Jana Štěpánová: I Knew That I Wasn’t an Artist, Because I Haven’t Got Any Talent

(Born in 1969 in Prague)

Jana Štěpánová is a photographer, owner of the graphic design studio RedGreenBlue, and the co-founder of the Czech Union of Graphic Design. She is especially concerned with design for non-profit organizations, and the issues of minorities and non-normative relationships in society.

Q: Do you recall what brought you to photography?
A: I started taking photos because I was given a camera. That was sometime around 1995. Before that I had studied at an arts high school that was focused on fine art and graphic design. It was really a great school. We had courses like sculpture, drawing, figure drawing, and we did fine printmaking, too – etching, dry point, lithography, and silkscreen. However, everything was centered on “promotional art”, as it was called at the time. We gained a practical knowledge of things like typography, bookbinding, and poster design, and in addition to that we studied the disciplines of fine art as well. Photography was also part of the curriculum, but we all hated it. To us, photography just wasn’t art, and we all considered ourselves artists. None of us liked it, especially not me; we all wanted to be artists and to study at AVU (Academy of Fine Arts), or if not that, then at the very least at AAAD (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague). When my lack of talent prevented me from getting into AVU, AAAD, or for that matter, into any other school, I resigned myself to working in the “rat race”. It was when I was just beginning my working life that I got the camera, probably as a consolation, and so I started taking pictures. A few years later, when I left the Czech Republic for Switzerland, I began to dedicate myself to photography more. I had spent all of the nineties in graphic design studios or in advertising agencies as an art director, and I had really had enough of it. I had to get out. I didn’t care that the money had been good; it just didn’t make any sense to me.
Q: How do you see photography now?
A: I see photography as a medium that helps me to express my thoughts. I can’t say anything bad about it. I studied it. In the beginning I combined it with other techniques, like silkscreen, or I tried to turn photos into etchings, but eventually I realized that a photo purely by itself was what suited me. For one thing, it allows me to represent reality in some way, and for another, it is a subjective tool for expressive shorthand. I can put my own interpretation into one picture, the story as I see it. Thinking that you can take a picture of reality and show things “as they really are” is an illusion. Photography is a slice of time that you choose, but one that is only loosely based on reality.
Q: Your photography usually reflects societal problems of some kind. Did you have that tendency from the beginning, or did you gradually grow into it?
A: I’ll go back to what I was shooting at the very beginning, as the story starts there. I stayed in Switzerland for a few years, and that was where I started taking photos. I worked illegally in a restaurant, which was part of a cultural center that was filled with squatters and anarchists. I had never been in touch with that subculture in the Czech Republic, but over there I really began to be fascinated by it. It wasn’t that the people were taking drugs or selling them to each other that compelled me, it was rather the approach they took to life. The people were very young – around twenty, most of them were very left-leaning, and the environment there was multicultural and multiethnic. I came there with my experiences of communism, or rather my experiences of real socialism. Seeing those communes in real life was really “déjà vu” for me – there were endless meetings at which nothing was resolved, there was mutual loaning of money and exchange of work between different groups in the “collective”, and there were small financial rewards. The important thing was that you were working for the collective. I really rolled my eyes at that, even though their conception of communism was completely different from the one I was familiar with. They also accepted a lot of people into the group who had come into the country illegally. There were Turkish Kurds, and a lot of refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia. There were a lot of interesting people among them whose lives had been in danger in their own countries, whereas mine had not. I left because I had had the opportunity to do so. Being in that community put all my experiences into perspective, it gave me a deeper insight into society, as well as a more critical view of the country in which I was living, and of the place I was from. That was by no means the only stimulus, though. I had moved to Switzerland with pretty radical opinions, as a person who had found out in the beginning of the nineties that feminism existed, and who was tremendously excited by that. I read what I could about the subject, and I went through it too. That was a lot of fun for me, though maybe not for the people around me. I was hanging out with these separatist lesbians, and was really interested in that, because at that time I still didn’t know what was it about. Those ladies even went so far as to forbid men from crossing their threshold, because they didn’t want their apartment to be tarnished
by male energy. I remember saying to myself: “That’s one hell of a stance to take!” So in the nineties I tried radicalizing my opinions and attitudes, like every adolescent does, trying to find the limits. Some of those ideas have survived in me even to this day, but there were things I more or less let go, too. There are a lot of things that don’t seem as scandalous to me as they did then.
I was influenced both by many different strains of feminism, which led me to being more self-confident, and of course by the political relativism of so-called “East” and “West”. Both of those things helped refine opinions of what was happening in society, as well as to make people more socially critical.
