For the first time ever, one photographer has had two images shortlisted for the prestigious Taylor Wessing award. We spoke to Kovi Konowiecki about his new project on Israeli Orthodox Jews and how his life has changed since the finalists were announced.
It’s been a very successful year for us at theprintspace, with a number of the photographers exhibiting their work in the Taylor Wessing exhibition having printed with us. Having recently spoken to Claudio Rasano about his project, ‘Similar Looking, We Refuse To Compare’, we spoke to one of our favourite up and coming photographers Kovi Konowiecki, about his latest project, who for the first time in the history of the Taylor Wessing award, has had two of his images selected.
Originally from Long Beach, California, Kovi’s work lies between documentary and fine art, often focusing on portraiture and telling stories that reveal his identity, including his experiences of growing up in the Californian sun.
Hey Kovi! That’s for taking the time to speak to us. To start, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
Hello! I am originally from Long Beach, California and am currently receiving my Masters in Fashion Photography from London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. I have been a nomad much of my upbringing as football has taken me many places, but I feel right at home here in London.
My grandfather was a photographer so I always used to mess around with his point and shoots when I was a kid, but I always thought of them more as toys. It wasn’t until college, about four years ago, that I picked up a camera with a sense of authorship. I went to school in North Carolina and had the urge to document people that stood out to me as being different in a rather homogenous and conservative community.
You used to be a professional footballer, what was it about photography that interested you and caused you to make the switch?
Towards the end of my football career, I thought more about taking photos than going to training. That is when I realized that photography is what I want do to with my life. As a young footballer, I was obsessed with art and would go to exhibitions whenever I had the chance. I remember there was a specific moment when I realized that I wanted to create work too, rather than just look at it. I am infatuated with people, and photography gives me a tool to interact with individuals from different cultures on a daily basis.
Are there any particular photographers that inspire you and your practice?
I get my inspiration from a lot of different places, not just photography. Having said that, photographers like Alec Soth, Rineke Dijkstra and William Eggleston come to mind right away. I think a large part of my practice has stemmed from my personality. As I mentioned, I am infatuated with people and often times the more intimate the portrait, the closer you get to your sitter, both literally and psychologically. That is portrayed in my series, Bei Mir Bistu Shein.
Talk me through your current project, what was it about the Israeli Orthodox Jews that interested you? Is there something you were trying to say with the series?
It is not just the Israeli Orthodox Jews that interest me, but rather the diaspora of Jews around the world. Bei Mir Bistu Shein portrays Orthodox Jews represented in three different parts of the world: United States, England and Israel. Most of the portraits in the series are members from the same family, which really exemplifies this idea of the Jewish diaspora and the scattering of Jews all over the world. It is quite interesting because some of the young family members I photographed have not yet met their cousins I photographed in another part of the world. So in a sense, this series brings their immediate family together, but also the larger Jewish congregation together.
When I set out to photograph faces of Orthodox Jews from around the world, it was an attempt to both strengthen my ties to my family’s history and shed light on the traditions of a people that seem strange to modern society. The subjects are displayed in a light and setting that emphasizes their distinct way of life, which can be perceived as strange and archaic, yet intriguing to outsiders. The colors and floral background cause the photographs to take on a painting-like quality, highlighting the mysticism of the subjects and their association with a history and tradition that many may find unfamiliar. The floral backdrop also alludes to a shtetl, which were small Jewish villages or homes in Eastern Europe where my grandparents lived before the Second World War. Simultaneously, the connection amongst the various family members helps establish a sense of warmth and familiarity for the viewer, illustrating how the values of family and togetherness serve as the cornerstone of Jewish tradition, much like they do for the lives of many who live in today’s society.
The subjects of these portraits exist in a liminal space between history and modernity. This dichotomy–the old and the new, modernity and tradition–captures the essence of the subjects–people who define their lives by an idea that embodies the physical and the mystical world perhaps more than any other: Faith.
You are the first person to have two images selected for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, how does that feel?
It is definitely a great feeling. It is comforting to know that the images work well as a series and that the project gains meaning when images are paired together.
How did you decide on which images you wanted to submit?
I certainly took my time with the selection process for submission. I may or may not have asked every member at the theprintspace for their opinion at some point in time!! Sometimes people see things in your work that you aren’t able to see. At the end of the day, I submitted the images that I felt the strongest connection to and that told the story that I wanted to tell with this series.
Having printed your work with us here at theprintspace, could you tell me about your experience printing with us? Did you already know how you were going to print your work, what paper you were going to use etc. prior to coming to us or did you receive any help from our staff?
I had an overall great experience printing at theprintspace. They take the extra time to share their feedback and give you their honest opinion about the different qualities of paper and what will work best with the images you are printing. I was negotiating between a few different types of paper and after seeing the several different test strips, I was able to make my final decision. The test strips also gave me a good indication as to how the colors were going to turn out in my final print.
Taylor Wessing is one of only a few competitions that require photographers to submit their work in print form. What do you think the value is of having your work printed as opposed to just viewing the work digitally?
There is nothing like being able to touch and see the texture of your work in print form. You are able to engage with the images on a much deeper level than when you are just viewing the work on screen. The power of particular images can really surprise you when you see them printed for the first time.
Are there any other projects that you are currently working on, or have in the pipeline?
I am currently in my hometown working on a project that tells an intimate story of growing up in Long Beach. It has been fun approaching people in more of a street style context, rather than focusing solely on formal portraiture.
What’s next for you?
I am very exciting for the Taylor Wessing and being able to walk into the National Portrait Gallery to see my work. My motto for the past year has been to live one month at a time, so who knows what’s next!
Thanks for speaking with us, Kovi and good luck with the show!
Kovi will be exhibiting his work alongside other finalists, Claudio Rasano and Joni Sternbach at the National Portrait gallery in London between 17th November and 26th February.