Specials is a virtual space dedicated to writing on photography, showcasing unique content, projects and announcements.
Tereza Červeňová. The United Kingdom, Europe; 23rd June 2016. The day of UK’s referendum on EU membership.
Tereza Červeňová. Dutch coast, The Netherlands; 15th March 2017. The day of Europe’s first post-Brexit elections, in which far-right candidate Wilders fared worse than expected.

Q&A featuring Tereza Červeňová

Apr 02, 2019 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

Through your recent work “June” you’ve found a way to engage with a political situation in a very personal way. What was your approach? What role did documentation and journalism play in your methodology?


June evolved absolutely organically. I just followed my way of working – which I always describe as a flow. It takes form of spontaneous responses to the people around me and places which I inhabit – both physically and mentally. I have lived in the UK my whole adult life – this is the 8th year now that I decided to build my life in London. So when the referendum results came in – it shook my everyday reality, which was already a reality of an uncertain and challenging life of an artist in London anyways.


Because my work is very diaristic in a sense that it is an autobiographical way of making sense of the world, I knew that there is no way Brexit would not have an impact on my work. The reason why the original version of June encompasses just 2 years is partly due to the duration of my MA at the Royal College of Art, which unfolded in symmetry with the 2-year period of the so-called Brexit divorce. The timing was in fact precise to the exact calendar date, as my degree finished exactly two years after the EU referendum – on 23rd June 2018. I saw it as a sign and decided to work with it. When I started working on June I was first looking for symbols. It started as an impulse to respond and make sense of the deeply upsetting and precarious situation. I knew that the vote would leave an indelible mark on my practice due to the diaristic nature of my work. And whilst going through the process I recognized the essence of my artistic imprint, which lies in my desire to not divide between aspects of my personal life, artistic practice and commissioned work. They all permeate and inform each other. So in fact, in the year that so many things ruptured, embracing entirety became a gesture of resistance.


I went to do an MA at the RCA not because I wanted to change my practice, like many artist who go there do, but to be challenged. And indeed I faced a lot of challenges during my time there. The questioning how my photography can be about “Brexit” or politics when one is looking at aesthetically pleasing photographs was predominant. And to be honest, for a long time I felt I was lost in the work. I was questioning everything, yet I couldn’t stop and give up. The confusion with my photographs was probably just copying the confusion in real life, however, through constant scrutinising there came a breakthrough – or perhaps a series of breakthroughs.


When I started there was a word which I couldn’t get out of my mind – the word rupture. Many images are a contemplation exactly of that theme, on the act of breaking up. I wanted to leave the work in a form of a metaphor, or allegory. Simply subtle. I didn’t want the work to shout at you. And that is with me always.



Tereza Červeňová. Hammersmith, London; July 2017.
Tereza Červeňová. White Cliffs of Dover, Kent; July 2017.

Even though I felt that I was making significant images, I was lost for a long time and knew that something is missing. I was struggling with the fact that very few people could connect with the work and understand its motivation. But there was a handful of people who understood me without any clues and that encouraged me to go further and search deeper.


In retrospect I realise that I was doing many things subconsciously from the start, but the first real breakthrough happened on 8th June 2017 – the day of Theresa May’s SNAP election. I remember how the feeling of powerlessness prevailed in me. I had no legitimate right to have a say on how the place I chose to live would change, so – out of sadness and desperation – I took my camera and went out to photograph. It was a sad day, only a few days after the terror attacks at Borough Market and London Bridge. I wasn’t sure what I will come back with, if anything will be usable at all, but I knew that was the only voice I had. And I needed to speak.


From that experience the importance of the dates and locations started to crawl onto the surface. The question of how can I respond to a very journalistic topic in a subtle and not straightforward way has been on the forefront of my making. However, in the end, it was when I stopped working against it and used it to my advantage that things started to clarify. When I decided to title each image only by its date and location, I created a framework. The titles became something like a GPS coordinates. I wasn’t telling, neither showing explicitly, what happened on those days, however, it gave all the hints that were necessary for people, if they were intrigued, to search and find out more for themselves. In fact, June demands a certain amount from the viewer, because aside from the titles themselves, no clue is given to the events of the day. But that decision is also a response to the way we consume imagery and information in general, in masses and taken for face value, while things are a lot more layered and meaningful.


