Linda Zhengová is a photographer from the Czech Republic who currently lives in the Netherlands. She has a very diverse background in terms of her academic career from her BA in International Studies at Leiden University in 2018 to her graduating from MA in Media Studies with a specialization in Film and Photographic Studies at Leiden University with distinction (cum laude) in 2019. And recently, she graduated from a Photography BA at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.
This interview is concerning her Graduation Show 2020 at The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague that took place at the institution from the 10th to the 13th of September 2020. In her show titled Catharsis, she explores the notion of her own suppressed trauma from her childhood. The entire project consists of a photographic installation and a book that accompanies it.
I have decided to interview Linda on this subject because we have known each other a very long time and I have followed her work from almost the beginning. I have seen her tackle many subjects and how her personal style has changed and developed throughout the years. The theme of trauma that she tackles in her current project ‘Catharsis’ is something very new for her and I am very intrigued where this journey will take her.
To start, thank you Linda for agreeing to this interview.
My first question to you would be, of course, I have read your project description but for others could you say a few things about what you were trying to do with this series of yours? And maybe explain a little bit the reason behind your project title?
‘Catharsis’ reflects on my personal process of dealing with my suppressed childhood trauma which started resurfacing after twelve years in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. These incidents are unfortunately bringing the traumatic event back to life and continue to interfere with my daily routine. Since I have never been able to express my trauma verbally, I decided to use the language of visualization and imagery in this project to convey the intensity of my traumatic experience through the medium of photography.
I titled the project ‘Catharsis’ because this term really expresses well what the project is about and the way I approach it. It can be defined as “the process of releasing and thereby, providing relief from strong or repressed emotions.” The series, therefore, may be interpreted as a photographic representation of the common human experience of trauma combined with a narrative that stems from my personal encounter.
Did your previous work lead you to this project or is it a completely new subject that you are exploring?
Previously I never touched upon the subject of trauma, I was primarily working on the topics of gender, sexuality and identity. So yes, it is indeed a new subject for me.
It is a very heavy subject you are dealing with in this project. Is there any specific reason behind the fact you decided to approach this head-on at this given time?
I started working on ‘Catharsis’ around June 2019, approximately at the time when my childhood trauma started resurfacing back. During this period, I also had to decide on which topic to work on for my graduation project and because I couldn’t concentrate on anything else at that moment, I decided to confront this experience and explore the potential of photography in visualising traumatic experiences.
It was only a coincidence that the project came out now during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I think that this anxiety-loaded atmosphere provides a great opportunity for the project to be experienced in its full potential as the viewers are already in a vulnerable state. The situation is one big trauma; it is experienced collectively in different intensities and it is something we all currently share.
This project is not inspired only by your own trauma but also by the traumas of others. Do you think you have represented or given justice to the others that were your inspiration?
I mainly draw from my own personal experience; therefore, I would not necessarily say that I am trying to portray the traumas of others. However, when I was doing my academic research for my thesis ‘The Ambiguity of Visual Representations of Trauma’, I analyzed the work of other photographers who worked with different forms of trauma, both personal and collective; and based on such research, I then explored my traumatic memory visually.
My goal was to create an installation and publication that would make people who experienced some sort of traumatic event in their life feel that they are not alone but instead, part of a larger collective – to have the art perceived in an empathic way both in relation to me and the viewers themselves.
I feel that the notions of “togetherness” and “collective vulnerability” are particularly relevant at this moment so perhaps now it is a good occasion for de-stigmatizing trauma in the public eye.
Could you say this series is an attempt at accessing your subconscious and seeing the damage this trauma has really left?
I would definitely say that my approach in ‘Catharsis’ is attempting to visualize mental states that come with trauma. Specifically, I am exploring the fragmentary nature of traumatic memory by focusing on the workings of flashbacks and triggers.
In the series, I combined newly created photographs with archival material in order to observe how much impact my trauma had on me as a person. Also, I perhaps aim to find the things I didn’t realize before.
When I started experiencing PTSD in 2019, I was so shocked how one’s memory is able to stimulate such intensive and vivid recollections, as if the event had happened just yesterday. In this way, I understood trauma as always lingering somewhere at the back of my mind, a form of a mark on my body that I can’t erase and have to learn how to live with it for the rest of my life.
Is it a way to try and find answers to things you feel you still do not understand?
I think it is more about finding peace with myself as I don’t think it is ever possible to fully comprehend a traumatic event.
In your text, you mention that artists can come across visual ambiguity when battling the subject of trauma. Do you think you managed to avoid this in your work, or do you think it is unavoidable?
Ambiguity is a crucial aspect of trauma art that accurately reflects on the impossibility to fully grasp the event. In my view, ambiguity comes across as uncertainty that moves away from the search for a definitive meaning and instead provides a space for contemplation and bodily sensation.
I strive to create a dialogue with viewers through my art so that they can engage with the imagery in relation to their own inner traumas and life experiences – a process that can be said to be enlivened by the perceived ambiguity in the photographs. I see ambiguity as providing viewers with a safe space to explore and empathically engage with my and other imagery. Therefore, I feel ambiguity is very much present in my work.
Do you think it is a subject that still needs more exploring or is this exhibition a way of making a thick line behind your past?
I consider this project more as a starting point rather than an end. For me, ‘Catharsis’ facilitated a way how to deal with my trauma in my personal life, therefore, even though it is finished as an art series, it still lives on in real life.
What would you say was the most difficult part of this series? Did you ever feel like it was too much for you and wanted to turn away from your project?
I would say the most difficult part was accepting the fact that I will be confronting my trauma daily for about a year. It was definitely the most difficult working process I ever experienced as I am always able to produce many images in a short period of time, however, with ‘Catharsis’ this was not possible. There were certain periods when I had to take a break and was unable to produce anything for numerous weeks because I felt completely overwhelmed.
On a slightly more positive and different note. Do you feel this exhibition was a success? And that you managed to pass on the message you wanted to display?
The exhibition went great! Despite all the COVID-related regulations, many people managed to see the exhibition and I received some amazing feedback about my work. I had immense pleasure observing people going through my work and spending time looking at it.
I particularly enjoyed the confusion of the viewers when approaching my installation, often, they were puzzled whether I am using only a projection or if my images are prints, screens, or lightboxes. Their ways of trying to figure it out, really made them part of the whole installation.
Many people saw in the pictures something completely different and it was awesome to hear all those diverse interpretations. For instance, one woman thought that all the images captured in nature were actually microscopic images of the insides of human bodies. Other people said that they can only see their own personal trauma in my images.
I thought these remarks really reflected the way I wanted this project to come to life – to make people relate to my own experience. I felt that suddenly our encounters were shared, turning ‘Catharsis’ from a merely personal work into a social project that facilitates a sense of an imagined community among its viewers.
Ester Kneidlová: A young Czech Curator with a BA in Art History, currently living in Venice, Italy studying her Masters in Curatorial Practice.