Born in Vienna and trained as a filmmaker in England, Tina Schula‘s photography combines cinematic techniques, portraiture, family stories and political history to create staged narratives of complex human drama. In 2009, she received her MFA in Photography from The School of Visual Arts in New York.
She was a finalist at Critical Mass 2013, Photoville 2012, The Print Center 86th International Photography Contest 2011, The Sixth Annual BamArt Silent Auction, Scope Basel 2010 and a winner of the CCNY Darkroom Residency in 2010.
Peta Pixel: Tina, please tell us first about your origins as a photographer. What first sparked your interest in the medium?
Tina Schula: It’s usually the other way round but I got into photography through film. As a teenager it was the films of German New Wave directors, Fassbinder and Werner Herzog who made me jump off my seat. These were the movies I wanted to make: stories about passionate outsiders in conflict with the world, shot in bold style and rich color.
I went to study film in London, which was great as you had to watch about 4 films a day. Later I made shorts, few music videos and a 60 min. fiction in 2004. It took almost a year to make it happen. I was exhausted from the process. I needed a change. I borrowed a girlfriend’s Rolliflex and spent a lot of time in the darkroom. I started setting up scenes with my friends as actors, which soon grew into more complex stories. It was quite liberating.
I figured I could work so much faster, direct my actors to get my stories across but still control camera and lighting myself. When you direct a film, you can’t do it all by yourself. You rely on so many people. Unless you find a DP and a crew who totally get what you want, you often end up compromising your work. So photography really allowed me to be in control technically and to push my vision to a new level.
PP: Please talk us through the steps in the process of creating each image, and talk about how the narrative evolved during the making of this project.
TS: My process is definitely closer to film-making as it usually involves a lot of research and production. For Radical Camp I looked at all sorts of material on different extremist and terrorist groups. I wanted to show the complexity of these groups but also stress what they all have in common. Then I invented characters, built scenes and a plot.
A very important thing in my work is casting. For Radical Camp half of my cast were non-actor friends, the other half I found through talent agencies. I was looking for people with really strong, edgy faces who can pull off their characters credibly. Then I scouted for locations and looked at a lot of different youth camps until I found the right one.
Finally, I brought my cast and two assistants on set, arranged all the shots, set up my lights and directed the action. However, there are always last minute surprises. Someone runs late, an actor throws a fit or a car breaks down. But I come to realize my best work thrives under extreme circumstance and terror. For instance the image ‘Jim Jones Assembly’ was shot under enormous time pressure of 10 minutes while a park cop was yelling into my ear. It turned out to be one of my most favorite images in the series.
PP: Talk about some of your photographic influences, past or present, that have helped to shape your thinking about picture-making.
TS: My photography is really more informed by theatre and film. Among the photographers who made me think about my work most notably are Jeff Wall, Olaf Blecker and Phil Perkis, my former mentor at SVA.
Wall’s early work has been inspiring for its highly crafted compositions and his conceptual approach. Olaf Blecker I assisted on a few editorial shoots and I took so much from it. I really love his bold style of portraiture and dramatic lighting. Phil Perkis has pushed my thinking about photography as he taught me the magic is really in looking, not in your camera, nor your technical skills. It’s the way you see the world and how your inner life is reflected in your vision.
Another artist I like a lot is Dutch video artist Aernut Mik. The way he combines film, performance, sculpture and architecture to explore chaotic political crowd events is very interesting to me.
PP: What’s stirring about Radical Camp is that although its fictionalized story, it’s a story that seems likely to be playing out in locations around the world everyday. The ideas of the terrorist cell, extremists, and the actions they take, have become all too common place. What compelled you to address these topics and what do you hope this series achieves?
TS: I have always been interested in the cult status of certain terrorist and extremist groups. Growing up in Austria I learned a lot about the German Baader Meinhof Gang who were often represented in the media as these cool rebels with a serious cause when in fact Andreas Baader was nothing but a charismatic criminal who attracted other troubled youth on his path to destruction.
I started researching the militia movement in the US, its precursors Ruby Ridge and David Koresh at Waco. I watched Jonestown, a film about the Jim Jones’ massacre and I found out about Marshall Applewhite with his religious UFO cult Heaven’s Gate.
In the news there were all these stories about home-grown terrorists, seemingly ordinary people who suddenly turned terrorists. There was the case of US-born Jihadist teenager Omar Hammami, the four old men from Georgia who got arrested in a terrorist plot, the Christian patriot Hutaree militia. I wanted to understand more about the personal motives, background stories and tactics of such groups.
What I found most of these collectives had in common was their structure and motives. There was usually a charismatic, abusive leader at the top and a bunch of lost individuals who were looking for their “Führer”. Ideologies could be replaced but the need for a new purpose and identity within a community were key factors. Radical Camp is meant to make viewers aware of this psychological process, which can happen to everyone, even the nicest kid on the block.
PP: In your artist statement, you describe the theme of this series as ” the sudden radicalization of previously apolitical, marginalized, disturbed individuals today and in history.” How do you think this radicalization comes about? What might society do to help prevent it?
TS: Violent radicalization, the type of radicalization I am addressing in Radical Camp, I think often comes about when individuals experience a strong loss of identity and meaning in life. That’s when people are more at risk of adopting extreme political, religious or social beliefs that reject the status quo.
On an individual level there are various factors why people join extremist groups. There is the love — relationship factor as seen with The Baader Meinhof Group and The Charles Manson ‘family”. There is the revenge factor of a political or ethnic group at large and there is the status factor someone receives for high-risk violent acts within such hate groups.
