Abandoned Factory Site (near Szekesfehervar, West Hungary, 2011)
Abandoned Factory Site (near Szekesfehervar, West Hungary, 2011)

Tamas Dezso’s body of work Here, Anywhere explores the remnants of the political shift in Hungary twenty years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union. In his artist statement Dezso remarks, “As [Hungary] experienced change it simply forgot about certain places—streets, blocks of flats, vacant sites and whole districts became self-defined enclosures.” Through his photographs Dezso explores these forgotten areas laden with a heavy sense of longing and melancholy. While still culturally vibrant, the Hungary in the photographs seems steeped in nostalgic reflection. Kate Levy interviews Tamas Dezso to get a deeper look.

As [Hungary] experienced change it simply forgot about certain places—streets, blocks of flats, vacant sites and whole districts

Kate Levy: Why did you choose to make a body of work about this specific landscape?

Tamas Dezso: The condition of the remnants and mementos of the [vanished] political era here is a mirror of the present age. In an absurd way, it says more about the present than the past, which has lingered impotently over the physical and spiritual remnants of Hungary’s heritage during the twenty-two years following the end of the Communist regime. Parts of cities have been bulldozed, communities have been enclosed and quarantined—or simply ignored.

Lieutenant Colonel Istvan (Josvafo, Northeast Hungary, 2011)
Lieutenant Colonel Istvan (Josvafo, Northeast Hungary, 2011)

Since systemic changes occurred in Hungary, no political entity has reckoned with the past. Not having been processed, the past affects the present, which leads to the current anomalies: the derailment of the mutually desired democracy of 1989, the introduction of dictatorial power principles, the forging ahead of extremism, and growing neo-fascism.

These photographs can be mostly interpreted as a criticism of the present age and are made from the perspective of these observations.

KL: What is your connection to Hungary?

TD: Family connections and photography itself tie me here.

As I was beginning to photograph the remains of dictatorships in Hungary and Romania, frightening symptoms of reemerging dictatorships, hidden in democracy, started to appear. The state propaganda machinery appropriated a large part of the media and rough state intervention overwrote the market economy.

Hearing the daily news is frustrating because it gives rise to the idea of moving to a real democracy. Yet, it’s not so simple. Political discourse does not distance itself sufficiently from divisive, racist overtones, which treat minorities as a burden.

However exasperating, enraging, and unfair the situation is, I am here.

KL: You describe the people you photograph as inhabitants of sites where "longed-to-be-forgotten Eastern Europeanness still lingers.” Can you discuss the role nostalgia plays in the work?

TD: The pictures do not contain locations and scenes that would give cause for nostalgia—rather, people and regions that have been left on the periphery after the political changes. These groups can generally be characterized by disappointment, falling behind due to a failure to achieve. Eastern Europeanness is experienced as isolation.

Yet, in an absurd way, a significant part of society is attached to the period before the fall of Communism, with feelings of nostalgia. Alongside the decaying remains of the previous regime’s infrastructure, a false image has formed in the collective memory. This belief holds that the not-too-distant past provided a kind of security and some steady means of finding one’s way, despite a system that was generally bad.

Abandoned Room (Soviet Base, Szentkiralyszabadja, West Hungary, 2012)
Abandoned Room (Soviet Base, Szentkiralyszabadja, West Hungary, 2012)

A similar wave of nostalgia can be detected in neighboring Romania. Besides a longing for the hard everyday of a traditional, agrarian, and animal-tending way of life (which can still be experienced in the microcommunities of villages undergoing slow depopulation), nostalgia for the period of the Ceausescu dictatorship appears to be reviving.

The world of Communism determined everything; society was governed from above and accustomed to direction. Today, given the extreme poverty, it is difficult for this same society to appreciate the lack of autocratic direction. It is difficult to orient under democracy and a market economy. Many people believe things were simpler under Communism—at least there were jobs.

KL: What challenges did you face in photographing and compiling the series?

