On God And The Human Mind: A Conversation With Photographer Lana Mesic

Having developed a fascination with religion as an atheist child, Croatian-born photographer Lana Mesic was naturally drawn to elements of God and the invisible. Today, she weaves the theme of intangible belief systems into her practice; experimenting with human emotions in addition and how they affect relationships.

The Rotterdam-based photographer is curious as to how the mind works and aims to mollify that curiosity by exploring the links between science, religion, psychology and sociology. Her documentary series titled ‘Anatomy Of Forgiveness’ is a set of emotive portraits depicting the legacy of the Rwandan genocide. The subjects in each portrait are either the perpetrator or survivor of the tragedy, and both parties offered to recreate for Mesic their own circumstances of forgiveness. We sat down with Mesic to discuss the importance of making such valuable work for society, questioning our worldviews, and what surprises her about people.

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Your work is very conceptual, in that it takes metaphorical ideas about human nature and makes them literal. Why is it important to visualize themes like failure and empathy?

Early on in my life, there were invisible forces that had an impact on me, and yet they didn’t have an image. During the Yugoslav war, there were times we needed to hide from ‘the enemy’. As a child this entity was fascinating; who was he and what did he look like? After Croatia gained its independence, Christian religion classes were introduced at school. As I was raised an atheist, this was weird and curious for me. Who was this God character? I didn’t know at the time but this had a profound impact on the way I saw life. The older I got, the more I realized that much of what influences us is invisible and this became the leading question in my work: In a world where we put so much importance on the visual aspect of our existence, what is our relationship with the invisible one? How does it affect us and how do we affect it? In a world where we put so much importance on the visual aspect of our existence, what is our relationship with the invisible one?” 

How do you experiment with your subject’s characteristics and behaviors in order to capture them on camera at that moment?

My methodology often includes borrowing techniques used in science. For example in ‘Anatomy of Forgiveness’ I dug deep into psychology case studies and researched how a behavioral psychologist would set up an experiment. I found that what they use are quite simplified tools in order to strip down reality to that one particular element they are interested in. I found this fascinating. The difference between a scientist and me is in the interpretation of the images, but the actual setup might be the same. This raises the very interesting issue of context and how an image can completely change its meaning depending on where it is shown.

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Your work highlights what our cultural dynamics say about us, as humans. Why is it important to you to show this?

I feel a strong responsibility as an artist to make work that contributes to society. Personally I couldn’t fill my days making aesthetically pleasing things just for the sake of it. I guess I need to feel useful in a way that I find meaningful. I was trained as a documentary photographer but quite early on I ran into a whole myriad of philosophical and ethical conundrums. The main one was: how is the work I made going to influence primarily the people or places depicted, and the audience observing it. To give an example, if I were to photograph a malnourished child wearing filthy clothes and if I was to show this image in a museum or gallery what does that do? What kind of process am I setting off? It became really important to explore these invisible dynamics that have an incredible amount of impact on us.

What is something that surprises you about your subjects?

Nothing is solid in this world… And sometimes you have someone that tells you that something is red while you saw it as blue all your life. That’s beautiful. How boring it would be if we would all see blue all the time? It gets tricky when we don’t have enough patience for the acceptance of these differences. There you have the cause of pretty much all wars fought ever.

Anatomy of Forgiveness
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All images © Lana Mesic
This interview has been edited for brevity.

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