Hosted by Ilvy Njiokiktjien, this event is a conversation with Belgian photographer Anton Kusters, discussing his approach to photography, long-term projects, and the making and meaning of his Blue Skies Project.
The Blue Skies Project has taken Anton six years to produce, for which he has visited every single former Nazi concentration camp in Europe to make a single polaroid photograph of the blue sky above. His documentation process relies on location coordinates, incorporates numeric data, and closely follows good weather reports showing the days of blue sky above each of the 1,078 identified locations.
The result is a work that addresses the question of collective memory, second-hand witnessing, trauma, systematic injustice and the experience of place, through representations of the Nazi Germany concentration camp system from 1933-1945. The Blue Skies Project features a sound piece by Ruben Samama, and is curated by Monica Allende.
Ilvy talks to Anton about how he approaches his work, his projects, his ever changing relationship to photography, and his close collaborations with fellow artists and professionals.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, thanks again guys for all being here. I already said it in the beginning, but for the new people who joined, you can ask questions throughout just put your question in the chat, which is below.
Anton Kusters: The Q&A.
Ilvy: Sorry, it’s the Q&A box. So, make sure not to put it in the chat because going to miss it. So please, if you have any questions to Anton, put them in the Q&A box below. And before we start, and I’m going to read it because I don’t know it on the top of my mind, but I’m going to read Anton’s biography, because he’s done so much that I can’t even like do this from the top of my head. But okay, Anton, are you ready? It’s always weird to hear your own biography.
Anton: Yes, it’s weird. (Laughs)
Ilvy: So, Anton was born in Belgium in 1974, and obtained a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Leuven. And he lives and works in Belgium and in Tokyo. Anton has photographed and published and exhibited the Yakuza, which is an amazing project. He’s going to talk about it now but it’s actually the project when I first got to know him, he just finished it, I think. His other project, Mono No Aware, in 2014. In 2017, he completed the online epistolary image by image and experimental public dialogue with Ivan Sigal. And from 2012 to 2017, he created The Blue Skies Project, and I guess that’s why you’re all here, we’re going to be talking a lot about beautiful project, and which was published across different media and platforms, and was curated by longstanding collaborator, Monica Allende. In 2021, he completed the works Two Hundred and Sixty-nine Steps, Looking Up, and There is Nothing Here. So, as you can tell, until never sit still, I know him quite well, personally and he just produces a lot of beautiful work. The Blue Skies Project was installed at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 2019 and exhibited at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2021
Anton: It’s still there. it’s only for another two weeks.
Ilvy: Yeah! So, everyone who hasn’t seen it, and you’re near France, please go see it. And a monograph on the work was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2021. And Anton was a finalist in 2020 for the Deutsche Börse photography foundation prize and this work is included in the V& A Museum’s permanent collection in London, which I think is amazing. It is amazing. And the ICP museum collection in New York, amongst others. So that was a huge introduction.
Anton: Yes, I don’t think you could talk any more about everything. (Laughs)
Ilvy: Yeah, this was the presentation. guys. Thanks so much for being here.
Anton: Thanks so much. See you guys next time. Any questions?
Ilvy: Welcome, Anton. Really good to see you.
Anton: Yeah, thank you for this beautiful introduction. It’s always nice to hear that you actually did something with your life and haven’t been, you know. You always have the feeling that nothing’s happening but then when you hear it, talked or spoken back to you, it’s okay. So, I’m happy that I’m collecting some progress.
Ilvy: Now you are, I think. So, let’s look at the beginning. It’s the beginning of your career, but it’s also the beginning when I kind of got to know you.
Ilvy: I think or maybe it was a bit later, but the Yakuza story. Can you explain?
Anton: Yeah, it was Yakuza. I published it in 2011 so it’s exactly it’s exactly 10 years ago. It was my very first work and I actually, to be honest, at that moment, I had no idea about anything larger than photographing the work you want to photograph. I had no idea about a photo world, about agencies, about curators. I didn’t really understand that they existed. Obviously, you learn about it at school but it doesn’t sink in until you actually are thrown in the deep end and so, what I learned a lot about, obviously, starting a long term project because I think it took, I think it took about.. I’ll share my screen in the meantime, you’re right, I keep on forgetting that. Share. Is that correct? Are you guys seeing a Yakuza picture? I think you should be, right?
Ilvy: Yes, we are okay.
It took me two years to make this project. It started out really personal because my brother lives in Japan, and I wanted to find an excuse to go to Japan more often. And because it’s quite expensive to just book flights for no reason, we wanted to actually do something together. He’s a marketing expert, I was a photographer, there must be something we can do together and that’s basically how this project took shape. It learned me a lot about because it’s a documentary photography project. So, it’s not photojournalism, in the sense that I was not able to do research as to what the Yakuza or the Japanese mafia were, or are. So, the only thing I felt I could do was to witness as purely as I could witness what was happening before my eyes and gain access for a fixed amount of time, which was two years, and then publish what I had experienced.
Ilvy: So, but why the Japanese mafia? I mean, you wanted to visit your brother?
Ilvy: You can think of any subject in Japan, and then you follow this? Well.. I would say quite dangerous, mafia.