Tereza Červeňová. Terchová, Slovakia; July 2016.
Tereza Červeňová. Tomky, Borský Svätý Jur, Slovakia; August 2016.

Uncertainty has become an all-encompassing emotion since the vote to leave the EU in 2016. As we are approaching ‘decisive’ moments in politics, how do you look at uncertainty in your images and how do you present this in your work?


Uncertainty is inherent to my practice. It can work on both levels – positive and negative. I don’t work with projects, where I would have a preconceived idea about what I want to achieve and what I want the outcome to be. My work is a flow which constantly redefines itself, but every photograph is part of the whole. I see it operating in two directions or time planes. One is the linear – day-by-day history of our lives – yet there is the other one which is much more widespread, which operates in loupes and doesn’t have a straightforward reading, where time flows much slower, circulates and sometimes the work itself jumps ahead, without me quite realizing. It only becomes apparent much later, when I re-edit the work in retrospect.


Here in The UK it seems as if uncertainty is the only certainty that’s left. The UK was supposed to leave The EU in a few days, yet the House of Commons is as divided on the issue as the country was on 23rd June 2016. It is as if uncertainty became the norm. And we should “get on with it” while the PM hops back and forth between London and Brussels. It feels like the politics here is performed in an old fashioned “right honorable bubble” of the UK parliament. It has been a gamble from the start, a power hunt, and with regards to that nothing has changed.


When it comes to my work, regardless of the current pitiful situation, I never want it to become didactic and explanatory. I use my practice to investigate myself and my values, my beliefs. There is a huge amount of uncertainty it that. There is no detachment between me and my work. Both of them develop alongside each other. And that is why we make each other vulnerable too. But the same goes for strength. It took me a while to understand that. But once I did, I decided to embrace that. Especially with the presentation of June (be it the artist book or the exhibition prints) I tried to make everything meaningful.


The core of the work became an artist book, in which the work has been translated into 24 booklets (each representing one month) collated together with an opening ring – a metaphor for the easily breakable union, where the beginning and the end can be easily manipulated and the linearity of historical events shifted. Each and every booklet / month have their own message and strength, theme and place, but when viewed together they give away the whole story.


Even though the photographs often capture intimate and private moments, the work becomes a vessel for communicating larger ideas and messages. June is a clear evidence of that, where the personal is inseparable from the social and the political. It became an organic and natural way for me to express the fact that the work is still evolving and growing, taking turns and unexpected shifts, just like the reality of what it comment on does.


And as for the exhibition, I take it as a place for experimentation. I view each print as a branch of the tree which is represented by the book. It stands by itself but carries the ephemeral of the scene framed and frozen in a moment. But with that in mind, I wanted to break that perception as well. For the exhibition at the Brighton Photo Biennial I decided to present the prints as I have never done before. I wanted to make the viewing experience as close as possible to my own one when I create the prints in the darkroom. I wanted to get rid of all the unnecessary things and treat each print as a fragile entity, which is exposed and vulnerable. I decided to not frame or mount them but instead let the prints hang offset by a few millimeters in front of the wall, curling in response to the heat and humidity of the room, to the amount of people in it, their movements or the breeze of the air.


Another element in exhibiting process became an almost invisible timeline which is always site- specific to the place, and often is left there long after the exhibition finishes. It is a lot more probable that many visitors would never even notice it, even though it is a really crucial part of the demystification of the work. But that uncertainty and risk is what I like. That there is only a small chance, which is close to invisible, that it will be noticed. But once it is – the key is given and one can decipher the message.


Tereza Červeňová. Sunbury Antiques Market, London; about a week before 23rd June 2016.
Tereza Červeňová. Berlin Wall, East Germany; 11th November 2018. The centenary of the World War One Armistice.

In what way has this work been received and used to access this historical moment on a personal level and why do you feel this is important?


On a personal level it has meant something invaluable. It not only became a new chapter in my work, it has also become a foundation – a framework for my way of working. It became a key to balancing out my personal work with the political motivation. It became a marker point for me to establishing what I care about and also a moment in my life where I went through a personal breakthrough and enlightenment about what my values actually are and how I view my practice and its impact and reception. Straight after I graduated the work has been picked up and featured in a beautiful and thoughtful article in the FT Weekend Magazine and following that I was invited by Shoair Mavlian to show the work in a Brighton Photo Biennial whose theme was, very appropriately,  A New Europe.


