Born in Stříbro – a small town in former Sudentenland, Lukas Houdek is the Czech photographer and all round creative capturing images that delve into social commentary and explore subjects considered taboo.
The word cathartic has become almost a cliché in descriptions of art but in terms of Lukas’ work it is apt.
In this interview, Lukas talks about his use of photography (among other artistic mediums) to heal from his own traumatic history of abuse but also to help those who are on the fringes of society, marginalised or indeed unable to have a voice that is heard.
What’s your photographic journey-has photography always been your creative destination?
Not at all-I studied Romani studies at Charles University in Prague, so I dealt with the culture, language and history of Roma. As I travelled around the localities they lived in, I started to shoot their everyday life to keep these special moments to myself and my friends. Some people told me they were good and that I should probably show them publicly and I then showed them at exhibitions. Today I deal with many other topics in my work and not only photography any more but those images from Roma are still important to.
Is photography the most truthful form of art?
Lately, I have not been very faithful to photography. I moved into installation work and interventions in public space but I still use photography as a tool of language even in the installations. For me, photography and art in general are other ways for me to express my feelings in a very direct way. Photography was a way for me to speak to my family and friends about the bullying I was dealing with during my teen age years as a gay man in a small Czech town-I could not use words, it was too painful. Photography was the only way for me (at the time) to communicate these memories and eventually heal-this is how my series Dream Life emerged.
Your early work was evidently cathartic.
Dream Life was the point when I switched into art photography and looked more at myself. In the same period Icreated the projects All My Mothers’ Knitters and Freakshow. Of the others – The Anniversary – it deals with my history of being abused by a man when I was a child. That situation and influences my whole my life, my relationships, my growth and the way how other people treated me. In some ways, I am sure that the thing that influences me most negatively, is the taboo around this issue and victimisation of the victims of sexual violence. I wanted to break it and show to other victims, they are not alone and that we can help each other. Today I deal mostly with issues that deal with the others. In the beginning, I used art to express myself and as a therapy. It worked and now I can move further and focus on other issues.
Your work is a mix high class photo journalism and documentary photography-what attracted you to these styles and how does your choice reflect your personal characteristics?
Documentary photography was a place to pass on my unique experiences from the different places I have been to. People do not like to read that much anymore, so images can be a strong and easy tool to transmit information or messages you want to convey. I am in my heart an activist, passing on information and stories are a huge part of my personality.
You covered the genocide in Kenya (you may have answered this in the previous question) but what was the impact of that experience and evidently photographing that?
I was not documenting the genocide itself but the situation after when attempts were made for reconsiliation. It was very strong experience for me because I was objectively forced to handle it. It changed me a lot I got my hair shaved in Kenya and never let it grow again. I am very grateful for those experiences.
What type of transformation (in general) has photo journalism and documentary photography taken if you are aware?
I do not want to speak for all but in my opinion, I see work that shows signs of haste. In my region, it is very popular to take photos in Roma settlements where poverty is prevalent. I see images that were made in one hour but they are images with no feelings, no intimacy. I am not sure whether this is a pattern of this era because good quality cameras are easily accessible.
Greater accessibility can be good in a way?
In some ways, it is great that everyone can be a photographer and some photographers have produced sensational pictures and I know I went through a period of photographing life and the people around me. I have stopped this now however. It is harder and harder to feel the urge to take those images where one captures someone’s misery. From the beginning, it was very important for me to get to know the people around me, become at least in little way part of their environment. Once they start to feel comfortable with me, I also feel comfortable documenting their life.
Your work delves with no fear into issues that are intriguing; what are some of the challenges in gaining access to people who might be wary of being documented?
I like to take on difficult tasks even if people around me tell me it is not possible. In India, there is a transgender community, that has a long history and special role in Indian culture but lately they have been very persecuted and they have become one of the most vulnerable groups in Indian society. They are very closed and normally do not allow strangers to get inside. I have always been fascinated by their world and wanted to get to know them more. So, one day I decided to go to India and follow one of my dreams and I succeeded and I have been returning ever since.