Anton: Yeah, in a way. I mean, it was just a little event in the sense that my brother and I were literally in a bar, in Kabukicho, in the back streets in Tokyo, in a very tiny bar seating four people. So, the bar would be about one and a half meter by one and a half meter by one and a half meter. And we were there with our friends, the bartender, Takusan, and we were literally talking about the possibility of doing a project together when a member, Switchable, a member of the local Yakuza branch, walked in the bar. And because the bar is so small, or because the bar was so small, it was kind of impossible to not notice. And that’s when..
Ilvy: When a person like that walks in, do people look at him or ignore him?
Anton: Well, it’s only a small bar with three people so not much happened but it’s kind of obvious that he is member of organized crime because of the way they dress and the way they behave. But he was extremely polite and everything. So, I only knew that he was from the Yakuza because Taka, told me because he knows the guy. And at that moment when he left, again, my brother and I looked at each other and said, “Well, maybe we should do this.” And of course, the obligatory warnings of Taka to be careful and to take things seriously prompted my brother and I to do it the right way. So, basically, we asked for an audience or, asked for a conversation or, asked for a meeting and as Malik and I spent, I think 10 months talking to the local Yakuza boss before we got permission to shoot.
Ilvy: It took some time to win the trust.
Anton: Yeah, it took some time and all of this process of being open about what you want to do, showing the images that you make, putting yourself in a position that you are, how would you say? Vulnerable, in the sense that I agreed with Switchable to show every image that I made. Every week, we would have a meeting and I would show all the new images that I made and I would show also my selection. And both he and I would have a veto on any image we were not comfortable with or would not be comfortable with. Now, obviously, it’s weird to speak to organized crime about feeling comfortable or not, but..
Ilvy: Can I quickly ask, how were you feeling in the contact with them? Was it nerve racking? Was it..
Anton: At the beginning, I was obviously very nervous, but the moment that they gave permission to photograph them so that I could actually spend time with them, be with them, photograph them without any restriction. I very quickly had to, how would you say not be nervous anymore? Because the very first day that I actually went with them after they approved me making the story, I was pretty nervous. And so Switchable basically turn to me and said, “Why the hell are you nervous? We told you, you were allowed to photograph so there is no reason to be nervous. The fact that you’re nervous is actually kind of disrespectful.” And so I only understood that when he actually talked about it and that changed my demeanor instantly. So, it was so much easier after that to make images and everything went completely smoothly for the two years that I that I photographed them.
Ilvy: Oh, what is it that the project brought you? Because in a way it was the start of everything.
Anton: Yeah, I thought photography was that. I mean, obviously, you know that there are different styles and different types but I thought photography was making the image doing the project, and then finishing the project and then starting the next project. And I learned that it was so much more than that, there was so much more outside, you know, bringing your work into the world, publishing a book, talking about your work, selling your work. All these things have only come after the actual making of the work and that’s something that I learned by doing this project, because I was on my own I had nobody supporting me, no gallery, no agency, nothing. So, I didn’t know what to do with the images. And I had to find a way.
Ilvy: And I’m guessing, that the fact that no one was really watching, did that also give you a certain freedom to work on it in a way that you wanted to work on it?
Anton: Probably, because once you start knowing I mean, there is no record so pure as your first record, they always say, because you don’t know what’s going on. And you can completely focus on actually making something wonderful and that certainly happened. So, it became much harder afterwards because I started to realize that there was this photo world and art world and I would use photo festivals and museums, and all these curators, and suddenly, you know, a lot of pressure arrived. At the same time, I also felt that this documentary style of making images was just not enough. I didn’t feel that I could completely say what I wanted to say with the Yakuza but obviously, I couldn’t go back and say, “Hey, do you have another two years?” So, I tried to I started to change my approach a little bit after that.
Ilvy: Yeah, I can imagine, and what happened after that?
Anton: Well, I had to detox basically. This is, just very quickly, this is the very first image I made. On the very first meeting with Switchable. This is Switchable. When we first were talking through my brother, of course, because I didn’t speak Japanese or, I don’t speak Japanese and he, during that very first meeting, when we were being introduced, he suddenly said, “Oh, do you want to see my tattoo?” And just like gets up and undresses and turns around, and I’m just standing there staring at this man’s back.
Ilvy: What a moment!
Anton: Yes, and my brother is tapping my shoulder saying like, “Anton, don’t forget to make an image.” It’s “oh, my camera!” So, it’s really like this way of, but it’s indicative of the way that I approach the project. It’s almost as if you have your camera with you by accident because what you want to do is you want to learn and they want to understand and you want to communicate. And I believe that that’s how it should be in cases like this. You shouldn’t be arriving with a big setup and 20 cameras and hide behind, you know, literally hide your face behind the lens all the time. I was always trying to get a personal connection, to try and understand things, which I just didn’t understand.
Ilvy: Did it also, I mean, it’s a huge mafia organization? And they don’t have the best name in the world, I would say?
Anton: No, I mean, they’re criminals. Yes.
Ilvy: Yeah. So, by talking to them, and by understanding them, I can somehow imagine.. I worked on a project on right wing organizations, in the same year, actually, that you worked on this, I just realized that. Yeah, and it’s interesting, because I went there in South Africa, to photograph this organization thinking, “Oh, all these people are crazy, and maybe a bit creepy and a bit aggressive.” You have all kinds of thoughts about them, because they are put under this umbrella name. So, you get to know people, and you kind of start to see that there’s also a friendly side to them, or a part that is afraid, or, you know, you recognize things. That’s what I noticed, did you notice something similar with the Yakuza?
