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An interview with photographer Deana Kotiga: the importance of communities and their stories.

Photos by Fran Clark

Anthropology is the academic study of stories

Deana Kotiga is an anthropologist, photographer, and filmmaker. Passionate about the communities of people she meets, and their intricate lives, most of all, she is an avid storyteller.

“We know what coffee they drink, but how do they drink it?”

Kotiga is from Croatia, and moved to London for her undergrad to study anthropology at UCL. Currently, she works as an anthropologist and ethnographer in a market research company, working with businesses to help them understand the role their products and services play in market culture. She emphasises that anthropology is the study of people and why they do things, and that “you need this in tech and marketing” for companies to fully understand their customers. It’s something that few people consider: a brand might know what kind of coffee their demographic drinks, but not how they drink it.

While anthropology has the ability to teach us about human behaviour in the business world, Kotiga highlights how the study’s use is often limited to academia. After finishing her undergrad, she travelled to South America. In Cuba, she shot a short film, and in Brazil, she learnt Portuguese and worked in various hostels. She reflected on how meeting different people every day was an educational experience. “It really teaches you that it’s not just your reality; there’s so many realities out there,”

Travelling to South America shifted her perception of anthropology as a career. “I realised I wanted to use the anthropological knowledge and my academic background in the “real world” and bring it outside of the confines of academia” She wanted to shift her knowledge of anthropology into something more tangible - and, utilising her passion for art, pursued film. After doing a Master of Film at Goldsmiths, she started working in documentary film production. Recently she directed a music video for Croatian musician Barbara Munjas, which she feels reflects very traditional Croatian culture (more on that later).

That photograph is alive

Despite the fascinating opportunities that filmmaking provides her with, photography, specifically portrait photography, holds a very special place in Deana’s heart. She got her first camera from her parents when she was fourteen, and throughout high school developed her own photos in the darkroom and exhibited her work in galleries.

When Kotiga applied for university, she felt pressured into choosing between the academic study of anthropology, or her creative outlet of photography. However, recently she has reignited her love for the medium. She is happy to report that her current work blends the two extremely well, “my work is always informed by a certain social concept.” She cites her “Portraits of the Mediterranean” series, which is a set of portraits that allow her to learn about her subjects' lives. “The project engages with this place that is a myth,” Kotiga said, referring to the Mediterranean. “It has been a touchpoint for so many different cultures, throughout history and now especially with tourism, but [tourists] forget the complexities that [the Mediterranean] has had.”

The “Portraits of the Mediterranean” series is one of Kotiga’s strongest, featuring candid works of smiling older ladies.

Left: Pierina (95), Croatia from 'Ladies of the Med'

Right: My great Aunt from 'Ladies of the Med'

The body of work has a lasting message and impact that Kotiga explains best:

DK: I was in Barcelona, and I was walking around taking some photos, and I saw two women holding hands, and assumed they were mother and daughter. They were older, older than sixty, and I took a photo from behind, but knew it was a shit photo - anyone could capture that, I needed to go talk to them. And this woman, she’s 96, and I was thinking about the life she has lived, and if you think about the Franco regime and the dictatorship which ended in ‘78 - and she was fifty then, she was an adult person. To see everything that she’s seen, and now she exists at the same time as TikTok? It’s amazing, it's magical. I love taking pictures of older people, I love talking to them...If you speak to an older person, they will open up and talk and tell you about their life, especially women. Because women are so beautiful and put on this pedestal, and then all of a sudden society takes it back and takes away the at first when you're in your 20s you have to deal with being highly visible and everyone sees you. You get used to that, and the privileges that come with that, and then when you’re 50 that doesn't happen anymore, because women aren’t seen as desirable. I like to give those women back visibility and say ‘I see you, I hear your story’, I think that’s beautiful. Because we’re all going to be that, we’re in our 20s now, but that will happen to us...It's important to document these stories, because people will die, and what’s going to happen on the Croatian coast when all these people die? My grandmother died this summer…it’s sad to think about all the stories that I didn't ask her to tell me…

Monsterrat (96), Barcelona from 'Ladies of the Med'

Deana’s love for portrait photography is reflected in her approach to the medium. Through her own struggle with choosing between her academic and artistic interests, she is proof that creatives can do both. “I don’t think doing something for money legitimises your craft. It doesn't have to be paid for you to be a photographer.”

Kotiga’s path to making art has never been traditional, and that is represented by some of her artistic beliefs. For example, she doesn’t believe that a portrait needs to have someone’s face in it. “I like taking photos of their hands, and the details of their hands, because I feel they say a lot about where they come from and what they do, and their clothes, because someone’s clothes are what they’ve chosen other people to see.” To Kotiga, clothes, jewellery, and other possessions are an integral part of a person's life and existence, in anthropology this is called “object permanence”. It describes how, even though our possessions are just a ‘thing’, they have passed from person to person, and place to place; living a compounded life as rich as you or me. She says, “skin is your first boundary between this self and the other, but clothes are the second boundary...clothes are the skin you choose and how you present yourself in the world.”

When you move away from a place you don’t really belong anywhere anymore

Kotiga moved to London for her undergrad, and to get away from her hometown in Croatia. Many young people feel the same way; familiarity can lead to claustrophobia. Since leaving Croatia Kotiga has discovered other cultures and people. She has found that her love for her home has grown, a notable time being when photographing a Croatian man, “my friend said ‘this is just a Croatian man’ - for her this visual aesthetic is just what she sees everyday… [but] for me it was what I saw everyday and thought was boring… but I left and, having come back to [Croatia] I think it is so interesting again.”

Shooting the music video for Barbara Munjas helped Kotiga rediscover her home, but she believes that photographer Maria Svarbova helped first inspire her, “when I saw [her work], I [felt] something shift in me. When I was 18, I was trying to run away from Croatia and my culture and heritage. The music video I shot is very traditionally Croatian…and I'm trying to find that again. And I was running away from it, but now I'm coming back to it, and I think she inspired me to do that.”

The last thing fish would notice is water

Kotiga is excited about the year ahead, and she has started 2022 on a productive note. Along with the shooting of her music video, she has also just exhibited her work at ArtNumber23 in Athens.

She is also working on a project exploring the connection between physical spaces and communities; she explains that there was a shopping mall in Elephant and Castle that was torn down, despite a big community push not to as all the shops were owned by people in the area. London is seeing a big shift towards large structures used for consumption, taking the place of much-needed community spaces. As a response to this, her project is highlighting the relationship between anthropology and architecture.

DK: We don’t notice the way buildings impact the way we are [until they’re gone]. If you don’t have a living room, you can’t hang out with your friends, unless they are very close friends. These communities, often marginalised immigrants, are being wiped out literally - as they don’t have a space to be - and figuratively, because we don’t notice them.

I just started hanging out in that community centre, and it gives me a grounding of community…

[This community has given me so much, and I want to give back to them, so] my project will be to give them disposables so that they can capture the space from their perspective, and also [to] take portraits of them.

Kotiga’s concern with diminishing community spaces is especially relevant to students at university - we are so used to having spaces and groups of friends through class and campus that we almost take them for granted. Once those spaces are no longer available to us, we will find that London is a very big, very alienating city.

And with a big city comes the need for community. Kotiga’s work demonstrates the irreplaceable feeling that community gives us, and how we should celebrate each others’ stories.

Find Kotiga’s work @deanaemmakotiga on Instagram