply into the muddy waters of deceit, ugliness, and fear, what we desperately need is truth, beauty, and love.