Anton: No, absolutely. I mean, it’s not black and white. That’s one of the things I learned. They are human beings, who do bad things, but that’s how you can, how would you say? You can understand how they went along their path to get what they went to get where they are now. Being 15, being on the streets, not wanting to go to school, wanting to be cool, like the motorcycle gangs, being picked up by the local Yakuza. Suddenly, earning money being 16, being 17, getting real cool suits, getting respect on the streets, or what they think is respect. So, you start to understand how this big thing works and it’s not pretty, but it’s also human, in a way. I see a question coming here, “You screw up in some way and you get killed? Or was it always smooth?” Patricio asks. No, they didn’t, because..
Ilvy: I wonder if everyone really heard it.
Anton: Okay. So the question Patricio asks, “did they ever make you feel like, you screw up in some way and you get killed? Or was it always smooth?” And the thing is, it was very clear, as in the first months of me being there and photographing Switchable took it upon him to actually teach me good manners. So, he would tell me what to do, what not to do, to who I should say hi, in which way who I should say hi to first, who then next, what I can do, what I can’t do. And it’s not very difficult to follow those rules, because it’s basic politeness, but you just have to be aware of that. So, surprisingly to me in the beginning, it all went really, really smooth. It was, I learned how to move in their social circles with their express permission, obviously, and you learn how to not step on toes and just continue the work that you’re doing. And you actually really do become a fly on the wall because they start not paying attention anymore.
Ilvy: There’s another question coming in.
Anton: Yes. And the tattoo, for example, you see that’s right, Ted. Tattoos are frowned upon in Japan. The youngsters, obviously, are slowly getting more and more hipster tattoos but these kinds of tattoos like you see now are absolutely are frowned upon, and you should not, for example, go to the swimming pool, and not wear a covering. Because you would offend other people there. Tattoos started out for the Yakuza as a way to identify themselves. As it’s not like a gang tattoo, because every tattoo was different. It’s not like everyone would have the same, you know, MS-15, or something tattoo. Everybody has their own individual tattoo but the fact that you have a tattoo was indicative of being part of a gang. And therefore in society in Japan, they would, for example, instead of saying, “oh, no Yakuza are allowed in this bathhouse,” they would say, “no tattoos are allowed in this bathhouse.” And that would be in an indirect way of not telling them they are not welcomed, but at the same time not having them there and that’s still nowadays, the case. So, they obviously can see when you just have a hipster tattoo but even then, it’s still considered good manner to not flaunt your tattoo, whichever tattoo you have.
Ilvy: There’s one more question coming in for now, I think that’s going to be the last one on this topic, because we need to.. time is going so quickly. But can you maybe..? Archy asked the question about another photographer who worked on the Yakuza portrait story. How do you difference your work when you take on a topic? Could be any topic actually, I guess.
Anton: I need to check, just to be sure that.. I’m not. I just want to be sure that I take a look at Chris’s images. Just to be sure that we’re talking about.. okay. So, the thing is, I tried to understand the Yakuza and their way of life. I was not, per se or particularly interested in their tattoos. So for me, photographing their tattoos are not was not my goal. So, my goal was to find and try and understand why would somebody want to be member of a Yakuza gang? Are they? How would you say? Sure about themselves? Do they think they made the right decision in life? How do they feel now that they’re older? Because lots of them join when they’re very young and there’s basically no way out. That was kind of what I was trying to find, trying to see if I could understand. So, I wasn’t really focused on making images of tattoos. It’s just that they were part that they are part of their life.
Ilvy: In general, when you work on a story, how do you differ yourself? Because I do feel your work always has a different Anton touch to it but what is that?
Anton: I think I let the narrative determine what the work will look like. So, it could even be not photography, if some subject comes up that I really want to know something about and for some reason, it would only work with video, then it would be video, or it would only work with sculpture or would only work with painting. I mean, I can’t paint like that, let that be perfectly clear, but then I would honestly consider taking a painting just because, you know, so the narrative determines the medium. And for the Yakuza, I felt it would it was perfect to have this one small camera with one lens and be very intimate, because everything is in within one and a half meter and very confined spaces. So, that was my language at that point, they convey that intimacy as well but like for Blue Skies, for example, it became something completely different. It became abstract, it became Polaroid, it became, it became something that is fading, it became, you know, so depending on what I’m trying to understand and what the story is, that kind of determines the visual part of it.
Ilvy: So after Yakuza, you, I think you went more into, like a reflective time?
Anton: Yeah, I went into, I turned the camera inwards. To look at my own family. Let me see if I just very quickly.
Ilvy: Then that led to The Blue Skies but let’s skip this because I think it was also maybe an important part of..
Anton: It was, for me an important part for me personal to basically detox from this world of extremes of the Yakuza. And just, you know, look at my own family, look at myself and see how.. this is my god-child Safa. See, what, what my memories are and what I want to, what I want to do. And that helped me to get ready for you know, this.
Ilvy: For the bigger.
Anton: Yes, yes.
Ilvy: For the biggest project up to now, I would say.
