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We speak with photographer Máté Bartha about his documentary body of work Kontakt, where he spent summer documenting the experiences and daily rituals of a military camp in Eastern Europe. The school is one where kids are encouraged to go, where they learn life skills, military training as they all leave childhood behind and venture into the unknowns of adulthood.
Hello Máté, thank you for taking the time to speak with Darwin. I wanted to speak to you about Kontakt, which is how I first came across your work. What first drew you to this subject matter?
Filmmaking got me into this topic. I was researching for my thesis film (directing documentary movies master’s) on military education in Hungary. After several initial ideas, subjects and schools i ended up visiting these guys (Honvédsuli, meaning “Home Defense School) in the summer. They’re an NGO, not part of the national education system or the military, so everyone in the community actually believes in the lifestyle they’re demonstrating. The question of involving military training in high schools was and is a hot topic in Hungary – but the fact that the kids from Honvédsuli are participating voluntarily made it more interesting for me. But as i met them in person it became obvious that i’m not going to shoot a film about it, but take photos instead. For me photography is about directly dealing with broad, universal subjects in an allegoric way, while film is much more about telling a particular story, a clear narrative through which these universal ideas may unfold, and at first i didn’t see the narrative, but the whole thing as a timeless phenomenon instead.
I got a really strong apocalypse now vibes from the images of the young person with their head partially submerged in water. In terms of composition of your images and the tones, what influences were key in visualising the scenarios?
Yes, i had the junior edition of Apocalypse Now in my had from the first day i got there. I started shooting on digital. I shot like… i don’t know many thousand images. But i also had my 645 Mamiya with me, and shot 2 rolls with it. Of course, the two rolls were better than the digital ones; and this meant that the style will be more static, more composed, timeless in a way, taking it away from an action-packed, reportage-like world even though the subject would suggest this. Also, i was dealing with adolescents. So after some time the theme of growing up became more important than the military stuff which became a backdrop, something obvious in this world. And these are very timeless notions, so yeah there are a lot of intended reference to images from the common human visual pool: (images below) the ecstasy of Mary, the execution of St Sebastian, the Iwo Jima Memorial, photos of WW2 Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. The idea was to point at the fact that at this point of their lives these kids are experiencing something really grand and universal – while these notions are very much present in every culture, it’s just that they don’t necessarily treat is as taboos.
In the project bio, you mention that the kids are having the time of their lives. Was this true for everyone?
With very few exceptions, yes. Most of the kids go there voluntarily. Either because they’re drawn by the strong community (keeping in mind that this is happening in rural Hungary, where in many cases there’s not even a pub in the village), or they’re airsoft / paintball / pc shooter game enthusiasts. There’s a small percentage who actually want to take on a military career. And like 1 out of 10 children are sent by parents who feel they’re unable to discipline them and spending a day in nature would do good for them. From this last group there are cases when kids are completely upset by not being able to use their phones most of the day, or by having to sleep in a tent, and wake up early. The physical exercise can be pretty stressful as well. But they’re all encouraged to look at each other as “comrades” helping each other and accepting if someone decides not to take part in anything (apart from the daily routine of waking up, eating etc everything is optional), and any form of bullying punished (by extra push-ups, washing up dishes etc) so even the ones that find it hard for the first time find themselves in a very supportive environment.
The idea of children learning how to use weapons can be viewed as controversial. What was your experience being around these kids as they learned to shoot?
It is very controversial, thus extremely interesting when the material is exhibited. The series could address people with very different world views and this resulted in hearing a lot of unexpected opinions. Of course, many think that they wouldn’t send their kids to a place where they’re playing war, and ask why guns are important if you want to teach about nature and survival. But another group of people see it as a great adventure based on a theme that’s already present in our lives in the shape of toys, movies, computer games, etc. In fact, the camp leaders’ experience is that most of these children are actually discouraged from thinking of a military career after completing the one-week summer camps. They get an insight on something of which they may have had a distorted view. Speaking of myself, of course, guns made the whole thing interesting in the first place, but later as i mentioned before all of this became a mere backdrop for the actual happening: they experiencing life with it’s joys and hardships. The camps’ programme involves like 30% stuff with guns and 70% survival (finding food, water in nature, building a shelter, hiking, etc). In making the selection, i actually had to involve a little more of the gun stuff because people thought that i’m hiding something when they saw the first editions representing a more realistic ratio. This really uncovered for me how biased people can be of such topics, even though we all know that war and violence does exist on earth and will probably not disappear even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.
