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Preserving Sorbian identity through the lens of time

The Sorbs of Western Slavic origin have been living in regions of Eastern Germany long before Germany as a nation state existed. Overcoming numerous obstacles like the terror aimed at them during the Third Reich, they have endured and are still holding onto their own language, rights, and traditions even today. They have become fairly integrated into German society but still place a lot of value on their Sorbian identity, which for them precedes their German nationality.

German photographer Yana Wernicke through her work “Irrlicht” wants to go back to the mythical and fantastic roots of Sorbian life. Inspired by fairy tales and legends, she delved deeply into Sorbian history in order to bring to life an imagery that has long been forgotten. Yana explains to BE at the sidelines of her exhibition at the Goethe–Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata, “In Germany, not a lot of people know about the Sorbs, and their traditions are fading away. So, for me, it was a way photographing something that interests me anyway, that is, traditions, fairytales etc., and it was also about preserving some of their traditions.”

While photographing real events and real people she did not want to document Sorbian daily life as it is today. Rather, she wanted to use fragments of it in order to tell her own story, as she has been infatuated with the magical and mythical aspects of the Sorbian way of life since childhood. This exhibition is a modern fairy tale that combines old conceptualities with new interpretations and portrays a world somewhere in transition between reality and fiction.

What according to her is a good photograph?

Yana smiles, “I think there is no fixed notion about what makes a good photograph. Everyone is different and such conceptions are too subjective to decide.” With “Irrlicht”, Yana hopes to trigger a thought process that talks about keeping alive the imagination within one self as well as the idea of being part of a greater identity.

Does she think there is such a thing as someone really having a “natural eye” for photography?

Yana feels, “Yes I think that there are people who have a natural eye for photography. But photography, just like any other art form, can be trained and learned, but if you don't have the eye or talent, it is way harder and having the talent will make a good photograph an interesting one.”

Digital and SLR cameras have been selling like hotcakes as more people, especially youngsters turn to photography. What are her views on this?

Yana says, “It doesn’t matter what type of camera you use. I shot my series Irrlicht in analogue with a double lens camera. I have seen great works by photographers only shot on their phone or with an analogue compact camera. It really doesn’t matter. A good camera won’t make the image better. I personally have a Digital SLR, but I am not going crazy about lenses and types. For the camera, I have only one 50mm lens and it works great. If I need to zoom in or out, I walk and do the work myself and not let the camera control me.”

Her word of advice for photographers:

“There are no rules and advises; it’s just important to stay curious and not worry too much about the technical aspects of photographing.”

Contributing Writer, Abhijit Ganguly, is an extensively published journalist based in Kolkata, India. His stories cover the global arts scene and the fusion arts movement with the culture and art of India. Ganguly’s work includes personal interviews with world renowned dance troupes, film directors, fine artists, sculptors, as well as jazz, hip hop and classical musicians. He is known for presenting an inside view of the artist's craft and what motivates their creativity. Ganguly also delves into the artist's take on what a young person in Kolkata can learn from each artist, so that the youth of the city can learn to master these skills.

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