The photo that will mark my career is still yet to be taken

An Interview with the Photographer Matjaž Tančič

Mustachioed Matjaž Tančič is a young Slovenian photographer who, though only 34 years old, is already consider among the world’s best. Based in Beijing, he shoots fashion, portraiture and more, but is best known for his 3D photography, which he began to experiment with while studying in London, and which recently brought him to exotic North Korea. We caught up with him traveling in Greece, taking photos for a project entitled “Heroes” (which you can support via the Kickstarter-like ArtsUp crowd-funding initiative), which will portray courageous individuals involved in the refugee crisis.

Matjaž Tančič photography
Noah Charney: Are there some Yugoslav photographers or individual photographs that should not be missed, but which we might have overlooked?

Matjaž Tančič: Well, I guess it all depends how much you follow the world of photography. If you are aware of it, it’s probably impossible to overlook the best ones. I would mention a couple of Slovenians. Ciril Jazbec, he’s not overlooked, he’s definitely there on the spot. Matic Zorman has finally gotten a bit more of the spotlight, winning the World Press Photography Award. And I’d mention Jošt Franko, simply because he’s amazing but overlooked because he’s not mainstream enough, with his black and white artistic approach to photojournalism.

Matjaž Tančič photography
What first prompted you to move from Slovenia to China?

It was a complete coincidence. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would end up in China, I would’ve laughed in his face and whack him with my camera (which probably wouldn’t be a good idea). I studied at the London College of Fashion, for fashion photography, and my project was in 3D. I was invited to China to do the biggest 3D photography exhibition ever in China. So they were looking for the best 3D photographers, and my name popped up because of many exhibitions I’d had. I went with my team from Slovenia to shoot. It was spring. I guess hormones helped me fall in love with the country. One drunk night, walking home from a party, I just decided that I’m going to move to China. Completely random. I packed my suitcases in London and moved to Beijing. Without knowing more than two people, with nothing concrete lined up yet.

Matjaž Tančič photography
What was the best single lesson or piece of advice you ever learned that made you a better photographer?

I guess the biggest lesson would be that you should be shooting what you feel most passionate about. There are so many types of photography you could just do for good money. Wedding, cars, architecture. But if you’re in it for the money, not the love, you’ll either regret it or you won’t get far. Only passion and love will help you wake in the morning and lead you to days, months, years of hard work and only this way will you come far without hating yourself.

Matjaž Tančič photography
You’re in a photography exhibition and you see a photo that stops you in your tracks, which you really admire. What are the probable characteristics of a photograph that you, personally, are going to love? Composition? Content? Tone? Narrative?

It’s going to be a portrait, but probably not a classical one. Something has to strike me. Unusual composition or playing with technique or the light. Some unusual moment, an interesting face. Composition of many different things, but usually one striking portrait won’t stop you as much as a series of amazing portraits. You can always get one amazing portrait, by coincidence or luck. But a series, to show some narrative, with a series of good ones. That’s what makes you a good photographer, not just a lucky snapper or hobby photographer. You ask whether it’s composition, content, tone or narrative. It’s got to be all. If you have a beautiful puzzle, but one of the pieces is missing, it’s not going to be as impressive.

How did the “Heroes” project come about?

I was approached by ArtsUp organization, a Stanford startup that tries to focus attention on the refugee crisis through art. Raise awareness and raise funds to help this horrible situation. So they saw some of my previous portrait projects, where I tried to shine the light on marginalized groups of people, and they thought I would be able to also shine light on the refugee crisis in Greece. So they offered me a free week’s artist residency in Samos, where I’m going in eight days. I’ll be working on a portrait project. Since more than a million people arrived last year in Europe, and 800,000 of them came through Greece, and I’m going to base my work on Greek storytelling, through visual arts and literature. That’s why I entitled it “Heroes.” A person who braves against unfavorable situations. In many Greek myths there are heroes who brave the seas in search of a better tomorrow for them and their families. There’s no better way for us to describe the refugees themselves. They brave the journey, the sea, “mean people.” That’s why I’m trying to connect, aesthetically and conceptually, with Greek mythology.

How did you first get into 3D photography?

