After receiving a wide range of entries from 26 New East countries, the New East Photo Prize 2018 is back with a new set of 16 finalists, with projects exploring modern-day witchcraft, graduation albums, legendary cosmonauts, contested territories and more. We caught up with the photographers to find out what drives their work. Join us for the opening of an exhibition of their work on 11 October at Calvert 22 Foundation, when we will announce this year’s winner.
The practices of vrăjitoare — witches, fortune tellers, goddesses and healers — have long formed part of the traditions of certain Roma groups. In the past, Romanian Roma women who identified as vrăjitoare could find potential clients anywhere, and anonymity was guaranteed through their position on the fringes of society. Today, globalisation has inherently transformed this profession — instead of walking the streets in search of a palm to read, vrăjitoare can be sought out by clients on social media, before inviting clients into their homes. The profession has been transformed into a business, inherited across generations, with girls as young as nine starting their promotional vrăjitoare profiles. For her photo series, Vrăjitoare, Lucia Sekerková photographed modern-day witches, all born with with what they call “a gift”, in Bucharest and the surrounding area.
How has the place where you grew up affected your work as a photographer?
I grew up in a Christian family in a small village in Slovakia. This meant a lot of rules. My parents repeatedly warned me against anything associated with occult practices. I wasn’t allowed to even read horoscopes because my parents were afraid they could have a negative influence on your life. Everyone knows that the forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. I am a curious person and need to experience things for myself. Nothing happened to me. What interested me most is how with all the scientific and technological progress these practices continue to survive.
I wanted to find out more about the phenomenon of modern day witchcraft and confront any stereotypes head on. I visited the most famous witches in Romania and let them read my palm. I found them through ads in newspapers and magazines. They also have their own websites and Facebook profiles where you can find their phone numbers. You can even find small posters around the streets of Bucharest. I took a portrait of these women in their places of work, many decorated in crosses, tarot cards, icons of saints and holy water for potions. One of them even had a life-size sculpture of Jesus Chris and the Virgin Mary in her room for clients.
Can you reveal your forecasts?
“You’ll live a really long life but there’s a really important moment in your life, a turning point, which awaits you soon. The advice I have for your future is watch your health, fight for your love and start realising your dreams.” (Sunita)
“Your studies really wear you out. Sometimes, you get the feeling that it’s all pointless. You are sad and disappointed about people slandering you. Whenever this is happens find a rock on the street and turn it upside down so all evil will stay trapped under the rock and you’ll find your happiness.” (Atena)
“Your hard work will be rewarded by great success. You’re a fighter who always wins! You hate people telling you what to do and how to behave. Your boyfriend’s heart beats solely for you but you’re just testing if he’s really “the One”. You always smile but in your eyes, I see your sorrow deep inside and it will get deeper, as soon as the death of someone close to you occurs.” (Loventa)
“I know you don’t believe in my powers but somewhere deep inside there is a seed of doubt that whispers it might be the truth. You often struggle with God but you’ll find your happiness only if you commit yourself to God completely.” (Sultana)
Pick one photograph from the project you submitted and tell us something we would have never known about it
This woman with her golden crown, Maria Campina, is a really famous witch in Romania — the self-proclaimed queen of white magic. I found two fantastic amateur photomontages in her clients room. Both of them are double portraits of her and the Queen Elizabeth II and of her with Pope John Paul II. She uses these as self promotion, to show that she allegedly met such important celebrities.
What was the last photo story/film/book that touched you?
I admire the work of Gabon Arion Kudász, especially his photo series Human because it is a perfect fusion of art and commercial work for the Wienerberger company. I like the concept behind the project — using a single object, like a brick, to comment on mankind — and the way he translates it into sophisticated images.
Latcho Drom, a French documentary directed and written by Tony Gatlif, brings tears to my eyes. The movie uses music and dance to tell the story of Roma migration across Asia and Europe through the ages. You can’t understand the words but you can feel it through the music.
The House of the Seven Women by Tito Mouraz is the best photobook I have seen in recent years.
Was there a moment you ever regret taking a photo? How about a moment you didn’t take a photo but wish you had?
I often struggle with shyness when taking photos of strangers. When I was in Romania I saw a father with his two children. He was sitting with no T-shirt, his skin was burnt red from the sun. The children next to him were really focused on peeling off his old skin in the middle of a train platform full of people. I was so fascinated because it reminded me so much of my childhood, however odd it seems. It was a deja vu moment, something that took me down memory lane.