Themed “Call of the Asymmetry” was Gerhard Aba’s vernissage at Vienna in February 2007 at the gallery mel contemporary where he showed his artworks to being different. He is not a main-stream photographer he has the courage to show the women with “beautiful blemishes”, which he proves in his pictures. He wants to sharpen the view for the femininity and the beauty of being different outside of stereotype views. The viewer of the pictures is faced with the harmony and contentedness of the pictured women. Each photo tells an open story. You can feel Aba’s gift of being in a dialog with his models through empathy, affection, understanding, taking part and sharing. Aba always deals with life and living within the facettes of the unusual. The pictures result from the collaboration with the models and are often seen as a liberating communicative process by the women.
I interviewed some of Aba’s models during the vernissage.
Ilse: How did you feel during the session with Gerhard?
Regina: Before it started I was very, very nervous and not really certain, whether I wanted this and I was afraid of what was going to happen to me. Working with Gerhard this fear was gone almost instantly, because I sensed Gerhard would not ask anything of me I couldn’t deliver, anything that would go beyond my boundaries. There was good teamwork between us, he has great empathy. I can truly say I have never felt more beautiful and “myself” in my life before.
Ilse: This dialog between Gerhard and his models, which Franz described in his opening speech, did that really take place?
Regina: Yes, a very good dialog with very few words, we didn’t need to talk…it is hard to describe what was happening, I felt very much at ease and my fear, shame and uncertainty had disappeared. I have never wanted to have pictures taken of me before and very few pictures of me exist, especially after the amputation. There are no photos of me showing my body so clearly, the way it is. But during the photo session I was just there, I was present at this moment wholly, within me – it was awesome.
Ilse: So this was an important event for you?
Regina: Yes, very, very important. I agree with Franz’s words in his speech, it was a very important turning point in my life. To me it was a very big step to myself, to my being a woman. I don’t think anybody would refuse being photographed by Gerhard a second time, simply because it was so wonderful, such a deep experience. And the result makes me very proud!
Ilse: Which of these pictures in this exhibition is your favourite?
Regina: The angel, of course, is my favourite. I think it is beautiful and something very special for me.
Ilse: How was it for you to be photographed by Gerhard Aba?
Vivien: I think it is wonderful to be photographed by a person like Gerhard, because you get much more self-confident and I feel like a real woman.
Before I met Gerhard I was not self-confident. I was very sad and unhappy when I met him.
He wanted to take pictures of me and I wondered why on earth would he want to photograph me? Then he took pictures of me and suddenly I started blooming like a flower. Ever since then I feel good.
Ilse: I am interested in finding out how you felt during the photo session with Gerhard Aba? Has it changed your life in any way?
Carmen: I had a negative attitude towards being photographed, because I couldn’t stand seeing my pictures.
Ilse: yet still?
Carmen: It has gotten better since.
I still have difficulties, but it has gotten better. My self-confidence is strengthened and we had a lot of fun during the shootings.
Ilse: I can imagine that, because you are a person who likes to laugh a lot.
Carmen: Yes. Life is too short to make a long face.
Ilse: Would you describe this shooting as a dialog? For many photographers you have to pose in a certain way.
Carmen: It was like that: we could choose our own costumes. We could pick our own. This way you feel comfortable with what you pick out. That is much better than to be forced upon. This way each of us found the right clothes that fit our taste. The dress Regina picked fits her perfectly. When I saw the long dress I thought: Yes, that’s mine. I liked it!
Ilse: It spreads a lot of joy, I think. What do you think?
Carmen: Yes, I have been told that by strangers before. I find it hard to judge myself.
Ilse: But when you look at it, you feel good. Do you find it a good choice of Gerhard to pick this picture of you for the exhibition?
Ilse: How do you describe your mood during the session with Gerhard Aba?
Rosi: There were different moods: At the beginning I was totally nervous, uncertain how to look into the camera. I had inhibitions, afraid of showing my blemish and not wanting to justify the supposed claims. The more pictures he shot the more free I got and realised Gerhard didn’t have any claims on me.
Ilse: Is it, as Franz said in his speech Gerhard is letting it happen, it is not simply picture taking, it is working together. This characteristic distinguishes him. Do you feel that way, too?
Rosi: The shooting was an indescribable happening, a journey to myself. Gerhard left me the freedom to develop trust, charme and humour with increasing momentums. I enjoyed myself more and more, showing my blemish casually in different poses for the first time. Gerhard shot the pictures documenting my development.
I was allowed to look over Gerhard Aba’s shoulders while he was photographing in the summer of 2006. In February 2007 I had the pleasure of interviewing him at Café Sperl in Vienna. I am now presenting this interview verbatim with his kind permission:
Interview of Gerhard Aba in connection with the exhibition “Call of the Asymmetry”
Ilse: How did you get started taking these kinds of pictures?