Anton: After Yakuza, I told myself like, “Okay, I’m going to do smaller things,” because two years, that’s way too long to work on a project.
Ilvy: Well, that didn’t work out.
Anton: No, that completed didn’t work out because it became worse. I mean, I started out with my grandfather. So it’s always something personal that triggers work. I mean, it seems to be always something personal. So Yakuza was my brother. Mono No Aware was my close family. And in 2007, my grandfather, Gaston died and only five years later, in 2012, my mother casually told me about an event that had happened in 1943, with my grandfather, in this little town where he lived with his parents, because he was I think, 21 or 23, at the time, that in the middle of the night, the SS came from Germany, to his house, to deport him to a concentration camp. And there is this whole moment, he could flee the scene. So he, you know, they literally shut the door, broke down the front door, entered the house, beat up, his parents or, my great grandparents. But he was able to jump out the window onto the roof, and hide and escape ever being caught. So this massive history, this massive piece of history, like slid in front of the front door of my great grandparents, because if they would have, if they would have caught him, in all likelihood, I would just not exist. I mean, it was a realization that I only recently had and I thought that was quite powerful. I mean, so when my mother told me about this story, I was like, What the hell? Why did nobody tell me? Why did nobody tell me about this? Why can I, why I didn’t have a chance to talk to Gaston about it or ask him or what happened or what really happened. So, out of not knowing and out of trying to, you know, obviously, I wanted to find out what would have happened. I basically set out with the premise like, can I witness two generations down? Can I witness what he was not allowed to witness because he escaped?
Ilvy: What do you mean by not allowed to witness?
What he never witnessed? He didn’t witness deportation. He didn’t witness being captured. He didn’t, he didn’t witness being murdered.
Ilvy: So what would it if.. yeah.
Anton: What would have, can I see what he would have seen?
Ilvy: Yeah, if history would have taken a different path.
Anton: Exactly. Exactly. So that was, and so in all my naivete, I thought, Okay, let’s go to Auschwitz, because that’s the camp that I, you know, that’s the most famous or the largest, or the one that comes back as the first name and all these history books. And I arrived there, and this is the image, you know, this is the Polaroid I made there in Auschwitz one, I literally could not, I felt that I could not make an image of something there.
Ilvy: Oh, you didn’t take any of the images there?
Anton: I didn’t, this is the only image that I made. The digital, it’s an analog Polaroid of the sky above the camp. And I went home that night, I mean, I stayed there somewhere. And I looked in my, in my hotel room, I looked at that image that night, and I said, maybe this is something, maybe this is what I want to say. And I couldn’t put it into words at that moment. So, I obviously, I had no idea of the size of this particular slice of history. So the next day, I went to the, to the museum in Auschwitz, thinking like that there are 23 camps and that, okay, so
Ilvy: That’s also what I was taught in school 20-something concentration camps.
Anton: Right? We all thought that it was that, right? I mean, I’ll just see if I can, but this is this is the actual map.
Ilvy: Wow, yeah. That’s not 20.
Anton: This is not 23 camps. There were 23 main camps.
Ilvy: Is that the blue darker dots?
Anton: Yeah, the black dots.
Ilvy: Oh, sorry they’re black dots.
Anton: It’s like, it’s on zoom. So, it’s possible, probably. But the moment that I saw this map, well not this actual map because this is the one that I made with the research, but there is a similar map in the museum in Auschwitz. I really couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this. I mean, I have a master’s degree in political science. I mean, that should, Jesus, at least I should have an idea that this happened at this scale. But this, this set me to say to myself, like I actually, to be honest, I wouldn’t know where they would have taken him. So my only choice is to go and visit every one of them.
Ilvy: So, if I think of concentration camp, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get here in your story, but I’m curious to know is when I think of a concentration camp, I’ve been to Auschwitz, and it’s big and there are gates and are barracks and then, what if all these dots and there are quite a few in my home country, the Netherlands, what did they look like then? Because they probably don’t look like, they’re not all big, are they?
Anton: They would be, no. You have to actually, you have to actually turn around what you think you know and look at it in a completely different way. At least for me, that was the case. So, you don’t have a few large camps. You have a few large camps with many, many, many tiny camps everywhere so it’s this whole concentration camp system. That was for me, so haunting, that it was an organization of large camps where you would have hundreds of thousands, sometimes, of prisoners to very small camps with two or three or maybe 10 prisoners. And administratively, main camps would be surrounded by, let’s say, between 10 and 100 sub camps in a geographical, you know, circle of approximately like 100 or 150 kilometers, because the system of the concentration camps in the very beginning it was obviously, political adversaries, but it very soon became slave labor and targeting of different races of people who are different than general. And it became worse and worse, but it was economic. So it was slave labor, so people would be in a main camp, they would be lended. Literally, I mean, it’s very bad to speak about it that way but that was the reality they would be rented or lended to a sub camp. And anyone, any company could apply to get slave labor, and which happened on mass. And that’s how Germany helps itself to an economic uprising between the war from 1933 onwards, and that was really, was not such a good thing that happened. And that eventually got more brutal murder happened. It got worse and worse and starvation and eventually, it led to the Wannsee conference where they said, Okay, we’re where we want to exterminate the Jews and we want, we’re going to build extermination camps, not concentration camps, but extermination camps, something different, and they are far away and hidden, as much as possible. And that’s..
