Even as one of Berlin’s most censored photographers of the pitiless, edgy life, Miron Zownir displays a quite composed equilibrium between hard-as-nails and highbrow sensitivity. Although he would hate the thought, Zownir’s detached coolness should have sophisticated hipsters falling over their copies of Being and Nothingness and scrabbling to observe his indefinable poise.
You focused on the unstable aspects of West Berlin in the 1970s and on. Would you say that it’s changed a lot since then?
There’s definitely been a lot of movement. Many things are organised now. What you see are leftover punks from the 1980s living an almost upright existence. The music is very impersonal – techno, electronic. There is really no message anymore. There is no interaction. It’s all very commercial or it’s lost somewhere in the internet space.
Would you say there’s a lack of political motivation? More apathy? Or would you say people are distracted by things like internet?
I’m not an expert on the time… the waves of what it’s really all about. But I find it very anonymous, very instrumentalised by the media and I get the feeling the most important thing today is to kiss Madonna’s ass or be on the fucking red carpet at the Berlinale with some fucking superstar.
Quite depressing, right?
It’s ridiculous. I mean, that star cult. We had the greatest artists and filmmakers around us in the 1970s and into the 1980s – underdogs. Now it’s Lady Gaga, Spielberg… a couple of other assholes. Now people have to be crowd-pleasers. We’re living in a very cold, functional system. It’s really all about economy.
Is it down to one economic system in particular? Because of capitalism?
Of course. I mean, I never liked the other system either. But I’m not the one who is telling people how to live their lives. Every man for himself.
That’s a capitalist motto though, right?
In a way it’s capitalist but it’s also anarchist. There’s a lot of overlap.
Do these ‘underdogs’ stay ‘great’ because they don’t sell out?
Right. They have kept themselves free and the output is uncensored. In the 1970s it wasn’t asked how many people would buy it. The general feeling of the time was where anything that was different was interesting. Any experiment was good. Now things have been written and talked about so many times before they’re even experienced. It’s just a marketing strategy to make sure 10 million people watch it because they’re stupid enough just to listen to any hype.
So, is Berlin still intriguing as a muse or d’you think it’s become too sterile?
There are many things I don’t like about Berlin. For creative direction, as a photographer, Berlin is okay because there are a lot of things happening. But there are other cities which are much more interesting to roam the streets. No city can be great enough that I would say, ‘Hey I want to be here for the rest of my fucking life.’ That would be like putting a lid on my coffin. I’ve got to keep moving. If it was the last city in my life I would get so fucking depressed that I would try and shoot myself.
Do you approach controversial topics in order to reassess them, so that they don’t become stagnant in history?
It’s not the main reason. It’s a sideline. I’m not Mother Theresa. I’m not a moralist. I don’t want to make the world better. But I am open.
So you’re morally tolerant of most people?
Everybody judges. Everybody has their dislikes. As a photographer you can’t go that deep. Generally you take the photo and you go home. So all you can do is decide how you want to present the work. You can make a famous person ugly and you can give an ugly fucked-up person some kind of dignity. You can approach it neutrally, or not. But if someone is dying on the street and people pass by, I’m also like, ‘Hey, fuck! What’s going on?’
Did you ever think you should throw down your camera to help people rather than just documenting them?
Well obviously not, because I didn’t, did I? But I give everybody the same respect. D’you know how much strength you’ve got to have to survive on the streets? A homeless guy has to put at least as much energy into life as anyone else and he risks a hell of a lot more. Who is on the streets? Some geniuses, some idiots. The same as anywhere else.
Most people think they are so safe in this little comfortable world, warm showers and whatever. But things can fall apart and go downhill to where this comfort bullshit doesn’t play a role anymore. So many things are possible.
You’re a writer, too. What are you writing at the moment?
I’m in the middle of a new novel about a German serial killer from the 1950s which my girlfriend and I visited in prison.
Do you think getting to know a serial killer might change your perception of the ‘outsiders’ you photograph?
When I approach someone I never have any expectations or prejudice. I know I could have never become a serial killer. But I wouldn’t go to anyone and say, ‘You’re the biggest fucking piece of garbage on Earth.’ Why would I bother? I’d listen to what they have to tell me. I would have approached Hitler, and talked to him.