Photographers In Focus #002: Dom Culverwell
Dom Culverwell is an independent photojournalist and illustrator who specialises in Eastern Europe. His illustrations are coarsely drawn and the story they tell is tragic, the deepest tragedy being that this modern conflict is so unknown to most of us, despite it being so close to home. In November of 2013, protests broke out across Ukraine. What began as a fairly positive protest in support of the EU, turned into violent clashes with the government, resulting in an instability exploited by Putin to start a violent war on the Eastern border of Donbas - and the war wages on. Dom’s work is a first hand report on the current climate of the country. He spent 3 weeks in Georgia and 3 weeks in Ukraine, and his time there opens our eyes to a world unknown.
Through the medium of photography Dom has achieved exactly what FIF set out to do. He has brought the face of a nation into sharp focus and into our eye line.
In anticipation for Dom’s collaboration with Faces in Focus, we interviewed the man at the heart of February’s exhibition. Dom’s comics are available in store in both London (Gosh! Comics, Hausmans Bookshop, Ti Pi Tin, Forbidden Planet) Oxford (Inky Fingers) and Bournemouth (FrogBros).
Can you tell us a little bit about your recent project Untold? How did it come about?
The project is really just about telling direct, intimate stories about conflicts from individuals themselves, rather than dealing with them as a blanket issue. I had gone out to Georgia to stay with a friend and explore her country, which she had been telling me so much about. Originally I intended to do a project on Assyrian and Yazidi refugees, who had fled from ISIS, but the one contact I had turned out to be a dead end. Instead I spoke to local people about the 2008 war with Russia and the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992. As we drove around the capital, Tbilisi, the impact that the wars still had was clearly prominent. On the drive up the mountain to my friends house, we passed poor tower blocks of refugee housing, and on the cities outskirts, refugee ‘villages’ had been built for those fleeing Abkhazia and were still in full use. So, my friend arranged for me to meet her beautician who was forced to leave Abkhazia [an autonomous region in north-west Georgia pronounced Ab-Car-Zia] when she was 18. That was the first interview I conducted and when I returned to the UK I decided to illustrate her story into a comic. I met several other people at a bar a few nights after the first interview, and it turned out they worked for an NGO with displaced Abkhazians. I mentioned my project and kept in touch with them when I returned home. They introduced me to a girl interning at the NGO, who I ended up interviewing through Skype and Facebook. She actually grew up in Abkhazia post-war, and told me about the on-going tensions between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians, as well as being a politically active teenager in the region.
What is the general feeling in Ukraine at this moment? Do you still have contacts there?
It depends where you go, but everyone has this feeling of having been fucked; either by the West or by Russia. Whose doing the fucking is subject to your region and beliefs. In Kiev, a predominantly pro-European/ pro-Ukranian area, there is a large youth activist scene and they are all hopeful of the future, despite the realisation that there’s so much standing in their way. I think this must be down to the fact that they are proactive and engaged in the political climate, trying to end the trend of corruption and open up to Western Europe. They were all involved in the revolution too, and that’s also given them hope. It showed that through coming together, solidarity and a real forceful willingness, it is possible to make changes. Admittedly the outcome wasn’t as desired, but most activists in Kiev will tell you that the revolution is an on-going process that will take years to achieve.
Those without hope are generally disengaged with politics and suffering from the economic depression and war, which is totally understandable. Some people I met preferred the state of the country before the revolution and some even pined after the Soviet Union. They consider the revolution to be the catalyst for the economic collapse and outbreak of war, and considering the fact that the current president hasn’t fulfilled any of his promises and is still corrupt, they have lost hope. Or others just don’t care, and simply want to get on with their lives, seeing both the pro-Europeans/ Ukrainians and pro-Russians as bad as each other, and any movements a futile attempt at change. I’ve still got contacts out there that are on both sides of the spectrum! The elections are next year so we will see what happens then.
What’s GoGlobal and how did you find out about the work they are doing?
It's a youth orientates educational project, where volunteers from all over the world come to Ukraine and teach in either a French, English, or German language camp. To quote their website: "The main goal is to educate a new young generation of active and conscious citizens of Ukraine, capable of life long learning, and prepared from the challenges of the 21st century, fluent in foreign languages and open to other cultures and experiences." It's geared towards opening dialogue between Western Europe and Ukraine. In Kiev I was staying with a guy who was very involved in the activist scene, so I ended up interviewing his friend who introduced me to her friend, who just so happened to be a leading figure in the programme. I was lucky in meeting the right people, which was partly down to social media, and picking the right guy to stay with.