The work toes the line of the young people being on the cusp of adulthood yet still children. We’re there any individuals in particular you saw grow and change during their time?
The story started with me looking for a thesis film topic then deciding to take pictures of these guys. But then I’ve met Vivien, one of them, a 17 year old girl who was – after living with a line of different foster parents – preparing to leave state care and start her life all over again. She became the protagonist of my thesis film, so i have followed her life for a year or so, and how her relationship with Honvédsuli affected her private decisions. The two projects – film and photography – really helped me to understand the subject in depth. Looking at the world through Vivien’s eyes made it obvious for me what kind of strength one can drive from being a part of such a community, and being able to be proud of yourselves and your homeland, in an environment where unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence is commonplace. The trailer for this film: https://barthamate.com/downstream-szel-viszi-1 It’s basically about whether one is able to overcome and change the fate she has inherited due to cultural and social circumstances.
Can you tell me more about the daily routine within the military camp?
Everyone wakes up in their tents at 5:50, then there’s morning exercise (running, push ups, etc), then breakfast in which everyone will take some role at one point (preparing, cleaning up, etc). Then they clean up the whole area of the camp. And then there are activities till lunch. There are a bunch of physical activities including a “motivational training” which is really aimed at pushing one’s limits. Anyone can stop at any time, but usually they carry on till the end. This is usually a pretty cathartic experience for the kids. Then they learn how to march, answer to orders, about the usage of guns, and military itself. There are many activities in the surrounding wilderness as well: hiking, collecting edible plants, digging a well, building shelter, learning how to make a fire, and some swimming. And of course a lot of games, with an actual “mission” as the cherry on top. In this they’re divided into 2 teams, and they move and fight each other for 24 hours with air-soft weapons (weapons that shoot small plastic balls) in the wild, using the knowledge they have obtained. There’s an hour to rest after lunch, and then activities again till evening. Dinner, then free time around the campfire. There’s one hour around the end of the day when they’re allowed to use their phones. And at night, they should guard the fire with pairs of people taking turns every 2 hours till the morning. This is again something that may sound awful but is an amazing experience for them: for one reason they’re given responsibility, and just staying for hours in total silence under the sky is a thing itself.
We’re there any activities that threw even yourself out of your comfort zone by witnessing?
Not really. Perhaps the so-called “motivational” training is something that may seem frightening. It’s very much like how soldiers are trained in films: the officers (other kids in this case) shouting at the cadets, splashing water on them while they have to run under the sun or pull themselves up on a rope, etc. So it’s pretty loud but after all it’s a violent piece of acting, and exactly this is what makes it appealing and exciting to them. The “main image” ( https://tinyurl.com/yck4pus9 ) is also from one of these: in this case they have to find their way down a slope by following the sound of a bell, but distracted by other occasional sounds. They’re holding hands to make it easier.
Looking at the work, apart from a few images of smart phones, there is a timeless quality where this work could have been shot from the 60s onwards, was that intentional?
Yes absolutely. There’s always a political context to it, and there always will be depending when and from where we’re looking at it. But i didn’t want it to be about that, about what “being a patriot” or “being nationalistic” means in contemporary Hungary or Europe. This is a different issue which is already firmly attached to these images, but the main story here is adolescence, and the place of notions like life, death, love and violence in it.
Did being amongst the military camp change your initial thoughts on the idea of kids learning these certain skills or the attitude and lifestyle that comes from being in a military environment?
For sure! One thing is that they’ve been so friendly to me from the first time. I made it very clear that i’m coming from a completely different (left, liberal) kind of environment then probably most of them do, but i’m very open to anything and happy to take part in their routine (at least to camp and wake with them). They treated me like a guest but also a mirror: they were very interested in my opinion on them all the time, and the pictures as well. I consulted with them very frequently and talked a lot about the material probably ending up being dividing after publishing. I wouldn’t feel necessary to send my child (if i had any) to a camp like this to make him/her familiar with guns, but i wouldn’t forbid if he/she wanted to either! And i really envied them when they sang old folk songs around the fire: i have never dealt much with this kind of cultural heritage as i have always much rather felt as a citizen of the world. There i had a feeling that i’m missing something. But then again it’s still about war and death, even though i do think that to some extent we should all talk and think clearly about such topics. Back to the “main image” (image of students with sacks over their heads )– They’re holding hands but are completely blind in where they’re heading. This really sums it up for me if i look at the subject in a very global context.
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