A multi-award winning fine art photographer from Poland, Justyna Neryng uses each frame to narrate a story. Influenced by the time spent with her father's photography gear, darkroom and the forests of Chelmsko on the Czech border Justyna's work, especially her portraiture combines elements of vulnerability, isolation, eroticism and alienation. In this interview, Justyna talks about overcoming her personal battles, her childhood and working with her beautiful daughter.
Photography is traditionally known as a tool to document the world; we would love to know your thoughts on using it as a tool to create art?
I wouldn’t say that photographers who document the world are not artists. Martin Parr and Richard Mosse both push the boundaries of the document in very creative artistic ways. But I suppose I draw more on the traditions set out by Cindy Sherman, Joel- Peter Witkin and Julia Margaret Cameron……, in that I try and photograph my ideas and thoughts rather than the world in front of me, trying to capture people's souls not their likeness.
Do you remember the first time you discovered your father’s cameras and took a picture?
I remember my dad giving me his camera to play with on one summer day. My mum and siblings were all sat in the garden so the first ever photographs I took were portraits of my family. A few days later I had the chance to learn how to develop all the images in the darkroom we had at home. It was a fantastic experience.
Since that moment I became interested in photography. Unfortunately a few years later due to our financial situation the camera and the darkroom was no longer available to me, so I decided to follow my Grandmothers dream and went on to study dress making , which came handy for making costumes for "Childhood Lost "project.
The second time I have come close to photography , I remember being approached by Brighton based artist, photographer Tobias Slater-Hunt who asked me to model for him. So I did. While doing a little bit of modelling I started to experiment with self-portraits and portraiture, and I have been doing it ever since.
Could you tell us a bit more about the project you are working on with your daughter titled Childhood Lost?
"Childhood Lost" is an autobiographical project- a self-portrait in a different body. The images are aesthetically inspired by portraiture from the Golden Age of Dutch painting. I use traditional drawing on paintings as inspiration, giving the photographs a timeless feeling. The other main component of this project, is the painstaking style and prop building, which are used to evoke different personas played out by Nell my daughter. I am currently in a process of making new costumes for part two of “Childhood Lost”, having had three years break from it. The second series “as yet untitled” will deal more with Nell’s adolescence, she now is on the verge of being a young adult woman. It is a strange time for her, part of her still in childhood, the rest of her rushing towards the adult world “Growing up is an awfully big adventure”.
What excites you the most about photography?
The personal contact I have with the people I photograph and the possibility of making great images. I love the feeling when I know I’ve got a good shot.
What led you to move to your adopted town of Hove?
Before moving to Hove I lived in London for 8 years where I studied and worked . I have been visiting Brighton&Hove regularly with my partner. In 2001 we were both involved in motorbike accident and unfortunately he didn't make it, few weeks after his funeral I find out that I was carrying his child. Soon Nell was born and to keep all my beautiful memories from my short but fulfilled relationship I decided to move to Hove. I find Brighton&Hove an inspiring place to work and live. It's full of creative people like Nick Cave for example and many others, actors, artists and musicians. I also feel fortunate to find myself in very good collaboration with local models and artists.
We are intrigued by your body of work titled ‘Ghost Dance’, Could you tell us how that project came about?
It was a combination of many things. I had been researching Victorian photography, as I had been inspired by a visit to Julia Margaret Cameron’s studio in the Isle of Wight, also I stumble across a book called “Phantasmagoria “by Marina Werner. The book tells of how photography was used by the Victorians to photograph the super-natural, ghosts, etc. I was amazed at how photography was so entwined with the fantastic and the imagination.Rather than merely as a tool for documentation.
At the same time I was experimenting with self-portraits in the studio, it’s a process I often use to teach myself new techniques.Never really intended as an end in itself, but I think it is important for all artist to play with the medium they use, and I am often the only model available.This was how I found the technique I eventually used for “Ghost Dance”.
More research led me to discover Japanese ghost paintings, and by the time I found the model I used to pose with me, all the elements were just there to fall in place.
As an immigrant who has carved a life for herself in the United Kingdom what are your thoughts about its decision to leave the European Union?
I believe the British people made the wrong decision. As an artist, I am deeply concerned with the impact leaving the EU will have on culture an impact that will be felt because of the stripping away of funding that was once provided by the EU.
Has it changed the way you see the country?
The decision to leave the EU clearly divided the whole country, and it’s not a good thing. What shocked me the most it was the hate crime raising against migrants soon after the results, and that's scary.
Do you think mobile photography has had an impact on the profession that you are in?
I suppose living in a digital age mobile photography have some impact in a way, selfies, for example, I think they undermine what was once a rich vein of creativity in the arts from Durer to Sherman. Also, I like my work to be as highest quality as possible, and I don't think you can get that from mobile photography like you can from analogue and digital cameras.
Is your daughter a willing accomplice when it comes to your work or does you have to bribe her with treats?
Yes, when we started the project, she was only eighth years old, really lively so to make her still I had to give her small amount of chocolate. When it came to posing though I didn't have to do anything as soon as I had the camera in my hands pointing at her, she completely transformed, she is a wonderful model. Nell is 15 years old now and is more understanding and appreciative of what I do as an artist. That certainly makes the collaborations on the new series much more interesting and stronger.
What is your fondest memory of being back home in Poland?
My childhood was filled with the myths of Eastern Europe, and I would spend my days roaming free among the forests and wild. Without this memory, I wouldn’t be able to create "Childhood Lost ".