When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?
I thought I always wanted to be one, but I recently found a project from primary school which stated that I wanted to be a soldier in year 2. So I’ll say 11 or 12.
What type of camera do you use?
Canon 5d Mk 1
Do you think social media platforms have changed the way we think about the photographic medium? Do you think it has changed for the better or worse?
I’m not really sure if I’m qualified to say much on the subject, so I’ll speak from an audience’s point of view rather than a real photographer’s. I think it’s a bit of both. It’s easy to criticise and say that it undermines the art form, and has made the medium more superficial. There’s some truth in that. I imagine that there’s definitely a lot more crap out there than there was before, but that just means to stand out, you have to be very good. Some professional photographers probably get annoyed at the fact that anyone can broadcast their work now and deem themselves professional, but positively that means people who previously wouldn’t of had the chance to display their work to the public, now can and receive recognition for it. I’m sure it must have diversified the medium and marketplace. In terms of conflict and journalism, this means you can follow in real time the lives of individuals involved, without the overbearing direction of the media, or an outsider’s ignorance. There are quite a few people you can follow on Instagram who are documenting the war in Donbas. That kind of real time, photographic journalism has never been done before.
Who inspires you (photographic or otherwise)?
A lot of people who I would like to name, but just sticking with photography I would say Serbian photographer Boogie. Illustration wise: Joe Sacco and Basquiat.
Name three things you couldn’t live without.
Pen, paper, a well equipped bathroom.
Were you a fan of comics growing up? Do you think any stories or artwork in particular subconsciously inspired you to take this particular path?
Actually, apart from the Beano, I didn’t really read that many. Occasionally a relative would send over a few Marvel comics from the States, but that was about it. Watching a documentary on the Seige of Sarajevo, a few months after travelling there in 2015, is what really inspired me. Then, another few months later, I read a comic published by the Guardian about the true stories of three Syrian refugees, created by Benjamin Dix who runs the organisation PositiveNegatives comics and illustrator Lindsay Pollock. That was when I realised how I could incorporate my illustration skills into this path.
What do you think is so special about the way a comics speaks to its reader?
It’s a very engaging medium. Especially when telling non-fictional stories of conflict, it immerses the reader far more than a newspaper or news story ever could. The intimacy of following a real life character as they tell you, directly, about their experiences is really appealing. Comics are quite self-aware too and often break the fourth wall to directly communicate with the reader, so in a sense it’s sort of like reading a documentary. People in documentaries now that they are in a documentary, and in this way often people depicted in comics, often know they are going to be depicted in a comic. Like a documentary, you get even information through it’s visual language. PositiveNegatives, for example, really do extensive research into their comics, so when you see a town or village that has been illustrated, you know it is as accurate a depiction as a photograph. There’s still the same visual impact as a photograph, but without the limitations, instead they have the same freedom as the written word.
Your cause is clearly conflict. How do you think we can fight for what we believe in through the medium of photography?
This is something I think a lot of artists are conscience about. Especially now that I’ve just started to break into this world, I’m beginning to have a lot of doubts about the real impact my work is having. It does seem a bit futile trying to make a change just through comics and photography. So whilst at it’s most basic level, photography can raise awareness of issues, and engage with people globally, it needs to be connected with something further. For the moment, I believe that you need to be in contact with activists and grass roots movements on the ground who have far more understanding of the conflicts happening in their own country than we ever will. Unfortunately movements can’t make a real impact without money, but that’s where photography can help too. By donating profits from sold photographs or encouraging people to donate separately through the raised awareness, movements and organisations can actually do something positive.
Do you like having your photograph taken?
Only by two people.
What was your childhood dream?
To leave school.
What’s the best piece of artistic advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t go to art school. It just made me want to become an artist even more.
What’s the next country you hope to travel to?
There’s too many to choose! I’d like to go to Moldova next and visit Transnistrea, another de-facto state unrecognised by the majority of the world. I’m very curious about it.
Name one image / painting / illustration / photograph that has changed the way you look at the world.
This is also really hard! One that stands out in recent memory is by Boogie, which is of two gangsters in Kingston wearing Halloween masks and posing with an AK47 and M-16. It made me realise that not only do you have to have some serious balls to be a photographer, but that literally all types of people love having their photos taken, as long as it looks cool and makes them look good.