We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us.
Der Greif: Yana, in your new book Companions we encounter a touching series tracking two young women and their entwined relationships with animals. What inspired your idea for this project which draws from the well of German romanticism and modern ethics?
Yana: I have always loved animals and had wanted to work on a project about human-animal relationships for a long time. In the beginning, I visited many animal sanctuaries all over Germany, where I photographed the animals and their caretakers.
In this process, I met Julie in the summer of 2020. She suggested that I should also meet Rosina - whom she had not yet met herself at that point, they only communicated via social media. I started visiting both of them over a longer period of time and slowly realized that I wanted to focus the project only on them.
I was impressed by how both of these women took on this huge responsibility of caring for all these animals with little to no outside support. Their friendships with the animals were unlike anything I had witnessed before. It was less about one-directional care (as great as that is, of course) and more about a companionship that goes both ways. Their lives are so intertwined with those of their animals, there is so much trust and tenderness there, but also a huge amount of responsibility and pressure.
Der Greif: Rosina and Julie, the two young women portrayed, each independently save farmyard animals from certain death - animals, who are typically considered solely for their economic value. Within this context, do you believe in the ability of photography to generate empathy and political change? Is this one of your aims, why or why not?
Yana: I think in the beginning I was mostly just curious and felt the need to capture something I had not seen before but that still felt very close to my heart. From my own experience, animal-human relationships can be extremely humbling, they can make us become aware of our own animal selves and make us feel a closer connection to the natural world. I didn’t set out with any concrete aim for this project, but if any of that comes through in my photographs and if they can generate empathy, I would of course be more than glad.
Der Greif: How did you experience the process of following the relationships between Rosina and Julie’s animal companions with your camera? Have you, in the role of the artist, learned a valuable, maybe unexpected lesson through this project?
Yana: There were certainly a million smaller lessons for the artist in me, but also for the human being. Mostly, I think, working on this project was coming to terms with my own longing for more closeness to the animal world. A couple of months before I met Julie, I actually adopted a dog from a Spanish kill shelter. I absolutely love her but she is also very difficult and still struggling with the environment she was brought into. Experiencing the relationships and the acceptance that Julie and Rosina have for their animals also helped me to see things from my animal’s perspective and to gain more understanding for her. I believe we all have the capacity for more empathy toward the non-human world and this project has certainly helped me in that way.
On a more practical level, I learned that photographing animals is a real challenge. There is no way of communicating to them what you want. They don’t know what a camera is and certainly cannot imagine the photograph you want of them.
Working with animals takes a lot of time and endurance, especially with bigger animals such as cows. You need to try and beware of all the animals surrounding you, pushing you from one direction and chewing on your ear from the other. I think this project really taught me to be a silent observer, to take my time and let a situation develop until the right moment for a photograph arrives.
Der Greif: To me, Companion is a utopian depiction of interspecies relationships full of love and trust, with images that excite and leave behind a feeling of hope.
Yana: It certainly has utopian qualities. These photographs were taken in the real world (whatever that might be), yet in their sequence and montage, they seem to also transcend reality. I think photography has the unique power to be both dream-like and real at the same time and to suggest that some of the Utopia you see is also already actually happening.
Der Greif: Please share with our community what of all the things happening right now in contemporary photography particularly excites you in a positive way.
Yana: I don’t really feel qualified to pinpoint what is happening in the broader photography community, but a small personal observation is that there seem to be more projects depicting animals in a positive light and as creatures worthy of our love and attention. But that might also just be my personal interest, focus, or social media bubble.
Der Greif: The first time Der Greif featured your work was back in 2014, for the exhibition “A Process” at Neue Galerie im Höhmannhaus, Augsburg (Germany). Nine years and many photo projects later we are excited about where your work is headed. What’s next for you in 2023?
Yana: That’s true! As a young photographer who had just graduated (from Ostkreuzschule in Berlin) that was an exciting moment. This year of course brings the release of Companions with Loose Joints. Besides that, I will be part of a small group exhibition in Verona with Fonderia 20.9, which will showcase the results of an artist residency in the Lessinia which I was lucky to be a part of last year. Speaking of which, I am currently researching other residencies in Europe in the hope of finding a place where I can continue the project I had started in Italy.
Corinna: Last but not least, do you have any advice for emerging photographers in our community? What do you think makes someone stand out?
Yana: To be perfectly honest, I still feel like an emerging photographer! On the other hand, over the years I have learned that such terminology isn’t always helpful and that it’s best not to focus on what other people think of you and your work. Instead, focus only on the things you really want to do and photograph. I guess that’s also why I am drawn to work that is very personal, not necessarily in subject matter but in its motivation - work that feels real, that has some type of urgency and poetry at the same time. But I also don’t want to make that into a rule.
In terms of advice, I can only suggest taking a lot of photos, putting them up on a wall, surrounding yourself with them constantly, questioning your output and motivation, finding a sparring partner, and looking for input both within and outside of the photography world. Not very original probably, but I guess that’s because it is a tried and tested formula for many artists and photographers. Companions by Yana Wernicke is published by Loose Joints.