But social acceptance I think is at the bottom of it all. I don’t think society can really prevent acts of terrorism. There will always be individuals who feel so deeply unhappy and alienated from the world that they will turn to violence.
PP: While these images tell a direct story of a group of extremists, all photographs to some extent function as self-portraits. How do you see yourself in these images?
TS: The characters and scenarios in Radical Camp are fictional and inspired by stories from the news, history and films. Growing up in Austria however might have made me more aware of the dangers of people joining a political extremist group, following a mad leader and stopping to think for themselves.
From very early on I developed a healthy distrust towards organized groups. When I was around 7 I joined the girl scouts because my best friend was bragging about their amazing summer camps. The minute I joined I hated it. All we did was tying knots into yarn, repeating militant troop speech and having to give promises. I felt uncomfortable with all the ‘group think’. I quit.
In 2000, while on a visit in Vienna, I experienced a historical moment of mass protests against the entry of Joerg Haider and his far-right Freedom party into parliament. It was the awakening of a new political resistance in Austria and a stark contrast to the chronic self-doubt that weakened Austria’s resistance to the advances of the Nazis in 1938.
A year later there was 9/11 in New York, which was my first experience with terrorism up close. In 2004 I made a film (Ground Cut) about a group of actors taking part in a drama workshop led by an abusive therapist, to overcome their 9/11 trauma. The potential danger in radical groups has always been of great interest to me.
PP: Tell us about the sets for this project. What location (or locations) did you use to prearrange each scene?
TS: Finding the right set plays a huge part in my work. It’s key to suggest a certain mood, period of time and narrative context. In Radical Camp most of the scenes were shot at this weird 1970’s catholic camp in Long Island, which had a dark, creepy feel. Lots of moldy wood paneling and weird furniture. A perfect setting for a training camp of extremists.
I also like to confine my actors to a location for a day or two and make sure they can not escape. It allows me to achieve this condensed sense of drama. It adds intimacy and makes the process feel more like theatre.
We arrange the set, put up the lights and work on the scenes. It’s exhausting, it’s emotional but it keeps everyone feeling engaged and special. Few images were shot at other locations such as a rifle range on Fifth Avenue where rich, young ladies come to improve their shooting skills during shopping(!) and a patriotic Paintball Club in New Jersey. I love scouting for wacky locations.
PP: There’s a great sense of theatricality throughout this series. The lighting, the actors and the scenery all seem to be influenced by play production. Can you talk about your inspirations in regards to the theater?
TS: I love theatre and in particular the epic theatre of German playwright Bertolt Brecht has had a strong influence on my work. He was developing a form of non-naturalistic theatre using techniques of distancing to make the audience aware of the political message of the play.
I try to do something similar with my photography. I set up fictional scenes with a group of actors about dramatic political events, past or present and I apply Brechtian techniques to tell a story. My aim is to achieve this balance between pulling the viewer in and pushing him away. To make it work the images have to look realistic enough for viewers to care but not too realistic to keep them from getting lulled into the story.
The characters in Radical Camp are meant to be archetypal figures for the bigger picture, our real world. I don’t want them to look like subjects in a documentary story. That’s why I deliberately use artificial lighting, cinematic composition, unnatural gesture and a color palette, which often feels over-saturated and dated.
PP: The most riveting things about this series are the deeply emotive expressions and body language of the subjects. In your role as “director,” how did you encourage everyone to recreate your vision? Did your subjects ever take the scene to an emotional place that you did not expect it to go?
TS: Since I invent all the characters in my series, I usually have a very strong idea of what their emotions, faces and gestures should be like. On rare occasions I work with an actor who really gets my vision without me having to say a word. It’s magical when that happens. For the most part I do need to direct my actors quite a lot to get the picture I want.
One of my techniques is to push my subjects toward a point of physical and emotional exhaustion. This is when their performance is usually the most real and interesting. For Radical Camp I wanted my actors to grow into their characters as much as possible so I took them to this remote camp, had them run on the beach in a drill a couple of times, and really played out all the different scenes for hours, without much of a break. By the time we photographed the mug shot portraits everyone was so tired and miserable it was perfect for that scene!
And yes. Two of my actors were definitely growing into their characters a little too much at one point. There was no blood but anger and rebellion. Tellingly, it happened during the militia scene when I put my guys into camouflage and handed them their weapons. The unexpected drama just forced me to pull the strings harder, and re-direct their emotions. It made the two guys look even more fierce in the shot. I like confrontation. It can really fuel up a scene.
PP: Do you have any advice for young photographers who admire your work and would like to create in a similar style?
TS: Don’t look at too much photography! It can inspire you, yes. But it can also make you blind. There is the point where it only adds to more noise in your brain and stops you from creating something that is really good and your own. Go for a walk. Watch films. Read the news. Read a good book. Go to the met. Call your mother. Fight with your father. Eat fennel. Have a shower. Stay in the world. Your world.
PP: Finally, please let us know about any upcoming events on your schedule. Are there any gallery shows or publications to look out for?
TS: I am currently finishing off a new project called Meantimers about a group of jobless New Yorkers. This time I worked with ‘real’ people dealing with serious problems, which was a new, difficult, but very rewarding experience to me.
I created theatrical scenes showing their daily struggles. My protagonist is this amazing 60-year-old man from Queens who has not found work in almost 3 years. The series sparked off his passion for acting, gave him a new purpose and lately he has been cast for Boardwalk Empire, which is pretty wild.
I am thinking of making a book about Meantimers and I am currently looking for a writer to collaborate with. Another series I have just started working on involves dramatic close up portraits of female performers inspired by the work of German painter Otto Dix. I am also writing on a short film and one of the dancers I photographed for the new portraits will be starring in it.