I lived, worked, and photographed at the squat in Switzerland, and I also had my first small exhibition there. I think that was in 1999, just before I left for the Czech Republic. I had been accepted to university here, so I went. Like I said, from the time I had initially applied to schools I knew that I wasn’t an artist, because I had no talent. So that’s why I chose photography.
Q: Your have been connected to a string of non-profit organizations…
A: Working for non-profits makes a lot of sense to me. That’s partly because around 2000, the majority of non-profits have been founded by people I know. And I was the one who worked in advertising, wasn’t I? I wanted to help them, and of course, having worked in ad agencies, I knew the importance of marketing. Although I had yet to study marketing, it was clear to me that when a good idea isn’t presented in a good way, it has less of a chance of capturing someone’s attention, of making an impact. I saw that I could help because I knew how to design, so I could support the idea and help it get out into the world.
Q: You said you were the one working in advertising, but in the nineties you were involved in the inception of a number of non-profits, weren’t you?
A: Yes, I didn’t really go into that. I guess it was January 1990 that I realized I was a lesbian, and that that was a good thing. I started hanging out with other lesbians who were able to accept themselves. Some of us founded quite an influential civic association called Promluv (Speak Out), and among other things we started publishing a magazine. Working on that, I was able to experiment with all types of graphic approaches, and at the same time I really enjoyed being able to do something good for a group of people who needed it. It was about a year after the founding of the NGO that I went to Freiburg in Germany to attend a big lesbian gathering, a festival of two thousand women, which totally inundated the streets of that small university town., There were workshops, lectures, and concerts, amusement combined with intellectual themes; and I was really excited. The situation in the Czech Republic was totally different. Lesbians were ashamed to show in public, to stick their heads up, so they would only go get drunk at the bar, or would meet in small groups at someone’s house. Nothing else. So when I returned from Freiburg, I told my friend who I had founded Promluv with that we had to do the same thing here that had been done there, and she said O.K. We put together the first tiny festival and things took off from there. Apriles then happened every year from then on until 1997, when my friend and I let it go because we were both completely exhausted. Though we had worked all those years with great ease,
we were also doing it for free. Money was given to all types of causes back then, but not to lesbians.
We really were seen as a little “disgusting” by the majority of society. We went through a lot of rejection. It’s interesting to look at the situa-tion nowadays, because, for example, a festival of a similar character began last year, and the city immediately gave it money. We could only dream of that. We sent a lot of grant applications abroad, and we would occasionally get something, but it was always a negligible amount.
Q: You also exhibited your work as part of Apriles.
A: I didn’t exhibit anything until 1997, I only organized. After returning from Switzerland, I did still take part in organizing the festival, but only little bit. By then it was already being put together by someone else, so I could allow myself to show some work. In 2003 I presented my socially critical work on the topic of the nude, in huge formats. I called it Dressing Screens. I took the pictures in the same way nudes had been photographed in the seventies – in black and white, and really grainy. Our teacher told us that work had to have that velvet “touch”, that the nipples should be erect. So I worked with that theme; I shot the ideal female form, a mannequin, broken up into pieces. That was when I started realizing that my approach wasn’t only critical of society, but was also quite sarcastic...
That work was exhibited in the smart wood-paneled entrance hall of the Goethe Institute. There was large translucent sheeting hung from the ceiling, and on that there were these random tender and dreamy pieces. People would pass the pieces and exclaim, “Oh, the beauty! A classic, tender, female nude. And that light!” They asked me how I had done it, and I said that I had taken apart a number of mannequins, thrown the pieces into a pile, and lit it with lamps. I quite enjoyed myself. I think I realized then that I enjoyed making fictitious projects; something that looks realistic, something one doesn’t doubt, but it is nevertheless a little strange. Something that just isn’t what it seems to be.
Q: Like your Rent a Baby project, for example?
A: I think that was really successful, or I guess it still is. Rent a Baby is an Internet store offering dispossessed children, of whom there are very many in the Czech Republic, and of whom the numbers in orphanages and children’s homes is simply not decreasing. I had gotten an offer from the curators Zuzana Štefková and Lenka Kukurová to take part in an exhibition called Family Happiness, which was meant to draw attention to the sad fact that in the Czech Republic it is more convenient for us to continue supporting children’s homes than to try to support the families. I started to read the stories of those children who had been taken from their parents, and it seemed so unbelievably cruel and disgusting to me, that I decided to come up an even worse thing: a baby rental service. The idea was that, with that system in place, we, the citizens of the Czech Republic, could completely legally borrow kids for weekends and vacations. Hosting care actually exists here, but because there are no explicit rules, because it is not clear under what criteria children should be let out, which families should get them and so on, the directors of the children’s homes and social services do not recommend it.
