“I am particularly interested in unique cultures, peoples and societal structures. In my research, I discovered that apparently there are a few remaining societies on the planet where matriarchal structures still prevail. Very intrigued by this, I decided to visit and document the people who live this uncommon form of society. Over the past three years I have traveled to China, India, Indonesia and West Africa and have created several photo documentaries of matriarchal societies. My series on cultures in which women play a major role are a work in progress.”
photo project Mentawai / Siberut
photo project Minangkabau / West Sumatra
photo project Khasi, Garo,
Jaintia / India
photo project Bijagos / Guinea Bissau
photo project Burrneshas / Albania
photo project Mosuo / China
Studio Maria Haas / industrial & product photography
stay in New York City / workshops at the International Center of Photography
foundation of Studio Maria Haas
free-lance photographer / reportages for newspapers & magazines
Höhere Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt / College of Photography
lives and works in Vienna, Austria
The Kodak Instamatic ignited your initial interest in photography. Was it clear to you early on that you wanted to become a photographer?
I received the camera when I was in primary school and used it to document my environment: girlfriends, my family, and especially the animals on my grandmother’s farm. It was great fun to take pictures of things and see what came of them weeks later. I didn’t know at that time that it could become my profession. When I was about 15, I asked for a photography loupe, set up a darkroom at home and borrowed my father’s Leica. It felt like I was in the darkroom more than anywhere else for the next few years, experimenting with black-and-white compositions.
Although I got a lot of support from my parents, in my family, photography was not really seen as a profession. I was supposed to do something “clever”, so I went to university. After a short time it became clear to me that I really wanted to learn to be a photographer. So I graduated from one of the first programs at the College of Photography at the Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt in Vienna. There I gained very intensive and application-oriented training that brilliantly covered all analog techniques.
Did you start working right away?
I soon started working for magazines like Basta and Rennbahn Express. In particular, a contract piece that I did in which I followed and portrayed a clochard [a beggar] in Perigueux, France for some time opened many doors for me to a series of further reports.
You were often involved in product and industrial photography in your freelance work. Your independent projects usually focus on personalities; do you convey a visual world that searches for something unique in people?
Yes, the world of the living is what fascinates me most. My series on the world’s last matriarchies clearly stems from this interest: the distinctiveness of their cultures and the people who maintain and perpetuate them. I am also fascinated by ways of life that are foreign to ours and thus open up a whole new world to us and expand my own perspective. You don’t always get that close to people, but sometimes you meet very candid people, where communication goes far beyond small talk and the usual greeting rituals, and real stories get told.
Your self-portraits were taken far from home, in New York, a city that was foreign to you at the time. Is the exotic your greatest inspiration?
Yes, I always experience travelling as an inspiration. Being away from home and from well-worn patterns opens my eyes to new things. I think cities are great, but I am more inspired by nature, landscapes and environments that are foreign to me. I experience myself differently in a foreign country: my spirit of adventure, vitality and freedom are awakened and an unbridled curiosity about people and their way of life comes alive.
I always prepare as well as I can for my trips: I do research, I read and I try to organize things in advance. In very remote areas this is not always possible. Sometimes you just have to fly there and bring a lot of time, patience and flexibility with you to explore the situation. There are surprises, but you mustn’t let them throw you off. That just goes along with engaging with a culture, the circumstances and the possibilities.
Do these voyages of discovery always go the way you think they will?
Things usually unfold totally differently than originally planned, but always in a positive way. There is a flow that emerges when we get to know guides who bring us a step further. Everyone knows something, sends someone off to ask questions or follows one after the other. On our trips we have always come across an incredible amount of kind and helpful people.
In in the last few years you have dealt primarily with various ethnic groups with unique and rare social structures, some of which are facing radical upheavals or are even facing extinction. How do you perceive this situation, and how do the people affected see it themselves?
The Mentawai in Indonesia are really under critical threat. The traditions of the other cultures are weakening; it’ s happening slowly. There are wistful voices about things changing, but a real disappearance of cultural heritage is rarely discussed. Many of the people, be it the Mosuo in China, the Bijagos in Guinea-Bissau or the Khasi in Meghalaya have not strayed far from their villages and know other forms of society and life only from the media.
Through the use of various media, however, the culture undergoes a change, as the young people want to make their lives more modern and different.
I, personally, also try to show people that their cultures are something unique and valuable and that that is why I want to document them.
When I succeed in capturing these distinctive features and in bringing the people in their individual personalities to light, then it feels really good to both parties.
From the self-portraits to the series of matrilineal and matrilocal societies, the man-women in Albania to your mother and grandmother represented by shoes, are women an integral part of your oeuvre?
“Women’s Issues”: if there is such a thing, I’ve always been interested. Especially the women themselves: how and under what circumstances they live and what they strive for. Actually, I had a series about young girls and teenagers in mind, but through research I came across the topic of matriarchal societies some time ago and looked at it in detail. I was very surprised to find that such cultures exist all over the world, that so little is known about them, and that the subject is not discussed much in the media.
That went quite well with my penchant for travelling, so I have been to China, India, Indonesia and West Africa over the last few years. And I’m always keeping an eye out for where to go next. I don’t have to live up to any scientific standards, rather I can let myself be guided by my personal interest. Thus, my series on cultures in which women play a major role continues to be a work in progress.
The word “cautiousness” often ran through my head while looking at your work. What key words would you use to describe your approach?
I’m a passionate observer who approaches with caution. Many things also happen intuitively, like if I like a person or a house for example and I say spontaneously that I‘d like to stop and inquire. And you can see it instantly in people’s reactions: are they curious, too? Do they come up to me, do they want to get to know me and find out what I’m doing here? These are simple signs that you have to interpret.
Of course, time plays a particular role, especially in areas where clocks tick differently. In addition to curiosity, patience is vital, and a lot of things happen by themselves. You get into a conversation, get invited into homes, learn about a family’s history. Meeting at eye level, asking respectfully whether you can record audio: these are the door openers and the essential steps to getting a conversation going. Only much later do I unpack my camera, after gaining permission. Most people are proud to be photographed, even if at times they are somewhat awkward. It‘s a completely new situation for them.
It‘s especially touching when I‘m given permission and able to capture their beauty and aura and recount a part of their lives with pictures. I always ask the women to look directly into the camera. It is this openness that conveys feeling to the viewer. Not a single one has expressed concerns about what would happen to the pictures; somehow an unwritten pact is made when photographing.
How do you settle on a theme and how do you approach your work?
There are tons of beautiful photos that are perfectly produced: in exhibitions, in galleries, on Instagram. But only beautiful has lost its appeal to me. I don’t think much at all about the viewer. As a photographer, content comes first. I want to engage with things that interest me; work out stories that make me think and think; discover things that open up a new perspective and a new world to me.
Has your approach to work changed since photos have become omnipresent in social media?
Perhaps this has also unconsciously intensified my shift towards more complex content and the series that have fascinated me for some time. Maybe it’s also age that prompts me to ask what’s behind that, though at the same time it’s trips to distant countries and cultures that ignite my spontaneity and allow me to work much more freely. But yes, we are surrounded by a strong and rapidly changing pictorial world and it is essential to stand out. I don’t even think about these things when I‘m trudging through the jungle for hours and hours and sleeping under the canopy of the rainforest, though. Only the moment with its rich impressions counts.