It was a huge privilege to have had the opportunity to revisit the work so soon after my degree show. I used this opportunity to do things differently this time, without having to make so many compromises and actually pushing the exhibition in an unusual and risky way without too much worry, just experimenting and responding spontaneously to the work and the context of the space and the time in which it was shown.


Another wonderful outcome of the exhibition was that it was particularly well received by many young people and schools. I decided to call it June not only because of the month in which the referendum happened, but also because one of the etymologies for the word comes from Latin word “iuniores” meaning the ‘younger ones’.  To me that was another bittersweet sign as the Brexit decision will hugely impact on youth in particular.


Following the Biennial I have been invited to do artist lectures across the country and speak to young photography students about the work but most importantly – about the situation that the work comments on. That probably was the most rewarding outcome of June – the fact that the conversations that arose from it were not so much about my photography or art – but about the current situation, its impact on people and how can we as individuals bring awareness to issues we care about.


Tereza Červeňová. Display of the decontructed book in a vitrine; The UK, Europe; 23rd June 2016 in the background Brighton Photo Biennial 2018: A New Europe.
Tereza Červeňová. Installation shot - Family looking through the display copy of June in front of the vitrine and window vinyl during the Brighton Photo Biennial 2018: A New Europe.

Is this work a personal meditation on the impacts of policy? What are these for you personally?


Yes, I think that meditation is a really nice way to describe it. The work has been a catharsis in a way. But that applies to my art practice in general. What I found with photography is a language which helps me to understand the world around me, and within me. Many times, this understanding only comes in hindsight, when I reedit the work in retrospect, and like I said a few times before, for me the editing part is equally important and creative as the actual shooting. And it is not just one correct way. I am very open to the reeditions, because the work matures with us, and we view things differently as we grow older. New circumstances effect what is important for us. And because my work is so closely connected to my personal life, there is no boundary, so it is a meditation on living as a whole, and thus June is a meditation on this chapter of my life, which has been hugely affected by the policy (or lack of it) unfolding in Westminster.


Tereza Červeňová. Parliament Square, London; 15th January 2019. The day when the PM’s deal suffered the largest defeat in modern parliamentary history.
Tereza Červeňová. Square of Slovak National Uprising, Bratislava, Slovakia; 16th March 2018. The day of the biggest public demonstration in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Rebecca Solnit writes that “[w]e are now at the beginning of an era where constructions are far scarier than ruins.” how would you relate this statement to your body of work “June”?


I am not sure I can completely relate. There is a big truth in Solnit’s words, but for me there are too many streams of “these scary constructions”. While the constructions might be scary, for me the ruins are scarier still. The ruins to me signify a failure to mobilise and change the direction. Perhaps ruins would provide a space on which we could build something new, which would be, at least for a bit, pure. However for me the construction and everything that it involves – the hard work, the reinvention, the persuasion, breaking down of stereotypes – there is still hope and potential. In an ideal world, every construction should have a reconstruction manual. Especially nowadays – in an era, in which we have such rich resources of knowledge and possibilities for connectivity and communication.


Perhaps for me the argument isn’t what is scarier, because yes – the current construction seems scary, especially when what we are constructing is reminiscent of the sad monuments of past while knowing already what the aftermath tastes of – of the reckless greed. But what I choose to focus on is what is more urgent and what is more whole in a sense. The present is complex with its negatives and positives, however that is always the case.


And with regards to June and constructions and ruins… I was recently asked whether I think it has been too soon for me to make work about Brexit… I disagreed. People who will respond to these times from the future will make a completely different body of work, perhaps much more analytical, focused on specific aspects, on the “learned lessons” perhaps.. But this work has never really been about that but rather about what it feels to be right in the middle of it. With the uncertainty what the next day will bring, but with the admittance that despite the big game of politics and the big history unfolding, there is still also our personal history, which is equally important, if not more.


Tereza Červeňová. Latimer Road, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London; 14th June 2017. The day of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Can you describe the process of defining this work and its framework?


For a long time, this work was just evolving without any firm foundations to it. I was struggling with finding a way how I can root this work, whose aesthetic is very subtle and poetic, into a very blunt and real landscape of the climate in which (and about which) it was created. I didn’t want to be didactic, predictable, or straightforward. On the other hand, I didn’t want to become pretentious and superficial. The work is inherently personal, yet I feel that these days the personal is becoming more and more political. And that’s how June feels to me. The more personal it gets, the more I feel the desire to go the other way as well – to stretch from intimacy towards the public.