Another lucky coincidence. I was working with Mladina magazine. I met Peter Gedei, working at the Monitor which had its office next door. He showed me some of his 3D cave photographs. It blew me away. It was, like, why aren’t more people doing this? I immediately wanted to try. Peter selflessly taught me the technique, and we also did projects together. From then on it was just an avalanche of coincidences, projects and hard work.

What was the process for shooting in North Korea? Laibach had paved the way with their concert…

I was in North Korea way before Laibach. More than a year ago I met up with them in Hong Kong, and I was explaining to them about my project in North Korea. They couldn’t believe that I was able to do something like that. It was crazy when I heard that, just a few months later, they got the opportunity to go to North Korea, too. The biggest problem was getting to the country. It took 8 months of connections and the right contacts to even get in. I got in with the help of Nick Boner, owner of Koryo Tours, Koryo Studio is their sub-branch that is doing art projects with North Korea. They did a project at the Venice Biennale, where they shared a pavilion with South Korea. They did so documentaries, some feature films. They invited me and, together, we did this project. For North Korea, what was in their interest was for me to shoot some amazing sites in 3D. They were aiming for propaganda. But I was aiming for as many normal sites as possible, average looking people. There were a couple of clashes, but I had an amazing team of Mrs. Kim and Mr. Can, and my helper from Beijing, Vicki. We made more than 110 portraits from all over the country, over a visit of ten days.

Was there anyone looking over your shoulder, so to speak, in North Korea, watching what you shot?

I had six cameras with me, and none of them were checked at any point. I told them what I want to do and how I want to do it. They told me what I can’t do. Everything was a collaboration. I respected their rules, they respected my wishes, and so we managed to bridge the so-called “problems.” Mutual respect. Trust was built. I didn’t do anything they asked me not to, and they never checked my cameras.

Is there a difference in approaches to photography and aesthetics in China, as opposed to Europe, or is a great photograph a great photograph anywhere in the world?

Let’s say that photography came to China, to the broader masses, only in the 80s and 90s. So their tradition of journalism, fashion, documentary, portraiture is way, way younger than the rest of the world. So they didn’t have books or exhibitions of Penn, Avedon, Newton, the other legends who we might follow. So they’re a bit behind when it comes to this, but they’re catching up at an incredible speed, in photography as in any other matter. The average photographs there are maybe a bit more polished, a bit more cheesy than the rest of the world. But now you have thousands, if not millions, of good photographers. And in world competitions there are always more Chinese photographers.

Is there one famous photograph you wish you’d taken? What about it do you love?

Ah, it’s so hard to say. I love Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Robert Frank. Too many too choose.

Walk us through one of your shoots. How do you prepare ahead of time, what do you do just before you start shooting, what might we see if we were a fly on the wall?

I would maybe mention more the big projects, the portraiture. One would be “The Timekeepers” and “3DPRK” in North Korea, and the current “Heroes.” Each time you research the topic as much as possible. What has been done in the past, so you don’t repeat, you bring something new to the viewers. Then you get to the concept. What do you want to show and how? Of course you want a strong visual language, so you do some research and tests to get the proper equipment to shoot. For each project, I had in mind how to light it, what kind of lenses I use, and I bought some extra equipment for each project, did some tests on friends, and then you take it from there. When it comes to the shoot itself, it’s just hard work from morning until evening. Try to get interesting people to shoot. How to get to them? Be curious. Keep looking. Go around to villages, talk to people, ask who else you might meet. Push to get the most in the time that you’re there.

If it’s not a secret, can you tell us a bit about your postproduction/editing process? What software do you use, how much digital editing you apply?

Starting in analog photography, originally a photojournalist, and too lazy to learn a lot about postproduction, I tried to keep it as clean, as original as possible. In photojournalism there is not much changing, maybe some cropping and contrast, highlights and shadows, but that’s about it. I use the most conventional software. Adobe Bridge, Lightroom, Photoshop. Crucial is shooting RAW files, then you do RAW conversion—a powerful tool, where you can save lots of highlights and shadows. Apply a bit of contrast, and that’s it. Nothing to hide, basically.

If the world will remember your artistic output through just one of your photographs, which would you pick and why?

I already forgot which photographer it was. He said “The best photo that I have taken is the photo I’ll take tomorrow.” Every successful project proves to yourself that you can do it, but also that you can always do better, work harder. The photo that will mark my career is still yet to be taken.