I first met Silvia Razgova a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi where she lives and works as a staff photographer for The National newspaper. I was immediately in awe of her roving-reporter lifestyle, never bound to an office chair and being constantly dispatched to different areas of the country to document a wild variety of stories. Her online portfolio is full of personal reportage projects, many of which she has collected whilst travelling in the Middle East at a time of great change and turmoil. Then there is her intriguingly morbid ’death boom’ series, exploring ideas of mortality and grief for the American Baby Boom generation. Yet despite tackling such sensitive and serious themes, Silvia’s personality and positive outlook show through in every image, particularly in her intimate portraits which reveal such mutual respect between herself and her chosen subjects.
I asked her a few questions about her life, work and inspiration…
When and why did you decide to become a photographer?
My decision to become a photographer didn’t happen in a clearcut moment. I drew pictures and explored different mediums doing art, while working non-creative jobs to make ends meet and somewhere around 2002 my focus settled on documentary photography. As to why, I think I was intuitively led by my desire to explore. Photography is a wonderful means of satiating a curiosity about the world and people. It is an invitation and a ticket to realities beyond my own.
You have lived in Europe, The US and now The Middle East. What drew you to Abu Dhabi and how have your travels shaped your career so far?
What pulled me toward the Middle East was a poetic notion of life and work here in general. What actually brought me to Abu Dhabi was a prosaic need for a steady job in my field, which I found in my staff position at The National.
Travel in itself carries such potential for change. So with all of my moving I evolved and grew in personal and artistic ways. My learning curve is still steep, so it will be interesting to see who I will become through my future experiences with different places and people.
Your death boom project is so darkly fascinating. What made you decide on this subject and how did you approach the subjects that you photographed?
I went through a bit of a hard time in my twenties when someone very close to me died. And it was my peers’ reaction to my loss and sadness that made it even more difficult. No one wanted to deal with it and I felt pressure to get better faster than I was ready to be.
After that, the idea to photograph the process stayed in my mind and one day I heard a radio report on the baby boomer generation’s affect on the US car industry. So I got the idea to take a look at that generation’s way of dealing with death and the dying process. In the end, the Death Boom project’s aim is to point at life through the confrontation by death. Death is not optional and it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I feel that it’s well-worth the possible emotional discomfort to give some thought to out own mortality.
It took a while to find people willing to let me photograph them and their loved ones while dealing with these tough and tender times in their lives. I visited a local hospice, presented the project to the staff and families there. A couple of folks then agreed to be a part of the story. Also, many of my friends knew about it and some connected me to another couple of people who were confronted with death, one living with a stage-four lymphoma, and the other, a father of a young son who committed a suicide.
And how about the crematorium image, how did you get that?!
While working on the project I also interviewed funeral homes’ directors, hospice staff and grief counselors. While most of them viewed what I was doing as positive and important, there were surprisingly many people who seemed rather suspicious of me. Luckily, there was one funeral director who was supportive of the project, and who showed me the process of cremation. I was allowed to make that picture if I kept it anonymous.
In this project, as in all of your work, it really feels like you are in the thick of the action and that your subjects are so comfortable in your presence that you become part of the story yourself. Do you invest a lot of time in getting to know your subjects before you capture them on camera? Or is it simply a trick / skill of a good photo journalist?!
A photographer’s personality becomes part of her/his skill set. I try to get emotionally close to people that I photograph, so I do take the time to talk with them and we get to know each other rather than just extract information out of them. A photograph portrays not just the subject but also his or her relationship to the photographer. I like people and I want them to open up. Some do and others don’t, it takes two to tango.
What would your dream job be?
I am hoping to work as freelance documentary photographer, making photographs that are storytelling as much as artistic.
What is the strangest job you have ever had?
I don’t think that I’ve had any odd jobs, but before I became a professional photographer, I did work a few different jobs while in school: a cave guide and an ice-cream seller in Slovakia, a flier porter for a hostel in Prague, a barista in Minneapolis, and a sushi chef and waitress in Boulder, Colorado.
If you could photograph any person (living or dead,) who would it be?
My grandmother: she was killed by a drunk driver when I was 2 years old.
Have you got any new personal projects or ideas lined up that you would share with us?
I am working on a project in Slovakia, my home country, where I’ve been slowly accumulating a body of work focused on the quiet lives of an elderly brother and sister, my great aunt and uncle. Having worked at a textile factory their whole lives, both are now near deaf. They lead a simple, near silent life ushered by mundane tasks.
Thanks Silvia. Lovely to get to know you!