Leah Kilian | Issue Eleven Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your work.

I'm currently studying my BA in Fine Arts in Groningen, NL. Born in Vietnam, I grew up in various countries before going to the Netherlands for my studies. My nationality is German, and I currently reside between The Netherlands and Germany. My art practice ebbs and flows like the tide, ever-evolving and constantly changing. Simultaneously, I have interests in writing poetry, prose, and non-fiction - with written approaches and theories influencing the working process.

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work.

I believe that change is the number one consistent aspect of life and this applies itself in my art, too. I cannot control the path my art will take; new information and phases are constantly passing through my life that I have to focus on whatever's happening right now. In the past, I’ve reacted by building an installation, or painting studies of yellow, or creating collages, or writing expressive poetry, or going on a trip and taking photographs. In this way, you cannot recognise the work I create as mine - as the form always changes depending on what's presently important. I can only hope the work I create, whatever form it takes, resonates with someone, displays a narrative, or establishes a personal voice.

How would you describe your approach to photography?

I’ve only started photography about 2 years ago, when I bought a disposable camera and spent an afternoon shooting a friend. That was the start of my deep forage into analogue and fortunately, since then, I inherited my grandfather’s film camera and have shot with it since. But for now… I always look for a narrative, as cliché as it sounds. I like the work from photojournalists like Alice Aedy or the National Geographic photographers like Jimmy Chin. What they do well in their respective fields is creating strong compositions that, to me, are emotionally provocative. So, I’d say I approach photography as a journalist, and I approach my shots with a technical eye - and I think the latter is due to the fact I’m young and new to the world of photography so that all I can really focus on is improving my technique.

What is your working process?

When photographing, I am quite intuitive as I look for a good frame. I’m just trying to improve technically. Although, if I’m in a landscape that fills me with the kinds of emotions that makes me want to cry of hysteria or gives me goosebumps, then I must respond to that. It can be difficult, however, to do those feelings justice with photography because it is all too easy to make a landscape look flat with just the straight-on horizontal perspective, and not quite representing the sheer scale of a national park or mountain range, for example. So, as any good photographer will say, you have to focus on composition to fulfil this.

For me, composition is incredibly important when taking shots with strong stories because you have to choose what to omit from the frame as there’s only so much it can hold. For film photography particularly, I have to be selective since I can only take 24 or 36 exposures. This means that when I’m out and about with my camera I look straight away for specific compositions that already exist, e.g. if the light is striking something in a certain way, building lines cutting the sky, the asymmetry of including people in the frame, interesting angles, patterns, or particularly contrast if I have B&W film. I also really like maximizing the foreground to increase the depth of the shot. I’m not a studio photographer where you can build an environment and stage it to your liking, expanding the limits of imagination. I value more supplying resources within existing limits.

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society?

A sentence I’ve thought up recently in considering this role is that artists (of any medium), take on a responsibility to humanise humanity to humanity. Doesn’t that phrase just make you want to just walk out of a window? Consider the indifference we can typically feel for the mass struggles that we experience. Now replace the pronoun “we” for “humans.” Words like war, refugees, global warming, mental health, they all act as triggers to avoid politically-charged conversations. When it’s not simply politics we’re dealing with, it is people. It’s us we’re talking about. We’re talking about lives. It’s us we’re talking about. Are we not life? We are on the line in these worldwide epidemics and we can hardly lift a finger to help ourselves. Some people who have depression can’t even lift a finger when they wake up in the morning. It seems, then, that it is incumbent upon artists and photographers to reveal these allegedly uncomfortable truths in hopes of touching our empathy – a word often synonymized with humanity. In art, we are constantly asked to question this or that, to question knowledge or authority, and maybe it’s because there is something we’re lacking in our responses to the issues that are affecting us. With this responsibility of humanisation, artists and photographers may bridge this gap between ‘individual of a society’ and the one who’s living.

How can artists raise awareness for mental health?

I was reading the Dutch artist’s, Van Gogh’s, story one time, and I remember a line that stuck out to me. It went something along the lines of this: “Van Gogh wasn’t able to paint the way he did because of his mental health issues, but in spite of it.” So, despite all that the Dutch painter endured in his mind, he could create beautiful and evocative work. I think if artists allowed themselves to be vulnerable outside of the finished product - so showed their behind-the-scenes struggles, the tears, the emotions, the weaknesses - it could effectively expand the awareness for this collective pain. We should be truly raw and honest in expressing your battle with your mind. It is a challenge to expose yourself not just in how you choose to present yourself in your work but how you act if you thought nobody was looking out for you. But if artists could present that raw honesty, I think greater meaning could be found for all parties.

Are there any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?

Yes. As I’m currently in my third year of my studies, we are constantly organising exhibitions every year. Upcoming in May 2020, the third-years of my academy host the annual exhibition, “Maydays”, which attract a number of local art professionals in the North of the Netherlands. The exhibition showcases the current work of the students in the year, and is organised primarily by the students in various locations throughout the city of Groningen. Currently, I am planning a main project for my studio course as a collaboration with another like-minded student, which deals with empathy in art. On the side, I dabble in portrait photography with my film camera. Occasionally, if I go on solo trip, it’s an opportunity to take some landscape shots, too.


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