Ilvy: Are those are the red ones?
Anton: Those are the red ones and then they’re all in the eastern part of Poland or in that direction. So, further away in the middle of the woods and things like that. Well, that’s where..
Ilvy: No, sorry, go ahead.
Anton: Yeah, and that’s where the genocide and the Holocaust happened.
Ilvy: I mean, this is, first of all, the second world war is a huge story. But you, I mean, it’s now really big. How many camps did you say there were 1,800?
Anton: So yeah, I worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and so they published an encyclopedia, there are 1,078 concentration camps. So if you, yeah, but then hang on, if you, that are concentration camps. So, they are a very specific type of camps, you also have work camps. You also have transit camps, you also have women camps, you also have POW camps. So, the museum just two years ago, finished counting all the different possible camps and that number is even worse. That’s, they arrived at 42,000 camps over Europe. If you count all the different camps together, so it was it’s just impossible to comprehend that it existed.
Ilvy: And how did you think of visualizing it in the way that you did? Or, did that really all come about from the one image that you took in Auschwitz? Because it’s a lot of data too.
Anton: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s like, this is the data? I mean, I’m still sharing my screen, right? Yeah. This is this is like, a part of the data. So I, I took the better part of five years on and off to find this data to make this data with the help of the US. H & M, obviously, because it’s an impossible task to do by yourself. But I very much in the first years doubted whether I should, I don’t know if should is the right word, whether I would be allowed to talk about this as an artist. You know, the famous saying, by Adorno, there is no poetry after Auschwitz? And things like that and me not being Jewish myself. I honestly thought like, am I, can I speak of this? And this took years of talking to people before I understood that, yes, I should do that and it’s good that I do that. And the way I’m doing it is okay. And but it took a while for me to be able to vocalize and put into words, what was, what that blue sky meant to me.
Ilvy: And with the blue skies, that you then started photographing, can you tell a little bit about how you went about, well, I mean, you had the figures, but yeah, it’s a huge project. I don’t even know how we’re gonna get to it in the next 15 minutes but if you can try to explain how you managed to do that.
Anton: Yeah, I’ll try to explain. But I mean, it’s easy and complicated at the same time. It’s very easy to say, look, I want to find all these 1078 places. So that sounds like an easy enough question and then you look at the encyclopedia, where they have them all described, but they haven’t found them, where they, I mean, they haven’t put coordinates there. So, you have the impossibility of a non-accurate GPS coordinate, because many of the places, about 50% of the places, are not known exactly. So it would be in a certain street, it would be one of five houses but we don’t know anymore which one because everybody who was a prisoner in that camp is deceased, and there is no record. So, there is no way to find out anymore which of those five houses it would be. Or, is it this street or the street next door. So there is this inaccuracy that I had to deal with and I tried to deal with it in the way that I made different colors as to, if you look at the map here, the red ones are exact places, the yellow dots are approximate places and the orange dots, are they only know that it was in that town or that city that there was a camp somewhere, but they cannot find where anymore. So, I had to deal with all that so that was really difficult to do. Plus, the fact that obviously, I almost stupidly, but now I’m happy that I did but at that moment, I felt that was not the best decision, not the most practical decision, that it was that it had to be a blue sky. And I didn’t realize that there is not that often a blue sky in Europe, on different places.
I could have told you, well, you grew up here so. You look outside and it’s gray every day.
Anton: Yeah, yes, I’m looking outside now and it’s gray as well. So I had to deal with the fact that I, I’m just going through all this, like this is me and my camper van on the road. I had to deal with weather. Yes, exactly. And this is, for example, what I everyday had to do every morning. So I would be in that red dot, and then just have to follow the opening in the clouds to know for sure that there would be sunshine.
Ilvy: What is the longest you waited for sunshine?
Anton: I didn’t have to wait that long because I would only leave home if I knew there was sunshine in that certain part of Europe. So, I usually like the very first time that I didn’t realize that I would have to plan on before and I think I spent an evening waiting at the border of Denmark. There is a camp very close to the border in the top of, between Germany and Denmark and I think I waited like the whole nights and then very, very much at the end, finally, something opened up for one second and I managed to make an image but I did not want to go through that again because then I would be waiting more than anything else. So, what I actually did was you have the weather forecast, you know, about five days in advance that the sun will be shining in North Eastern of Poland. So you go there you overlay or this is this is Austria, I think yes, this is Austria. So, this is example of Austria, okay, would be sunshine in Austria, the first day I would arrive there and then at the little point, which has an “A” marked. In the next morning, I would make this travel to about 15 camps in that day and travel about 1000 kilometers in that day and then the next day, you do the next 15 camps and the next 1000 kilometers and so you keep on going that way. So, it’s very, very fast and very intense because that whole rhythm of not being able to choose yourself to spend time in a particular place but having to follow the patterns of the weather was crucial for me to make in the process of making this this work.
Ilvy: How many kilometers did you drive in the end if I may ask?
