Key to Unseen Amsterdam's ethos is its commitment to talent development, with programmes set up specifically to support emerging talent in the world of contemporary photography. In our third interview with this year’s Talent Development award winners, we chat with Rebecca Fertinel (1991, RO), who won the Unseen Dummy Award with her dummy book Ubuntu.
Could you tell us about the concept of Ubuntu project and how were you developing it and how it has been changing through time?
At the core of the book is the idea of Ubuntu, a concept used in the Bantu-culture and introduced to me by my friend Tracy Tansia, who brought me along to her family events. The idea of Ubuntu can be translated as “I am because we are”, meaning that you only become human when you are connected to everything and everyone. The concept intertwines with the desire to maintain a group identity in a changing environment, and the desire to honour tradition whilst simultaneously no longer feeling connected to your old culture. This is still very relevant in Belgium, where migration traumas have passed through three generations.
The project started as a personal one. I was trying to figure out what kind of photographer I was. At my first event, the wedding, I found that I really enjoyed framing the images and searching for little details. Motivated by the experience, I decided to keep photographing with Tracy. I had no end goal in mind, sometimes I didn’t even browse through the pictures after taking them. Over time these images all began to surmount and I realised that I had to do something with them. It was only at the end of the project that I realised why I took the pictures and what they meant to me.
Working on this project made me feel like part of a group. It was a deeply valuable experience and one that I had lacked in my own life having been born in Romania and growing up with Belgian parents. This project is also my story. As you browse through the book the subject of the Congolese community fades and you begin to see the underlying message, one which everyone can relate.
Ubuntu is your first book project. How was it to work on the dummy for the first time? Can you describe the process of working on it?
Ubuntu was my graduation project, emerging from an opportunity granted by my school (KASK Conservatorium) to collaborate with a designer from Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem. The relationship between myself and the designer Sarah Cleeremans was one of mutual understanding, a true collaboration where each idea developed organically into another. Looking at various photobooks gave us a measure of what we wanted and what we didn’t. It emerged from a process of trial and error, playing around with the printed pictures until the book fell into place. Talking to different people and hearing different points of view was also very helpful in maturing my own.
Why do you think it is important for this project to exist in a book format?
Unlike an exhibition which is constrained by time and space, a book is something that everyone can access. It is, however, difficult to translate something as intangible as Ubuntu, which is a feeling, into a book. Moreover, I wanted to avoid making a catalogue of all the pictures, but use all the layers and specificities of what a book can be. It was important that I made a book where every aspect of the design has a meaning and makes sense. I consider the publication a work of art in itself. Cropping the images makes the rhythm of life really resonate, and to be able to browse through the pages gives the project a very tangible place in the world.
How has the project influenced the community’s life so far?
For me it is important that the book is respectful, conveying the love and vibrancy of all the people involved. I talked a lot with Tracy about this work, what was important and what was not. The funeral had a very big impact since it was the funeral of a young father who passed away very suddenly. People from overseas came for his funeral, but some family members couldn’t make it. So I was deeply touched to learn that they were so happy with the pictures, sending them to absent family members around the world. Though I was never considered their ‘official’ photographer, the family received an album made by myself or Tracy for every event I documented.
Images: from Ubuntu, 2018 © Rebecca Fertinel