As a photographer, you could spend months or years working alone on a project. Even with the contrast stream of exhibitions, festivals and prizes, the industry can be a lonely and competitive one. With ISSP, its co-founder Julija Berkovica has built not only an invaluable resource for photography in Latvia, but a close-knit community of students and teachers. Since starting the project as a hobby with her friends 11 years ago, ISSP has grown from an International Summer School of Photography to comprise the ISSP School for Latvian students, the ISSP International Masterclass, and Self Publish Riga, an event dedicated to photo books and selfpublishing. Among some of the teachers are established photographers such as Simon Norfolk, Takashi Homma and Alexander Gronsky. The alumni list however is just as impressive, featuring vibrant and talented New East photographers such as Birgit Püve, Michał Sierakowski, Michał Siarek, Andrejs Strokins, Kristina Podobed and Genia Volkov (from the Join the Cool collective), Jana Romanova, Marta Berens and many more. We caught up with Berkovica behind the scenes at Riga Photomonth.
What’s been your interest in photography?
I started ISSP with four girls, two of which have since left. For us, photography had always been a hobby. We were trying out cameras and trying to explore what we can do with them, and what you can do with photography. At that point I realised there was nowhere you can study photography in Latvia. There was only one workshop in the Tatras mountains in Slovakia, which was also called the International School of Photography. I went there as a student to study in 2001 and that’s where the idea originated from.
Before that, had you taught yourself?
I went to some classes in Riga on how to learn the very basics like how to develop film in a lab. The first time I went to the workshop in Slovakia it was an amazing experience for me. It was like a personal transformation, and that planted the first seeds for International Summer School of Photography. That Slovak workshop doesn’t exist anymore. I came back a couple of years later and I remember feeling disappointed because it wansn’t the same experience. It became very commercialised, not so international, and everything was scattered. It didn’t have this experience of everyone being together in one space. After a couple of years, we decided that we could try to organise something in Latvia and to make it the way that we want.
Had there been anything like the International Summer School of Photography before in Latvia?
No, there wasn’t. The one thing we had in Latvia, that still exists today, is a school by Andrejs Grants. Grants is a great photographer, human being and teacher. He still continues his practice, passing on his vision and knowledge to the young generation.
What was the first summer school group like when you launched it?
From the very first year, it was a really strong event. It was not as international at first: mostly Latvians, with a couple of Estonians, Russians, and just a couple of people from Poland and Germany. It started with four workshops. The event was so sucessful we couldn’t not continue it.
When did it become a permanent job for you?
For the first three or four years, we did it as a hobby. We were all doing other jobs just in our free time. Then in 2008 or 2009, there was an economic crisis in Latvia and everything collapsed. My last job had been working for Riga City and it was obvious that this would have to terminate. That’s why suddenly I had all this time that I wanted to invent in the International Summer School of Photography, and that triggered the development of the organisation into what it is now. At some point I realised there were so many exciting things, which you can do, and, if you actually think about it in a different way, can make sustainable.
What are some reasons for people taking the International Summer School of Photography?
It’s not just a course, it creates friendship and community, and a network which is invaluable. Everyone has an incredible bonding experience which links them, and they can then go on continuing to do things together. They live and eat and work together, and do it over eight days. By the end of the week they have to produce a project that includes printing, which usually happens on a Friday overnight, and Saturday is usually the installation. It’s super intense — a timeframe which allows for connections to build.
A lot of photographers spend time working individually and independently, so this must be quite a rare opportunity?
It’s a lonely profession so it’s very important for them to have a really good network on which they can rely on, share and talk.
What’s the furthest country you’ve had participants from?
In the last few years we’ve had a lot of participants from Japan. A few years ago we established a good connection with a festival in Japan called the Higashikawa Festival of Photography that takes place in the town of Higashikawa in Hokkaido. Somehow they found out about ISSP and invited us to come. They saw it as a window for Japanese photographers to get connected to the rest of the world. Japan is a universe in and of itself. So now they offer two scholarships for Japanese photographers every year. We’ve also had participants from South Africa, South America, China, India, Australia, North America and more.
How is the ISSP International Masterclass programme any different?
It’s completely different in focus. In the summer school you get a really intense experience, where you get input not just from the teacher but the rest of the group. The ISSP International Masterclass takes place over one year, over which time the students are supervised by one tutor. They come from all over the world and meet three times during the year. In the winter months we’ll meet somewhere with nicer weather. So we just had one meet-up in Sicily in April. Like the International Summer School of Photography, the Masterclass finishes with an exhibition.
How do you want to develop the school further?
We are now in the process of looking for new premises that have enough space for a gallery — which will be the first photography gallery in Latvia. I hope that our presence will inspire people and develop photography in the long term. But we are not hoping to sell anything in the first year. It will primarily be a space to show work. Since we put on many events it would be good to have a permanent space. Otherwise, we are going to continue with the International Summer School of Photography and the ISSP International Masterclass.
What other projects are you connected with?
For the last four years we have been running the Kuldiga Photography Residency. Next year we will have a residency programme in Riga, giving an opportunity for an artist to come here for a couple of months. Self Publish Riga, which is our baby, started three years ago. We are also responsible for co-organising Riga Photomonth, and are part of other international projects.
What’s one thing that you’re really proud of?
Our team and the community we have created internationally. It makes life so much more interesting for many people.