Anton: I drove, I think close to 180,000 kilometers. So, I basically used up a car, this is how the trunk of my car looked like. So, I would have the Polaroid cameras on the bottom left so I had two Polaroid backs on to Holga cameras, which are very cheap Russian cameras, then I would have the developed Polaroids, their negatives, and then the trash, obviously, as well. And at the end of the trip, I would have like a very precious cargo like this, with all blue skies lined up in a self-made little box, so that they don’t touch each other because as long as Polaroids are not dried, they are very sensitive to touch. So, I would have to make something like this. So this is, for example, two weeks’ worth of images.
Ilvy: Wow, you must have been nervous sleeping at night.
Anton: Yeah, every time this box gets fuller, I got completely nervous because like, everything’s unique and if something goes wrong, like I mean, you just can’t go back to those places.
Ilvy: Did you ever lose one of them?
Anton: No, I never did that would be weird. No, I did what I did in order to like finance and make that project possible. I made three originals at every place, just to be safe, because of course, it’s like it would be completely crazy to make only one original. One original is for the actual installation. One original is in my safe in case of disaster happens to the exhibition and the third original I framed individually and made available. So, I made them available as a unique edition because I knew that every time I would sell three or four Polaroids, I could do the next journey because it was impossible to do it otherwise. I mean, I spent, I think, I spent 20,000 euros on fuel alone. It’s..
Ilvy: And without any funding. So, the funding was really in the..
Anton: There was, yeah. Unfortunately, I did not find funding. Of course, I’m not, I’m not of that stature that I can demand funding but it was the only way that I knew that I could do it. And for me, it also like, I don’t know if I have a picture of that here somewhere. It also was a way of giving back in the sense that the old map of destruction is slowly being replaced by a new map. So, I would, I have a new map of Europe where the people who purchased the Polaroid are living. And so this to me is then the new map of hope or the new map of people who are willing to keep the memory alive and I think that would be important if that eventually could be a complete shift of all these blue skies to a new place or a new home.
Ilvy: There’s a question coming in from Ted about the film, sounds expensive.
Anton: Yeah. Oh, yeah, it’s true. Yeah. First, thank you for sharing that about your parents.
Ilvy: Yeah, I’m just typing to that as well. But I can’t, I noticed now I can’t type and listen at the same time but Ted, I was answering to your story because it sounds very, yeah..
Anton: It’s okay that you didn’t quit the scotch. I also didn’t so it’s good. That’s fine. And, but it is, I mean, anyone who’s been to Auschwitz or a large concentration camp, it’s just, it’s you feel that place when you get there. There is just no way to describe it and I used, to answer your question about the film stock. I used peel apart Polaroid from Fujifilm. So it’s the Fp100c. It’s not available anymore. They stopped making it. They stopped making it I think in 2015 if I’m correct, but I had bulked up on it but it had become like so expensive. I think if you want to buy it now when you can only find it expired and I think it costs you two or three euros per image. So, yeah, I wish they would still make it.
Ilvy: That’s quite an investment.
Anton: Were it, were it more environmentally friendly. But, yes, you have, you have kind of a loss of experience of place because all these places they, they there’s nothing there anymore, you have remnants obviously and half of the time you don’t even have remnants, but it’s very strange to realize, for example, here are just some images from along the way. On the left, you see the pond of Auschwitz Birkenau. The infamous pond where they dumped so many ashes of more than a million people but on the right, you have a very small concentration camp, which literally, was behind the playground of an elementary school. And it still.. it’s a memorial now.
Ilvy: That, like, ss it wood? In the back? That’s the memorial, or?
Yes, yes, that’s the little museum. But, the camp was actually there and the memorial is still there now. So it’s, it’s very, very unsettling to realize that there was a concentration camp behind in elementary school, and that that was possible. So it really..
Ilvy: Did you along the way explain to people because I’m guessing sometimes or, a lot of times you would see people and they would maybe ask you, why are you photographing the sky? Or, did that never happen?
Anton: It’s like people feel that it’s the right thing to do in this case. I, you know, you can you have so many connotations with the sky. For me, it was the nothingness and the endless landscape. And I’ll ask, I’ll answer your question in two seconds, Gabriella. And, but for other people, it signifies hope, and, or abstractness. So that you were looking at something that there is nothing left to see. So, you are you are in a way with this, you know, I didn’t actually show a picture of the installation yet. This is a an image of the installation and this is how it looks like in Arles now.
Ilvy: It’s beautiful for anyone who can go see it, I thought the space also really added to the experience.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s for us very important, for Monica, Ruben, and I, where we show it and how we show it depending on the space.
Ilvy: You also have to explain Ruben too.
Anton: Yeah, yeah, it’s over.
Ilvy: Yeah, I know, we are out of time. So we’re over the time.
Anton: I know, to quickly answer a Gabrielle’s question. The numbers on the bottom of the Polaroid I made them with an old typewriter and the significance of them is that you have the top number is a number of victims that fell beneath that sky, that particular sky. And the bottom numbers are the coordinates of where that image was made. So, in a way, you have this unbearable specificity typed into, typed into this image, you know, this image, damaged in this way that it cannot erase itself, while the sky on top the image itself will fade slowly over time, but those numbers will never fade. And that’s me, yeah, that’s my face. The reason why I made an image this way, is because if you go to the watch, if you go to the installation, and you look at the exhibition, it’s impossible to look at an image without seeing yourself reflected. And this is a way to bring back the history into today and to make these images so abstract that you will not thinking about the time when those images are made, but that you’re just thinking about now.