I wanted to exaggerate and overdo it enough so that it might wake some people up. I was again looking for the tipping point, to see what society could tolerate, and to my surprise, people reacted to the Family Happiness exhibition very well. People laughed, took it as a joke, and that was it. Until, that is, people started sending sincere requests to me, asking to either adopt children, or to put them into foster care, some of them with heartbreaking stories: “I am a mother of three sons, all of whom have left to live their own lives. The house is empty, my arms are empty, and I want to take care of another child. I have a lot of experience, and though I applied for both adoption and foster care, because I have already turned 40 they told me I didn’t have a chance. What should I do?” That was the type of thing.
The website clearly stated that it was an artistic project, a fiction, but despite that people took it seriously. I advised them to write the Department of Family Policy at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, where the director would be happy to tell them what to do, because that was in her competence. That came back to bite me, though, because six months after the exhibition that same director submitted an official accusation that claimed I was guilty of child trafficking, the abuse of personal data, and infringing on the rights of others. The document was around eight pages long – it wasn’t just a few lines – and it was sent to police headquarters, and to the prosecutor’s office as well. It looked like it was going to be a big case. I was summoned to court in January, it was 20 degrees below zero, and at that time my own child was three months old. We arrived completely frozen for questioning at police headquarters. The chief inspector actually said to me: “I personally think this is all a fabrication, but unfortunately I still have to question you.” They found out that we weren’t an organized child-trafficking gang, and how the photos had gotten on the website. I explained and explained, and while I was doing that I was also breastfeeding and changing the baby. After that they also summoned the others who had been accused: the curators of the exhibition, and my collaborators.
I was quite scared that someone might try to take revenge upon me, and that they could even seek to take away my little baby. Because of that, I kind of forced the curators to support me, so they wrote a statement to the media, and at the same time I complained to a person I knew at Mladá Fronta Dnes newspaper. When he heard about the case, he couldn’t believe the same ministry that six months before had supported the exhibition, had now officially accused one of the exhibiting artists. The considerate media coverage provoked a lively public discussion – which by the way had been the goal of the project in the first place – and that resulted in the withdrawal of the director.
Q: Are there any problems in your sight now that you’d like to react to or deal with?
A: Right now there aren’t any. That’s not because there are no problems, but because I am more of a mother now. There’s a lot of ridiculousness that has to do with that situation; my partner, who is the father of my child, and I are finding out that fathers in Czech society have a lot of rights on paper, but that the reality is different. When we wanted him to go on paternity leave, a lot of problems came up. The officials said it wasn’t possible, or they didn’t know how it was done, because they had never done it before, so were we getting less financial support as parents. Another time, the two of them were at infant swimming lessons, and they had to shower at a different time than the others because there were only women’s showers… The trainers even called him “mom”. There has been other stuff like that.
We split the child care right in half, not because I have a feminist background, but because he really wants to be an active father, and at the same time I can’t imagine giving everything up and devoting myself entirely to the child. The combination of us two has been so happy and successful that he really takes care of the baby the same way I do, so we are interchangeable. He definitely hasn’t had a good response from society, though, quite the opposite. Old ladies have told him to get his fingers away from the baby, that he’ll ruin everything, or that the baby definitely isn’t properly dressed and is surely cold. “Why is the baby hanging in the carrier? You’ll destroy his spine. It’s late, he should be home.” Those are the things people say to him when he goes to the store and to places like that.
Q: What’s life like in a non-standard family?
A: From the outside, we are totally normal. He’s a man, and I’m a woman. I gave birth to the child, and he “supplied the material”.
Q: What do your “girlfriends” think about it?
A: My girlfriends didn’t believe that I would go through with it. When I went to the most popular “girl’s party” in the Czech Republic with a huge belly, though, they started to take it seriously. I didn’t get any bad reactions. The last party I attended was when I was due in a week, and the girls were charming; so cautious and attentive. They let me get lemonades from the bar without waiting, and I didn’t have to wait for the bathroom at all. I don’t see the girls as much as before, they tend to hang out in really smoky places, which bothers me, and I also don’t have all that much time.
It was probably about a year before I gave birth that I took part in a discussion on queer identity at the Mezipatra film festival. I declared that I couldn’t consider myself a lesbian because I had changed my lifestyle. Discovering the term “queer” really helped me, because I finally fit into a category. The beginning of the nineties was really hard, because if you said you were “different”, you had to fit a certain mold,
let yourself be pigeonholed. You were automatically suspect. Everyone was trying to have a compact identity, to send a clear message to society. It was just: “A lesbian is someone who… ” and you can complete that with any number of irrefutable phrases. I just couldn’t get into that. There have always been times in my life, some which even lasted years, when I didn’t fit those definitions. For example, I had long, really long hair, and I wore a skirt. I was told that that was simply not what a lesbian looked like. It sounds ridiculous today, but at that time you just wanted to fit in somewhere, and you couldn’t… Today you most often see girls wearing make-up, tanned from the solarium.