TD: Primarily my own limitations presented a challenge. My attitude, language, and technique changed with this series. I left press photography behind—it had become a narrow world for me. A more abstract intention supplemented the documentary perspective. I have sought a more abstract approach with the unity of the horizon, homogenous colors, and arbitrarily chosen topics, leaving entirety behind.

Finding locations to shoot was not difficult. These islands, destined to be forgotten, live embedded in the sphere of society, and although those in power would like to write them off by ostracizing their residents, these people receive visiting strangers with pleasure, opening up their communities in response to real interest.

KL: Can you describe the lives of your portrait subjects in more detail? How do you know them and what do their lives look like outside of the frame?

TD: Often I just happened to meet the characters in my pictures while working on other things. For example, I met István, the lieutenant colonel, at the unveiling of a military monument. He was doing the military honors at the ceremonial event. To me his character symbolizes the anachronistic power, or rather infirmity, of the Hungarian military presence with his uniform projecting a theatrical appearance, giving the impression of a prop.

I met Petya in an underground cultural meeting place in the city center. He worked there. Maintaining a low profile, he slept in a rear corridor of the former school building. Homeless, a philosopher outside society, Petya symbolizes the social status of thinking people.

Peter with a Mangalitsa piglet (near Miskolc, Northeast Hungary, 2009)
Peter with a Mangalitsa piglet (near Miskolc, Northeast Hungary, 2009)

Peter works at a Mangalitsa pig farm in northeast Hungary, one of the EU’s poorest regions, where unemployment is 90 percent in some villages. As a member of the [Roma] minority, Peter has taken refuge, emotionally and physically, far away from the intolerant and mostly racist society, among an animal [species] that, as unique Hungarian products, represents Hungarian culture in the world’s top restaurants.

KL: Johanna feels ghostly and surreal. It’s certainly not your traditional documentary portrait. What were the circumstances surrounding the making of that image?

TD: I had a magazine commission to photograph nuns in Hungary. Johanna lives in the convent of a Premonstratensian community in Zsámbék, a village near Budapest. Besides leading a religious life, the order also performs an extremely important secular service: taking on a state duty, they provide local gypsy and mentally disabled children with clothes, school equipment, and food, and they teach them in school. Johanna also teaches history in the Zsámbék Grammar School, and the photograph was taken as we were walking back to the convent after one of her lessons there.

KL: What have you been working on lately?

TD: Besides continuing with the series Here, Anywhere, I am working in Romania again. I used to visit the country frequently as a press photographer, but now I have begun photographing that special region from a completely different perspective. In this neighboring country (which, like Hungary, is burdened with a grave political past—formerly a dictatorship, it was industrialized with force and without sense) I am also observing the transition period.

I photograph the symbolic landscapes and characters of this world

Isolated mini-universes of villages try to discover the exhausting means of survival, humbly cooperating with nature or, for example, searching for the means of obtaining daily necessities by dismantling the sellable iron frames of former industrial monsters. I photograph the symbolic landscapes and characters of this world, which, despite hard lives, recall a fairy tale —shepherds, metal-collecting gypsies, the horizon crowded to the brim with sheep.

Lately, because I have been spending more time in Romania, the Here, Anywhere series is becoming more compact. I have been working on new material with a writer and a professional interpreter for more than two years now. The spectacular decay of traditions and the vanishing remains of forced industrialization present us with an important [historical] rescue operation that can just about be performed. We are also recording oral histories and doing interviews and writing descriptions. The photographs and the texts will soon be combined into a book.

Tamas Dezso

Tamas Dezso (b. 1978) is a documentary fine art photographer working on long-term projects focusing on the margins of society in Hungary, Romania, and in other parts of Eastern Europe. His work has been exhibited worldwide and has been published in Time, the New York Times, National Geographic, GEO, the Sunday Times, Le Monde magazine, OjodePez, HotShoe, and many others.

Kate Levy

Kate Levy is a Brooklyn-based photographer with an MFA from ICP-Bard. She recently co-organized the symposium “Memories Can’t Wait,” on alternative documentary strategies at the International Center for Photography.