Fast Confession - Alžběta Jungrová: Life is a few moments of happiness, the rest is suffering for most people
Alžběta Jungrová is a well-known name among photographers. This brave woman is not afraid to travel to countries where human life has no value for a good photo. She lived among drug traffickers in Pakistan, photographed armed children in the Gaza Strip, waded through oil mud at the largest tanker scrap yard in Bangladesh as well as through the largest landfill in Cambodia. Now, Prague's Letná is her home. In an interview for LP-life.cz, she revealed why she no longer wants to live on the edge and what projects she is currently working on.
Alžběta is a very nice name…
That was my parents' compromise between Kristýna and Sarah. My mother's family wanted Sarah, my dad Kristýna. They didn‘t come to an agreement and a compromise was reached.
You photograph a lot, you spend a lot of time abroad and communicate with foreigners. How do they pronounce your name?
Elizabeth. I don‘t even try to explain Alžběta to them or force them to call me that way, because they'd mangle it anyway and they‘re unable to remember it.
How long has it been since you were abroad to photograph something?
A report, you mean? It‘s been long.
Because I was terribly tired after those nine years. It‘s really exhausting, everything turns into a stereotype, no matter how extreme the conditions are. And while it may look interesting to others, at the end of the day it‘s always an airport, a cheap hotel and dirt. Right now, I enjoy enjoy doing things at home much more, to have a bathroom and a flush toilet and a normal place to live. It comes with age, of course.
I'm more afraid now than I was at twenty-five. I understand the culture, background and mentality of the people here much more than when I fly somewhere for a fortnight and have to create something in a rush. I can go much deeper here than anywhere else.
How does it work? You take reportage photograps in a war torn country, it's dangerous. Who orders it from you?
It doesn't work that way anymore. There‘s been a change in the context of online publishing, globalization, diminishing sales of printed newspapers and the like. The time when Honza Šibík was in Reflex, traveling around, is also gone. It‘s seldom done nowadays. I used to work for Demotex, a British agency that had originally been formed under Reuters as an off-branch that was supposed to provide reports on commission rather than newspaper reports.
Eventually they switched into a mode where they started to address local photographers in each country, they take it from them. It makes sense, which brings us back to the fact that I can do the best job here at home, because I have the necessary background, contacts, I can get to places a foreign journalist can't get to. The way it works now, they‘ve started hiring local photographers, everyone has a digital camera and the photos can easily be sent.
So even if you wanted to return to the Gaza Strip now, it would be more complicated?
Definitely. It‘s very rare nowadays and no one wants to pay for it. There are photographers that can be hired, it's much easier to buy it through them than send me there. The big newspapers do it, but there are only a few of those. Or there has to be something special about it, or they have a quality requirement. It would still be possible, but it's completely different than it was fifteen years ago, when digital photos were more or less on the rise.
What did you start with?
Cinematographic films. When I began working for the newspapers, I was using films for the first few years, digital cameras didn‘t come until later.
You're not that old…
I'm not, the progress is very fast. I remember that the newspaper bought the first digital camera at that time, it cost a quarter of a million, which is just crazy. A 32 MB card cost about twenty-seven thousand. We all thought that it was bullshit, that it would be forgotten in half a year, that it was of poor quality. Back then, I was going to go to Cuba and decided to take films with me because I knew that digital photos would be useless. We started with film, laboratory assistants and an illuminator.
I don‘t think anyone can imagine that today.
Right. We got one roll of film per event, that was thirty-six frames, and that was it. No matter what you photographed, you had just one film with thirty-six frames, now one can take several shots per second. I used to photograph hockey matches, for example, where it was dark and the hockey players were fast, so I was always crying in the car on the way to the editorial office, praying that there would be at least one sharp enough frame with two players and the puck. It was a completely different time.
But it was a great training, I always say it was a great school. Exposing photos without having to look at the display was one thing, and then there was selection and editing. I started in Lidové noviny and then in Mafra, where there were ten photographers, one illuminator, one magnifier. The lab technician gave me the film, I sat down at the illuminator and had to choose one horizontal and one vertical photo, with five other people standing behind me and waiting for the illuminator. I returned it to the lab assistant, and two hours later, she gave me two photos, I ran three floors up and gave them to the editors there. That‘s unimaginable today.
Today, we‘re actually all photographers with smartphones.
That's exactly the reason why everything has changed. Moreover, there is much less pressure on photo quality in the media. Most readers can‘t tell the difference between a good and a bad photo, it‘s primarily the information that matters. Then it's better to take photos from someone who will snap them right away with their phone, since they are already at the location, than to send a photographer there.