Gerhard: It started with a relationship I had years ago. At that time I was about 20 years old I met a girl, not knowing she was amputated, I met her in front of the University. I noticed her limping, but I thought she might have had a skiing accident but I really didn’t care. I didn’t pay that much attention to it. Her eyes fascinated me. Within that year we met a few times and I never thought I would be able to go out with her. One day we met at a streetcar and we went for a coffee. One day we went out to eat and in front of the restaurant she told me, she had to talk to me and set some things straight. She told me she had only one leg and one arm. I looked at her and asked her: “So, what is hanging there?” She said she was wearing prosthesis. So I asked her: “Well, are we going in there to eat or not?” We went inside the restaurant and fell in love. We stayed together for 12 years. I took pictures of her, but as a hobby, because at that time I was working at the museum as a conservator. I took quite a few pictures of her, some of which are displayed here, the first pictures I took around 1980.
I got more and more interested in photography and at the museum for applied art a well-known professor, who had me as an assistant, he saw my talent as a photographer and he asked me to do some exhibitions. So I began doing photography in the field of museums. My girlfriend and I separated after 12 years and I began a relationship with another woman. I am often being asked how it was with a “two-legged” woman I must say it was different, one leg was in the way. After 12 years with a one-legged woman I had to adjust. Somehow there was still the inspiration from my former girlfriend to take more photos of this kind. Later, when I was working as a journalist there were more chances of meeting women in foreign countries. I approached them and we took pictures. That was the beginning, that’s how it started.
Ilse: When was your first exhibition of asymmetric pictures?
Gerhard: The first exhibition of these pictures came about by accident. I didn’t really feel up to showing my pictures in public, because I always thought the time wasn’t ripe yet for doing this. I always had the feeling that most people would not accept the genuine truth yet. It was a coincidence that led me to a Café close to here. I wanted to drink a coffee and had two folders with me. I have always wanted to go into this Café, the SMart-Café, I wondered what they do in there. As chance had it, there was an empty parking-space and I went in there. The owner knows all her guests so she saw this long haired stranger with his folders and asked him if he was an artist. I told her I am a photographer and she wanted to see the pictures. She was fascinated and asked me if I wanted to do an exhibition at the Café.
She offered to organize the exhibition and I agreed. In those days I put some pics in the internet and got good responses and I wanted more. There were many requests concerning a new website. That was the first exhibition I had. The Smart-Café is a so-called SM-Café, people with a sadistic-masochistic affinity meet there. During the exhibition I noticed the great tolerance towards my pictures and me. They were very curious to find out more and that was the point where I told myself I was doing the right thing. I was a little worried because I thought they tolerated my work because they are a minority and wanted to be tolerated themselves.
Ilse: When did this first exhibition take place?
Gerhard: About six years ago. That was the beginning of my presenting of this project. Shortly after that I met Dr. Franz Palank and we talked about my work and we often met at the museum.
Ilse: Have you ever considered photographing male amputees?
Gerhard: I have taken pictures of men before but I must say it is not my passion because of my own sexuality, of course. I think a woman can do that better. Although some women have told me they find the men’s pictures good but I feel my own maleness and there must be this “sparkling” during the shooting.
Ilse: I had the honour of being able to take part in such a shooting and experienced a lot of things happening. How do you describe it from your point of view?
Gerhard: Every woman you have in front of your camera is different. Of course all women are different. The most important thing for me is the mutual trust. There has to be a very high trust and harmony between the photographer and the model. Especially because it is a very deep intrusion into a taboo an intimacy everyone has. It is much easier for somebody “normal” with all limbs to stand in front of a camera. He doesn’t have the timidity a person with a missing limb has, that’s for sure. When I meet an amputee I cannot tell whether she will stand in front of my camera in two weeks, a year or in three years. It was never the avidity to take these photos, that isn’t so. But that seems to be the case among the devotees when men run after amputees down the street and take pictures of them. This desire has never been within me and shouldn’t be, will not be. A photographer asked me if I could help him find amputees he can photograph. He wanted a “recipe” how to find them. They have tried to find models through the internet and through ads in the paper, but it never worked.
If it works, it is a coincidence. First of all you need the personal contact. This can happen on the street. You just have to keep in contact. You need to build up trust. Some other photographers have consulted me and asked me if I could arrange a meeting with one of the girls. I don’t do that. I don’t let others destroy my reputation and my work that happens easily. The girl only has to be dissatisfied and it all comes back to me. That doesn’t look good and I don’t do that. When I have an event like this exhibition and some women are there being asked by other photographers I don’t mind. I won’t make connections though. That doesn’t work.
