Interview with Sonia Szóstak

For Sonia Szóstak it’s all about the feeling. To have a familiar connection with her models is crucial for the Polish photographer. So what would be more obvious than photographing your friends? Especially when they are that beautiful and interesting characters. Though once in a while, she makes an exception, among others to shoot Martin Scorsese. The results are always intimate pictures that never seem entirely arranged but remain a spontaneity and effortlessness.

With just 23 years she was already invited to show her sensitive images at the "A Glimpse At Photo Vogue" exhibition at Corso Como in Milan last year.

I met the aspiring photographer in the pop-up gallery at the concept-store No Wódka in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg to talk about how women see women, frustration and motivation, and i-D magazine.

Sonia Szóstak’s exhibition “Longboards, tattoos and a journey to Mars” is presenting 19 pictures that she took over the last four years till the 29th November 2014.


Where are you living right now?

I just moved to Berlin one week ago. Before that I was travelling for four month. I’ve been everywhere. And now I found a room here and I hope to stay here for longer… than one week (laughs).


How did you start with photography?

I started to shoot my friends. I just borrowed a camera from a friend, a super old-school analogue camera.


At what age was that?

I was 16. And I just photographed my friends in any kind of situation (laughs).


So they were rather spontaneous pictures?

Yeah, super spontaneous – like now. I still try to capture the same feelings, to just feel comfortable with my friends. To ask them for a certain pose, I hate that. For me it’s very important to have that natural feeling. That’s how I started to document the life with my friends. Then, I decided to go to the super film school (The Leon Schiller National Film, Television and Theatre School in Lodz, Poland). From this day forward I started to think about photography for real (laughs) and not only as a hobby.


So you started to study photography right after high-school?

Yes. Before that I had a rather famous website and I saw that a lot of people liked what I was doing. That also encouraged me to get better and better, and now I’m doing it for a living.


Do you still have that website?

No, I have a new one. It was super old, like six years ago. Now there are a million websites, all with portfolios. But back then you had like two, and one of them was mine.


You took this series of heavily tattooed people. What fascinates you about tattoos? Do you have tattoos?

No, I don’t want a tattoo for myself. I made this series for school. It was about how personalities present themselves. I interpreted this by the tattoos. I have a lot of friends who have many great tattoos.


Do you have photographer role models?

I have my one big love, it’s Peter Lindbergh. I saw his exhibition in Berlin about five years ago. He is my biggest inspiration I think.


What would be your ultimate goal as a photographer?

My big dream is to do a cover for i-D magazine.


Oh, that’s my favourite magazine!

Mine too! I collect it since… I don’t know, my childhood. I have like a million issues. It’s funny because in Poland five years ago you couldn’t find it. And every month I went to Berlin to buy it. And I was thinking, maybe one day I will do the cover, and it’s still my biggest dream. But one big dream, I haven’t even dreamed about this kind of thing, already came true, it was the group exhibition at Corso Como in Milan by Carla Sozzani (Vogue Italia Exhibition "A Glimpse At Photo Vogue" at the Carla Sozzani Gallery at Corso Como). That was a big thing.


How many pictures did you have there?

Six, but it’s still great. I’m always thinking more about galleries than magazines. I want to publish my pictures in the galleries everywhere. In New York maybe… I haven’t been there, but I hope that my photos will go there one day (laughs).


Do you have a message you always want to transmit with your pictures? Something you want to express?

It’s hard to say. I always want to keep some feelings from the old stylish movies. I don’t like this new kind of photography, you have Tumblr, Pinterest, it’s too much of everything, it’s crazy. I want to have images that are thought-provoking, where you just stop and you get a special feeling and mood – to keep something more important. Like when you look at the pictures in fashion magazines, they are just being produced, every month a million of them, and some day it just all looks the same. Maybe I’m not doing it differently, maybe I’m doing the same pictures like other photographers, but I’m trying to explore myself, and to really think about photography. I don’t want to have just pretty girls on longboards, you know…


It’s hard to stand out from the many photographers…

Yeah and there are so many great ones right now. Every year I visit the “Paris Photo”, the very big photo fair in Paris-Montparnasse. When you go there you just want to kill yourself. After two days you have seen everything – the most beautiful pictures, every great photographer. And you think, what am I doing here?! But you know… You just have to do something, try to do something special, just for you, for your friends.


Do you still just work with your friends, or do you also cast models?

I usually work with people I know. Most of them are friends. I also did a lot of pictures with the models from agencies but I’m not too sure about that. It’s not the same feeling. I have a lot of unpublished photos. On my website are really just the ones I want to show – and most of them are of my friends. I catch some people on the street sometimes as well.


Then you’re just right here in Berlin.

Yes, absolutely. I did a publication for the Rolling Stone magazine about people and street style here. Berlin is perfect for me right now, also to find new faces. You can just go to Warschauer Straße, there are like a million super crazy people to shoot. I also shot street styles in London for the Rolling Stone, there are a lot of good-looking people too.


What would you still like to photograph?

I want to shoot a lot of famous people.


Who especially?

I want to shoot some directors. Maybe Roman Polanski. He graduated from my school, so they are super proud of him. They have a lot of famous directors. It’s very hard to get there, they just take like five people. And David Bowie (laughs). There are a lot of people I want to photograph. I already shot Martin Scorsese and John Malkovic, and Michael Haneke. That was really great. They came to my school to teach and I took a portrait of them.


So far you seemed to prefer women as models. Why is that?

Because they are more beautiful than guys (laughs). I don’t know, I just have a special feeling for women. No, not in that way (laughs). With boys I just don’t feel it. You know the way the Italian directors show women... I grew up with these Italian movies.


With which movies exactly?

Tornatore, Fellini, Bertolucci… When you are watching these old Italian movies you just have this beautiful feeling with women, it’s super specific. In the other movies you don’t see it, but they really have something super special, this imagination about women and how to show it, I don’t know, that fascinates me about girls too. Now I’m writing my thesis on how women see women.


That’s an interesting topic.

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I always wanted to shoot only girls, I’m not really interested in guys – in the pictures (laughs). Ellen von Unwerth, for example is a super great photographer to me. There’s this super specific erotic in her work. I’m also writing about Annie Leibovitz, and the documentary Susan Sontag work.


How would you like to present the women in your images?

As strong and intelligent, definitely. All of the models in my photos are super, super smart girls, not just pretty faces. I’m shooting this girl (points at the pictures with the girl with the pomegranates) for seven years now, she’s studying law. We had an exhibition together about our cooperation. I’m shooting how she is growing up. In the pictures you can see her progress as a model and mine as a photographer, it’s great. It was a big exhibition in Poland, 100 pictures of Kornelia.


What are your plans for the future?

I have a lot of ideas. Now I just want to finish school and after that I want to travel for a long, long time. This year I’ve been to Indonesia, but only for one month, to take some pictures. I’m dreaming about big documentaries – just travelling and photographing everything, by myself.


Where do you want to go?

Maybe it’s really typical, but I really want to go to Iceland. But now I’m a little bit afraid of the eruptions, volcanoes… I want to just travel. Everywhere. When my mother was my age she was travelling a lot. I want to do the same.