This pull to return to India, it must be about more than photography?
You are right, it is more than photography. I have portrayed more that 100 of them and now I feel very welcome-we have become friends really. We speak about men, our problems and we give each other advice. I love the time I can spend with my hijra friends and that makes it easier for me to work on my long-term series Lilies and Ritika. Ritika is one of my closest friends and she allows me to document her life, through her ups and downs-I am very grateful for this opportunity.
Following on from the previous question: Daisies how did that effect you-and what did you learn- coming out as a transgender in that culture must be even more difficult?
The most important in the series is Lilies – Portraits Of Hijras. Daisies is a side project – portraits of kotis – gay men that are feminine. It is also very interesting sub-culture and some of the hijras start as kotis when they are still trying to find out ‘who’ they are. The life of hijras and kotis is hard in India since the Law 377 came back a few years ago. It restricts same sexual encounters, beside other things. Hijras were in the past a very respected group of the society as people believed in their magical skills. Some people still believe in this and many of hijras till these days make their living by giving blessings during weddings and when a child is born. Their situation however is getting harder, people do not respect them anymore and most of them are therefore involved in sex work. It gives them a big risk, murder of hijras or any other brutal abuse is not exceptional.
Your work RefuRential has relevance in the current global climate-explain the idea behind this project?
I am involved in a special home for asylum seekers called Grandhotel Cosmopilis in the German city of Augsburg. It is run by artists and they call it a social sculpture. Part of it is also an exceptional hotel that pays some of the bills of the project – you as a guest share the same space with people that came from different places of the world, hoping to be safe and live a better life. The artists running this place try to combine art with helping refugees to solve their problems and integrate them in German society. It is a unique project that is getting a lot of international attention.
What was the initial spark in wanting to create this body of work and indeed what was that central message you and your co-creator were trying to create?
Two years ago, I was in Potsdam in Germany presenting my works to one of the Grand Hotel team, a very close friend Susa Gunzner. She picked me up and we went together to Berlin by car. During the journey, we were talking about Grand Hotel and the topic of abuse of refugees for diverse projects. What I mean is- the Grand Hotel has this problem where artists and journalists ‘order’ refugees for their cases. It is for a ‘good cause’ but the refugees themselves most often get nothing out of it. These people are hunting for touching human stories and those, who work with asylum seekers, sometimes get strange ‘subscriptions’ like: “Do you have a refugee – woman, 50 plus, health issues and in wheelchair?” Through our conversations, we decided to create this fake rental company, or e-shop, called RefuRential. We started the project publicly on Czech social. One of main commercial televisions did not understand what we were doing -and wrote an article talking about this scandalous company abusing desperate people!
The expulsion of Germans after the WWII is a very dark part of our history. We do not like to talk about it and few years ago it was still a big taboo. Once I was working on some other project, I accidentally got to know about several mass killings in the first post-war days. I was completely shocked because I hadn’t heard of it until then. Thousands of them were very brutally murdered. It was deeply personal because I come from the former German region of the country that was resettled after the war by Czechs. I decided I wanted to address this issue as people around me didn’t know about the killings either. I got the opportunity to show some of the pictures in public space, right in the centre of Prague, as billboards. It became a big scandal and it opened a very wild discussion that was for me very hard to handle-I was targeted by the public and the media for a while.
Part of your works have involved restoring or using old images-just talk a bit about those projects and the unique challenges.
I have two projects working with old photos so far. One of them is To The Another World and consists of private pictures from the albums of Romanians living in Czech town of Rokycany, where they came after WWII from Slovakia for work and better life. The project shows the history and their daily life by their own private pictures from 1946 to 1991. I worked on it together with Květa Tůmová – one older Roma woman from this community. The biggest challenge was to get the trust of the community to share their very intimate pictures that, in my opinion, was a unique way of showing their story of integration into Czech society and showing them in different. The other project called From Upper House With Love is a series of photographs made in the beginning of 20th century by German architect Hermann Kallenbach to Mahatma Gándhí in South Africa. I brought them back to South Africa in 2015 and exhibited them hundred years later.