Q: What happened to those lesbians who identified with the image of challenging classical femininity?
A: That was twenty years ago, and some have grown so old that all they do is sit at home. I don’t really know that much about them, because you don’t see them out, and as they haven’t adapted to the digital era, so they don’t put out much information about themselves and they don’t go out dancing… I think they have become as invisible as they were before, and that’s just sad.
Q: And what do you think awaits the young “solarium” generation?
A: I think those girls can live their own lives, as long as they are not afraid.
Q: Do you feel that lesbians are no longer limited by what they should look like, or do you think the stereotype now merely requires them to be “girly”?
A: Today, you see everything. Still, however, people are concerned with identities that don’t cross certain boundaries of what it means to be a girl, an androgynous girl, what it is to be “butch” or “tranny”. There are few people here, with a few exceptions, who are self-confident enough to continuously change their identity, to walk around in crazy outfits. I think that slice of the population is satisfied with their lives. I see that as a huge step forward, but it still isn’t anywhere near what I experienced in Berlin when I studied there. That was a completely different reality. That’s why I shot the Queer Dance project.
Q: What does the term ‘queer’ mean to you?
A: It’s a term for nonconformist people who don’t easily fit into the pigeonholes of transsexual, homosexual, or heterosexual. They have dynamic genders and sexual identities. It can also be about social attitudes, either practically or theoretically.
Q: Do you think it can be used as an umbrella term?
A: I don’t really know. In my experience, it is used a little differently in every country. The people I photographed for Queer Dance were definitely queer, and it would be very insulting to them to be called “lesbian”, “straight”, or “tranny”. I think here we see lesbians, gays, trannies, and some heterosexuals as belonging to that group… Simply without the possibility of infringing on any pre-defined boundaries of identity.
Q: Where did you exhibit Queer Dance?
A: I first showed it at the Světozor cinema, because the curator there, Pavel Rajčan, contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in exhibiting something just when I had finished putting the series together. Světozor was covered with the photos, so people would see them when they went into the cinema, and some would sit drinking beer or wine under them. Supposedly there were some people who complained that they couldn’t even drink a coffee there with those disgusting things on the walls. Just to explain; Queer Dance was a series about S&M, domination and submission in relationships, sex, and staged situations, and it was about the feelings of power and powerlessness.
There were people at the opening that were in the photos, and they had thought that the interaction with the public would be good. There wasn’t any at all, though. Everyone eyed their leather suits, but that was it. People acted like they weren’t there, and that was really harsh. I explained to them that normal people lacked the courage to talk to them because they were celebrities. Anyway, they felt a little rejected and left.
Q: Perhaps it wasn’t the right audience…
A: Definitely not, but even if it were exhibited in a club dedicated to such things, and people who are involved in S&M showed up, they would still turn their noses up at it a bit, because for them the work wouldn’t be at all scandalous. It wouldn’t appeal to them. The pictures are not fashion shots, they are my feelings. For me they were about capturing the energy, the atmosphere, and those things that are only whispered about, and about which people don’t boast much; it wasn’t a presentation of fashionable accessories.
Q: Is your project Brides a reaction to the legislation on civil partnership?
A: Yes, at that time it was, because the law had been dragged through parliament, government, and the senate for years, and nothing had come out of it. I came up with a fictional magazine called Brides, because my female friends had no way to make their relationships official besides saying their “I do” at home. With me they had a chance to get dressed up and have a small ceremony, at which I was their wedding photographer. They knew beforehand that I wanted to produce a fictional fashion magazine. I got a fashion designer, a stylist, and a hairdresser. They were responsible for turning ordinary girls into models, and I took the photos, designed the magazine, and took care of its content. It starts inconspicuously with single models, and then moves on to the pairs.
For me the point was to erode the preconceptions of what to expect in a fashion magazine, especially one with the title Brides.
I worked on that project for over six months. In the end I didn’t get the money I needed to print the magazine, so I just put out an electronic version, and I printed individual photos as posters and exhibited those. They were sort of oversized wedding photos, like the ones that newlyweds put on the mantle in the living room. I first exhibited them on the day that parliament passed the law on civil partnership. Sometimes, timing just doesn’t work out...
That project is actually formally similar to my project Week, which was a product catalog (selling vibrators and dildos). It has to do with what you expect to see in a catalog. You can sneak things into print that people are not used to. I like these slightly ironic fictional projects, which of course have to be realized flawlessly, in order to be believable.