Established photojournalist and native Slovak Andrej Bán seeks to capture the essence of his homeland in The Other Slovakia, a poetic and beautifully reproduced series of photographs. Of his approach, he explains: “What interests me most is authentic life, the rituals and customs of ordinary people who seem to be living ‘against the flow of time’.”
A relatively young country in an area of Europe synonymous with instability, Slovakia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Czechoslovakia. It was overrun by the Nazis during the Second World War and Russia during the 1960s. Emerging from Soviet rule in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 it then separated from the Czech Republic in 1993. Less-known than its neighbour it has the appearance of a country on the margins of Europe. A recent addition to the EU, but still essentially poor and rural, the way of life reflected in Bán’s pictures is comparable to that in the Irish Republic, pre-Celtic Tiger.
There is more than a nod towards Josef Koudelka in these punchy black and white photographs, however, Bán’s dynamic compositions have an integrity all of their own. His best images play with ways of seeing through off-kilter framing, multiple viewpoints and graphic quirks as well as visual humour and a fondness for the surreal. A man watches TV: the rumples in his shirt and trousers reflected in the undulating interference on the TV screen. At a circus a boy looks intently upwards out of the photo frame at a merry-go-round. Behind him a window or mirror reflects an image of the multiple windows of a Soviet housing block that must be behind the photographer: a simple yet interesting visual puzzle that engages our imagination.
Bán celebrates the many faces of his countrymen, seeking them out at gatherings of one kind or another: anniversaries, celebrations, ceremonies, festivals, the circus or a camp for young conservationists. He delights in a group of craggy former partisans at a gathering to commemorate their resistance against fascism during the War. Witnesses to so much change, these old men, upstanding in their suits and trilbys, wear expressions alert yet world weary. In contrast, in the only formal portrait in the book, Slovak returnees, the Krnac family, wear the hopeful smiles of a family embracing their future.
Religion and the rural pervade Bán’s publication, reflecting a people still swathed in the past. A repetition of images of pilgrimage serves as a metaphor of sorts for Slovakia’s journey towards recognition and modernity. These photographs are more atmospheric than descriptive but through their accumulation, provide an empathetic record of this slow transformation.