What do you think about Instagram and similar trends? Taking pictures of food and literally everything?
I say let them do it, let everyone take as many pictures as they want. I don't consider it photography, for me it's a form of personal diary, where everyone feels the need to constantly share their lives. For some incomprehensible reason, I may add. It‘s bizarre to me, nobody cares that I‘ve had a croissant with ham, but that's the trend.
In the past, photographers had trouble taking pictures of local people, they often had to bribe them. Today, everyone is happy to take a selfie…
I think it came with the new possibilities. I'm still of the generation where, when photos were to be taken, my dad pulled out a camera, arranged the children from the shortest to the talles, said "everyone smile", and those were the only photos we had. For me, photography will probably always be like this. I'm not the type to take pictures of myself. At school they told us that if we weren‘t strippers, then we shouldn‘t have our pictures taken, because no one would be interested in them, which is true.
The percentage of good photographers isn‘t any higher, though. In my opinion it is exactly the same as what happened when, after glass plates, the first film appeared. When Kodak arrived, all the photographers who used to drag around massive equipment and tarp had to be devastated that every family would be able to take pictures now, but their numbers didn‘t go up. People take random snapshots, they know nothing about selection. Everyone takes a nice photo from time to time, no doubt about that, a good editor would be able to select awesome series from Instagram. But overall, people can't think in terms of making a series. They snap photos of everything around them, but that‘s not how you tell a story.
What about filters? Do you use them?
That has always been done to make colors more or less vivid, you can make photos harder or softer in the chamber. I think editing belongs to it in one way or another. If it makes sense in respect of what I want to say with my photos, then yes, but there‘s no point in slapping filters on every photo. Again, it‘s about concept and deliberation, but Instagram doesn‘t count with any of those.
You said you wanted to be a photographer since childhood. Where did it come from?
My grandmother studied photography during the First Republic. She never made a living as a photographer, she ended up in jail because of the era, but she took photos. When I was in first grade, she got me a camera that I really wanted for a good report card, from the department store Máj, and I started taking pictures. It was totally natural to me.
How hard is it to build what you‘ve built? Your name?
Thirty years of work since first grade. It's very hard. I have a lot of discipline, it probably runs in our family, I get up at seven o'clock in the morning, no matter what, and I start working. Work is everything to me, I really enjoy it. I have no private life. (laughs)
I actually wanted to ask you about private life. I‘ve never read anything about a husband or children, just that you have a cat.
That poor, neglected cat! Good thing I don‘t have a husband or children… (laughs) I do have a partner every now and then, but they don‘t last very long. I‘ve never wanted children, never felt the need. I enjoy my job so much, I wouldn't want to be half a mother, have a babysitter. It would be selfish of me to have a child. My job completely fullfils me and I love it, things are fine the way they are.
Out of all the places you‘ve been to, which one would you like to highlight? I‘ve read about drug cartels in the Gaza Strip, for example.
Everyone has heard about that.
So what haven‘t we heard about, what was rarely mentioned?
Conflict zones are always interesting for people. For me, Africa was without a doubt the toughest.
There, human life has no value.
Ethiopia, Sudan. It is a culture or mentality I‘m no longer able to comprehend. They don‘t think about what‘s going to happen in a week, they don‘t think about what‘s going to happen tomorrow. They always count with the possibility that there will be no tomorrow, which is terrible in terms of the things those people are capable of. Human life has no value there at all.
It's hard for me to work there, hard to accept that they let the youngest child die because he or she has the smallest chance of survival. These are things that are difficult for our culture and mentality to digest.
Have you ever been injured during a photo shoot?
I‘ve read a story about how you didn't have a bulletproof vest and a journalist gave you his own one. But when things got tough, he wanted it back, so that people would know it was really him, in case he died. How can they recognize that it was this particular journalist from Britain?
They can recognize it, but he drove to a bombed-out hospital in Gaza and wanted the vest back, because it was his… He panicked. It was his first time in such a country, in such conditions. We each react differently and we can‘t estimate how we will behave. Training is one thing and reality is another. You‘re not able to think logically, you react impulsively, reflexively. I‘ve seen guys throw themselves into a ditch, and I‘ve seen guys who didn't move an inch and kept taking photos with shrapnels flying around them. I think it‘s out of your hands.
How do you react?
Somewhere in between.
Have you undergone any mental or physical training?