Ilvy: That is also, I think when you, that’s the experience I had when you see your own face, and you know what you’re looking at, all kinds of questions come to your mind about how you are living your life. Like, a mirror in a way.
Anton: Yeah. Did you experience in your life and how are you dealing with it? Is that okay? Is it not okay? And it’s, it’s like an entry point into reflection and that was very important to like, at the same. So, you have a, I have to go back to the installation. So, the installation is two parts, you have 1078 images. And you have an audio sound piece by Ruben Samama who is a dear friend of mine, and an amazing sound artist and composer. He actually worked with the data that I had collected, and turned it into a sound piece generative sound piece. And he made an app that actually, let me see if I can play it. I have to just stop sharing for two seconds to actually share again, and to make sure that I’m sharing the sound. Yes, and I am sharing the sound so it’s fine.
Ilvy: In a room, the way it is presented in Arle, you guys are now going to hear very, like little or small but to hear the sound while you’re standing in the installation is, it literally gives you goosebumps.
Yes, and what actually happens is I’ll play it and at the same time, I’ll talk you through it. So, at the top you see the seconds playing. So, Ruben’s sound piece literally retraces accurately the entire history of the concentration camps system. So, the concentration camp system lasted for 4,432 days, starting in 1933 and ending in 1945. And because we have the data because I researched the data we know when every camp, sometimes approximately sometimes exactly, we know when every camp opens, when every camp closes and we know how many victims approximately, again, this is very sad but sometimes it’s exact and sometimes it’s only approximate. We know when victims fell. So, what Ruben’s generative sound app does is it plots the timeline, from the opening of a camp to the closing of a camp and divides it by the number of victims that fell in that camp and every camp gets a different tone. So, you heard it right just now and every time the tone plays, like now, you see the coordinates appearing and you see the number of people that died at the same time. So, now 1,241 people were murdered at this moment in time, so we can retrace exactly when this happened, because he’s literally playing this whole timeline. And what he wants to achieve with this is that he wants to make every trauma individual. Again, so the problem that we have with the concentration camp system is, and the Holocaust, is that these big numbers of 6 million, 12 million, 4 million, they all get thrown around and it’s almost impossible to emotionally connect to that or to understand the full gravity of that because it’s just too much.
Ilvy: And I think as time passes by, it’s gonna be more difficult for generations to come. We have our grandparents still but..
Anton: Of course because there aren’t any survivors anymore and in this way, every individual trauma is given a voice, every person that suffered. So, every person that was a prisoner and survived, or every person that was a prisoner and died, they are both victims. So, every person gets a voice in this way. So, your visit to this installation suddenly becomes very personal because you’re there for five minutes and you hear six pings and from those six pings it’s very easy to imagine that’s your grandfather, your grandmother, your other grandparents and your nephew, for example. So, it suddenly becomes very personal and it gives you again a connection with, how do we speak of trauma? How do we remember trauma? How do we remember trauma? Can we speak of that my trauma is more important than your trauma? Or, what I went through was that worse than what you went through. We can’t compare that. We can only find the bridge to come together and to understand that we all are going through these things sometimes and should speak of them. And I’m looking..
Ilvy: Yeah, there are some questions, I was about to say.
Anton: So, I answered Gabrielle’s question and Ted’s question. And then yes, yes, the blue skies decision. It was unconscious in the beginning. That’s Nate’s, Nate Clark’s question. I kind of touched upon it. He, Nate says, “I think the blue skies decision is brilliant, and separates your photos from previous work.” And I feel the same way. So you’re right, it gives much more room, it lends much more room to interpretation, and to making. contemplation and introspection happen. And that’s actually what I tried to do with this work because there are no answers. It’s impossible to understand this. I made this work for seven years and still, I don’t understand why this happened. Or, it’s just impossible. But the openness of the skies allows me to, like have a path to connect with any way and I hope that I can, that that gave, that other people have that same thing.
Ilvy: Now, there are a few more..
Anton: Oh, yeah, the symphony? Yes, I have to look that one up, because I heard about it, but I haven’t listened to it. And yes, the statement or the question by E-lock. It’s indeed a different approach, because I actually did not want to show the horrors, because showing the horrors for me was too much leading as a photographer as to what you should feel as a viewer. And in this way, by showing something abstract, but at the same time telling you very specifically what it is about, it’s kind of as if I let go of your hands and you have to make up your thoughts and have your introspective moment like, oh, what do I think about this? Nobody’s telling me what to think. What do I think about this?
Ilvy: It gives you a lot more breathing room to grasp the story and to connect your own experience.
Anton: Yeah, and it brings it to today, so it doesn’t stop and that’s the same thing, what Ruben and I always say, it doesn’t stop with the previous generation, or with a generation of victims or with the generation after or two generations, which is our generation. Because what we actually want is, I want to try to open source this data so the next generation can use it as well in their way, whatever they want to do with it. But we can’t say how people should commemorate, we can only say that people should commemorate, but not how. And in a way, these blue skies are like an anti-memorial in the sense that this blue, these blue skies will never be the same, because they will always change and slowly fade and they are the opposite of a bronze statue, which never changes. And I find that a very interesting approach.