Ilse: Do you know approximately how many women you have photographed so far?
Gerhard: I don’t know I haven’t counted them but I assume about 400. In a thirty years time it amounts to that. I have a big archive. There are some women who –that is a point of trust- don’t want to be shown in an exhibition or a publication. I would never do that without the permission of the models. I accept that.
Ilse: Tell me about your most moving experience!
Gerhard: Moving experiences I’ve had a few. There was a situation in Rumania, at the Danube delta. I had a photo shoot at a restaurant and in came a blonde amputee. There you have to act quickly. I was totally fascinated by her. We talked with hands and feet my English is very bad and she couldn’t speak English herself, so that wasn’t the problem. I gesticulated wanting to take pictures of her. This photo is hanging here, too. “She danced for just one summer”. She was thrilled, wanted to know what I do for a living. We didn’t talk verbally but it worked. I knew I would be there for only one day and I had to take the chance. That was an intense experience for me.
Two years ago there was a similar situation for me during the takes of “The Charm of the Makel”. I was supposed to pretend I was taking pictures but I can’t do that. On that evening I photographed four women within ten minutes. That was stress! I found each person within that short time span. Those are the six pictures hanging in the gallery. That was hard but I don’t normally take pictures under these conditions. I usually take the time the women need. I dissociate myself from photographers who constantly decide which pose the model should take. I always try to build a bridge between the photographer and the model the dialog is very important to me. Both need space to grow. It takes time. Often I have an image in my mind but during the shooting it turns up differently. When something develops different then expected it gets more interesting. At the moment I notice the woman opening up and letting her hair down that is the right moment when the photographer has to see this moment is important to the woman. Then it starts to crackle.
Ilse: You have a keen sense of these moments which many photographers do not have.
Gerhard: I think I have this sense because my first encounter with this amputee was the most important one in my life. I don’t photograph an object I don’t know and that doesn’t interest me. Pictures of sports events e.g. don’t interest me, others can do that better than me.
Ilse: Have you ever asked anybody and got turned down?
Gerhard: Yes, that has happened three times so far.
Ilse: How are the reactions of non-handicapped persons to your photos at the exhibition?
Gerhard: I haven’t heard anything negative yet. I would like to have a little confrontation sometimes. When I did my first exhibition many viewers saw at second glance the women were missing something.
Ilse: What makes women with a “blemish” your favourite objects you capture in the pictures?
Gerhard: It is in the nature of a photographer to work for newspapers making covers the beautiful and perfect were part of my life but this perfection scared me. I can tell you about an experience I had at a photo shooting wanting to portrait a woman for a cover. We had an appointment and she didn’t show up. I called her up to find out what was keeping her from coming and she told me she couldn’t come, she had a pimple on her ass. That was the reason she couldn’t appear to the shooting for a portrait. Imagine this woman missing a limb over night. She would probably hang herself. The problems surrounding these women make me sick. I am very glad to know this world as well. To me the women I photograph are not only the women I photograph but also these women who have to bear this handicap the strongest women at all. This pride this self-determination and self-esteem! I find women who are not as society expects “physically normal” much more interesting. With them I can communicate better than with these tarted up chicks with pimples.
Ilse: Has anyone ever been hostile to you because of the pictures you take?
Gerhard: No, not that I know of. Although there was one gallery owner who offered to expose pictures of women with two hands and two legs. He said my pictures didn’t mean anything to him. After he saw the film “Of the Charm of the Makel” he said this film reminded him of a male amputee he had contact with as a child. This man helped his family whenever he could. Suddenly the charm of this man was before his face.
Ilse: What is your intention of this exhibition you are having now?
Gerhard: As an artist you should transport something with your work and show it. As an artist you have a certain freedom others don’t have. Even the freedom of showing pictures one normally hides and doesn’t show to others. To me this side of working with amputees was the highlight every time. After the shooting it always strikes me that many women suddenly found their femininity and stand by themselves. They tell themselves I am a woman like everybody else. Many women don’t feel feminine anymore after being amputated. With men it is different. They still are men after having lost a limb. A woman amputee often is considered a neuter.
Ilse: What is your message to the women?
Gerhard: You are beautiful, no matter what. My saying is: “I love it the way it is”. It is part of life and it can happen to anyone. Each of us can be crossing the street, pow…If something happened to me I wouldn’t have a problem with it I learned a lot from these women.
Ilse: You are familiar with the normality of an amputee’s life
Gerhard: It is a normal everyday thing to me.
Ilse: I hope others will soon see it that way, too.
Gerhard: During the exhibition at Leopold-Museum at Vienna in summer of 2006 there were plenty of people around my pictures. I noticed young people are more open to these kinds of pictures.