As I was coming closer to the end of my MA I was getting more and more confused about how to deal with the amount of works I have made over the two years. I had a huge amount of material, and I didn’t have a clue how to make sense of it all. But then there came another breakthrough when in January of last year I embarked upon trying to make contacts of every single negative I made over the two years. I ended up with hundreds. But somehow, when all these images were present in a physical form, I started to understand it better. I had this expressive moment when I went through the contact sheets and wrote and drew on them, very spontaneously, mostly just marking down the main concepts, the words which have been resonating in my head since I started.


One of the contact prints stood out though. I still remember how, when I was looking at a contact sheet from the Grenfell Tower, I was drawn to the burnt section of the negative. On 14th June 2017 I went alongside hundreds of other volunteers down to Latimer Road to help with the aftermath of this disaster. I had my camera with me but I was fighting the moral battle whether I have any right to take any pictures. After the day spent at the site, as I was walking back to the station, I was getting more and more nervous about it. As much as I felt as an intruder, I felt a personal necessity to photograph it. But my panic and nervousness caused that instead of pressing the button which releases the curtain between the lens and the negative, I pressed the one next to it – the one, with which I opened the back of my camera and thus by mistake burnt the negative. As I recalled the day while looking at the contact sheet, I took a scalpel and marked around the burnt section and underneath it scratched a word “perished”. When, four months later, I was choosing the images for my final display I realised that to include something that is a mistake on one hand, but simultaneously a direct, even though also abstract, representation of a fire is much more poignant and symbolic.


Despite the fact that this exercise was definitely a marker point in the process, and at one point I was even considering to show a wall full of these contact works, I had a feeling that it wasn’t giving the work the clarity and focus it deserved. I felt that like that I would undermine the strength of the images themselves. But I still lacked the part which would resolve the biggest problem – how to open the work for the viewers’ understanding. I felt I was close, so I kept looking for that last piece in the puzzle. And it came with the realisation that the titles hold the power. Not only the title of the whole body of work, but the title of each and every photograph. Especially, because so many of the works were (at first unintentionally, later purposefully) taken on important dates and in important places. So I decided to abandon poetic titles and divided the two years into months, letting the date and place of each image work as titles.


With that decision, I felt I caught a breath of fresh air. The work felt lighter, it felt fluid. But I was still faced with the task of cultivating the huge amount of work into a concise display for my final show at the RCA. Usually, I am a supporter of the statement “Less is more” but in this case, the more images one viewed the more it became a whole, the more sense it made. So when Jan Motyka, the graphic designer of the book, and I were discussing how to edit, we agreed to give it the space it needs.


Tereza Červeňová. Shadwell, London; 27th January 2017. The day President Trump signed and legalised his “Muslim ban”.
Tereza Červeňová. Holloway Road, London; March 2017.

Can you share a past project and share a bit of context about it?


I have never felt that I really work in projects. Only my first, very specific, body of work ‘Identity’ seems to be a stand alone project. There I explored my personal aftermath of being a model through an expansive self-portrait in form of portraits of other young women also struggling with conforming to the beauty ideal set by the industry and wider society.


All the other “projects” I view much more as “chapters” of a whole. You could take an image from 10 years ago and put it next to a photograph I take today and there will be a link, there would be a narrative. But of course, there is always a major theme in one’s life when the focus is directed at that aim, however that doesn’t mean the rest stops existing. It all influences each other and helps to create a more intimate portrayal of one’s vision and sensitivity.


And so, the chapter before June, was one I called ‘See-Through’. It was a painful time in my life where many things ruptured, so in it I contemplated upon unpredictability. I was intrigued by all the different layers that make up the storyline of our lives and which can only be visible separately in the hindsight. At the time I was a young woman in her early 20s shaken by the insecurities that come with relationships, ambitions, decisions. It became a reflection on those fragile moments in life when we are comfortable and we fall under the impression that things are stable and everything is as it should be. But we never know how that can change within a day and how our life can be turned upside down. Again, it is only with time, that details start to fall into place and elements of a particular story become transparent, that we suddenly see through the layers, ready to start a new one.