Ilvy: About the fading, Anton, we have a few minutes left. I want to ask you three more things. One of them is the fading. Your work is then going to disappear in a way but it’s not really disappearing, because it’s..
Anton: It’s not really disappearing. It’s fading, but it won’t disappear entirely, of course, but because, you know, if you want to keep a Polaroid safe, it’s perfectly possible. I mean, they’re still selling Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, and they’re still perfectly okay. What’s now? 50 years later? 60 years later? So it’s no 50. I’m sorry. But, so, the fading in this case is, for me intentional and should be done. So we are, Monica, my curator, Monica Allende, and Ruben and I are together, looking for a place where we can actually make that fading happen because that fading, even if it only happens very slowly, over the course of 4,000 days, brings an urgency to the work and an urgency to what’s happening because the collective memory is fading, just like these images are fading, and we need to do something. But we also know that we can’t stop it from fading and to actually keep these Polaroids completely safe, would be the opposite of what we would want to do with the work because we just want we actually want the visitor to feel the urgency of Oh, no, something is fading away and something is going to be destroyed and we can’t stop it what do we need to do? That that is a crucial part of the work and, of course, it will never be completely faded bthe fact that it is something unstoppable and it poses the question of what do you think? Or, what are you going to do? That’s, part of the deal.
Ilvy: And makes it timely as well, like you say, it gives you that urgency.
Anton: I just hope we find a place where we can where we can actually do this.
Ilvy: Yeah, for everyone who’s watching. If there is a place you can think of, well, you have some specific places in mind. I know that.
Anton: Oh yes, so many, of course, obviously. But I mean, you can imagine this on some roof of a museum being battered by the elements of the of the sun, of the rain and of course, time lapsing, this decay, and this disappearing, which is never a complete disappearing. That is, that would be so powerful. If we could finally do that.
Ilvy: The dream scenario. So, to kind of round this up, because we went over our time limit, we did I knew it was gonna happen, we did almost get it. So, can you tell us about the parts of the project that don’t fade? You made a book, there’s an educational problem. So, what is all the different things you want to do with this project?
Anton: that’s, that’s one of those, one of those things. That’s, that’s what I realized, you know, that there was so much more to it than just making the work itself. And especially since I met Monica again, you know, we met the first time, she was actually the very first person that noticed the Yakuza story. And she published it in the Sunday Times Magazine back in 2011. And we ran into each other again, just like you and I, Ilvy, and we ran into each other, I think in 2014, or 2000. Yeah. In Arles again, and Monica was there and asking me like, “Hey, what are you actually doing now?” And I basically unfolded a big sheet of 50 to be exact, 42, blue skies and I said, I’m photographing every concentration camp that ever existed and these are these are the first 42 of Auschwitz. And she was like, “what?” In the same way that I had this, like, I can’t believe that there’s so many and she became so closely involved with the work, working on the sonography for the installation, helping me to bring it to places where I would never have been able to do it by myself, asking help by curators like Martin Barnes, to help me vocalize what these blue skies are actually about. So, there is this whole thing behind the scenes that is so important to bring, to give a work a trajectory and that is something that is very important to realize that this is also something that you have to do as an artist. That you have to make sure that you not only make your work, but that you also build a trajectory for the work and I’ve been doing that with Monica ever since 2014. And she has made such a difference in this work. We’ve been creating so many different platforms. For example, we have the book here.
Ilvy: Will you how us one in real life? Is there one?
Anton: Oh, yeah. Of course. Here we go. I just have it here. I don’t know. I can’t see myself because I’m sharing my screen there.
Ilvy: You’re in it, the book is in it.
So it’s published by Kehrer. It’s just launched the book launched together with the exhibition in Arles. And it’s become so beautiful. Designed by Teun van der Heijden, longstanding collaborator as well. So you see all this, you’re not on, you’re not on an island by yourself, there are so many people that you need to, that you will want to work with to make your project go further than you ever imagined. So, there is this book with the U.S. HMM, there is on my screen there is an educational effort where they would make posters, where they made these posters to give to schools, give to teachers who teach about the Holocaust in schools, and they would be able to use these posters as a visualization aid. Or, I would go..
Anton, we have one minute left.
Anton: What will it get cut off? Oh, no. I’ll show the very last thing is the documentary film that Adrian Kelterborn is making. We had to stop filming because of COVID but we’re soon going to start filming again and I’ll just quickly play the clip.
Anton’s voice on cip: There are places that even though I was traveling at a relentless pace, because I would have to follow the blue sky that stayed in my mind, which I think should be resolved in some way.
Anton: Okay, that was, that was that.
Ilvy: Thank you, Anton. Oh, there’s still a question. Last one. Oh, no, it’s just the thank you from Ted. Thanks Ted for being here and for your questions. And, thank you Ilvy.
Ilvy: Thank you. This was amazing. Thanks for sharing all that you’ve shared with us and I’m really looking forward to your further projects because I know you can’t stop making.
Anton: Yeah. Yeah, we’ll talk about that soon.
Ilvy: Exactly. I would have loved to talk about it but we ran out of time but please, everyone. Keep watching Anton because he will have more projects coming up. And thanks, everyone for watching. Fingers crossed. Thanks, everyone for watching and please join us on the next episodes of VII Insider. Thanks, everyone.
Anton: Thanks everyone, bye bye!