Two courses on survival, negotiating, what to do during a power outage and the like.
Do you also have a course on how to survive under an avalanche?
No, because I hate winter. I was supposed to photograph the migration of reindeer somewhere in Siberia once, and I exchanged it with a colleague for the Gaza Strip, because I refused to go into the cold. I don't need to experience an avalanche, but never say never. Next time we see each other, I might tell you I‘ve spent six months at the North Pole.
How long are you usually on the road?
Three weeks to a month.
Who takes care of your cat?
I haven't had it before, when I was traveling like this. Now I have a nice apartment, so when I go somewhere, one of my friends moves in and takes care of it. The cat is so spoiled that it would be totally impossible to move it anywhere. The world revolves around that fat cat.
How did you feel when you were taking photos in a coronavirus infectious environment in the General University Hospital?
I'm definitely not worried about myself. I‘m not in the at-risk age group, I‘m healthy and I have good immunity. If I happen to catch a worse flu there, I'll be out for a week. And if I die, then so be it, I won‘t feel any pain afterwards.
Are you really not afraid of anything?
Definitely not of death. I'm terribly afraid about the people I love, my parents, my brother, my niece, but not myself. That‘s nonsense, we‘re overestimating human life way too much. Life is not that great and amazing, overall, I don't quite understand what makes people want to stay in this world as long as possible. Honestly, it's a few moments of happiness, most people suffer through the rest and go through the motions.
True, a lot of people aren‘t really living their life.
They‘re not, life is hard, it's not very enjoyble. It doesn't make sense to me that people are unwilling to leave this world.
Are you for euthanasia?
I am, one hundred percent. Since we don‘t have the right to decide whether we want to be born on this world, we should at least have the right to decide to leave it. Beside, since I‘ve been volunteering in nursing homes since high school, I think it‘s abuse of old and infirm people that nobody visits. We Czechs are total assholes in this respect, we don't care about our parents.
It‘s probably related to communism, this is what it teaches. I keep seeing those grandmothers and grandfathers there, waiting for someone to come, but no one does. They spend years waiting, they can't walk, they can't read or watch TV, it‘s nothing but punishment. All we do is torment them, by forcing them to live another five years, which they spend motionless in bed, abandoned by everyone.
Where do you find time to volunteer?
Fridays from ten to one. (laughs) You can always find a gap somewhere. Since I really do get up early every day, I find the time.
You have won a lot of awards. Is there any award you‘re still waiting for?
Awards are great, they make people happy, we all need to matter and feel like we have some kind of feedback. I do care about awards, one always feels grateful, but I‘ve never had a specific one. It pleases me greatly when a photographer I respect commends me. I've been in several juries myself, it's a contest among people. Appreciation from a person I respect is a huge thing, too.
I've always wanted to be in Magnum, an agency founded by four photographers in the 1950s to combat the use of a single stand-alone photograph in newspapers. Until then, stories were being made, a series of photos. Magnum still has about seventy photographers around the globe these days, the best photographers in the world. Josef Koudelka represents Czechs there. That was my childhood, I grew up following these photos of the world's elite.
But then they got a little stuck in the rut, stopped accepting people, and Seven was created, founded by the most famous war photographer of our times. He started his own agency, probably because Magnum wouldn‘t hire him. Being in such an agency would be great, but I‘ve spread myself too thin since I stopped traveling. I do documentaries and long-term projects, where I work on one subject for a year. On top of that, I started doing commercial female nudes, portraits, art things. I guess I'm not an aspirant for Magnum anymore.
A photo that wins an award goes on the market then?
Not documentary photos. We do have some consultations, but I‘ve captured some heavy topics in my documentaries, so I find it unethical to sell human suffering. And I probably wouldn't understand the person who‘d want to buy it and look at it repeatedly.
And where are the photos that never get sold?
Some are under my bed. (laughs) They‘re in my computer and on several hard drives stored in different apartments, so that it wouldn‘t all disappear if there is a fire. I've been planning to make a book for years. I used to write diaries for my mom, so she wouldn't worry about me, because I felt sad I was causing her so much pain. I‘d write her a travel diary every morning and evening, so I have diary entries from each day of those ten years.
I was thinking I could take some of the diaries and combine it with photos, but that would mean reading ten years of my life in a diary, I‘m not really tempted to do that. I would like to have some kind of closure after my life in the world out there, that would be a nice ending. I don't think I'll ever go back to it. But never say never. I‘d rather be doing these long-term projects here in the Czech Republic, it's just interesting here as anywhere else.