Cianalas – Antony Sojka

I was born in Germany but grew up in Brazil, where my parents worked as development aid workers. For the last twelve years I’ve been based in Berlin and earlier this year I moved together with my partner and our daughter to Edinburgh, Scotland.

After studying photography at Ostkreuz School for Photography in Berlin, I worked mainly as an assistant and producer. After some years of gaining experience there, I decided to work as a freelance photographer which has been my main and only occupation for the last five years.

What’s your story?

As a child I spent a lot of time alone and enjoyed creating stories. I felt quite early that I would like to work in a creative field but never knew what exactly I wanted to pursue. My grandfather gave me his old Zenit 11 and a very simple box camera that took medium format film. I had no idea how they worked and just tried it out. It was at least a year later that someone mentioned to me that I needed a light meter in order to set the camera right; I very much enjoyed to guess the settings and this was the first thing that got me hooked on photography. It was a very playful approach.

When I was more confident using it as a tool and understood that it was a key to open doors into other peoples lives, it sparked something in me. This had been a big revelation to me and, given that I used to be very shy, this was a great way to meet and talk to other people and build up confidence.

Most of my work is about the connection of people and their surroundings and how those shape who we are and become.

I guess the interest in this topic comes from never having had the feeling of calling a place “home“. I was eleven years old when we moved from Brazil to Germany, and after that it was hard being recognised as either. In Germany I was seen as a foreigner as well as in Brazil and essentially I grew up not feeling like I belonged to either of those places. It left a void in me that took a long time to cope with, to understand that your surroundings have a big impact in shaping who you are and will become.

Tell us about your project.

‘Cianalas, A Sense of Belonging’ is about crofters and their connection to their land. Crofters are remarkable. With utter care they try to have a minimal impact on the wildlife that cohabits their land. Using available resources to fertilise, such as seaweed, and mostly traditional farming methods, they manage to cultivate the land in a way that is truly unique.

In 1976, crofters were given the right to buy their crofts – a welcome freedom from landowners. However, this also opened up the market for others to buy crofting land as well. Many people, drawn by the romanticised idea of living in an area surrounded by nature, started buying up croft houses simply to use them as holiday homes, and with no intention to work the land.

This project is still in a very early stage. I did a lot of research and prep beforehand and worked extensively for nine days; getting up early to meet with crofters, making sure to meet with as many as possible, taking notes… it was really meant as an initial research trip. I did not expect to come back with so much material from that trip, but in the end I had a good first selection that created a foundation to this project.

Has there been an increased challenge now with COVID-19 on top of Brexit?

Given that crofters mostly live in quiet remote areas, COVID-19 did not have much of an impact as far as I know.

Brexit, on the other hand, could have a catastrophic outcome. Crofters – and farmers as well – rely on subsidies that have been coming from the EU, which might now completely cease to exist.

The UK will most likely need time to figure out how to pay for subsidies for crofters, but since they might not see it as a priority, every little delay could mean financial ruin for crofters. Most of the crofters I talked to were worried they might lose what they built up and cultivated for many years.

It’s so important to share stories of our own communities and those of others. How have you approached telling this particular story as an outsider to the community?

My usual approach is to find someone who might be interested in telling the story that I want to explore and having a conversation with them about it. Only after having had a conversation with them do I ask if can photograph them. It was also quite useful to ask if that person knows someone else who they think might be good for me to meet.

This dynamic has often worked for me and felt less intrusive, since I don’t come into other peoples space with a camera already out but rather show them that I am interested in listening to what they have to say. Their help in finding other interesting people to meet creates a symbiosis that I very much enjoy.

So far I’ve had very positive feedback from them and given that the portrait of one the crofters I met (Archie, who is fourteen years old) won the Portrait of Britain 2020 award, he and his family have been very delighted to hear about it.

Have there been any moments that stand out to you while working on this project?

After talking to many crofters I came to the realisation that their work is very important and their current unknown financial situation could lead to an imbalance in an eco-system they help to maintain and keep up.

Once they are forced to sell or leave their crofts, it is very likely that their croft will become nothing more than a holiday home for someone else, and the beauty that lead to so many people wanting that lifestyle will not be there anymore.

What are you recommending?

Currently I am re-reading Tomas Tranströmer’s collection of poems – he is my favourite poet. His work always felt very photographic to me in the way he describes his surroundings, and he can describe so much while using so little words – it is fantastic.

Music-wise I have been listening to Matt Berninger’s new album ‘Serpentine Prison’. I had the pleasure to meet Rachel Sermanni by chance and discover how wonderful her album ‘Tied to the Moon’ is and Henrik Lindstrand with his new album ‘Nordhem’ have also been playing through my speakers.

I am very much looking forward to watching ‘Being a Human Person’ by Fred Scott, a film about one of my favourite filmmakers, Roy Andersson.

Films that I highly recommend are: ‘Bait’ by Mark Jenkin, beautifully shot in black and white on film; ‘The Square’ by Ruben Östlund is still a gem that I very much enjoy; and a series that not only stars one of my favourite actresses but is also extremely human in its storytelling is Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ – so true, raw and poetic at the same time.

And I am forever grateful to having been able to support Tomas Leach’ movie about Saul Leiter titled ’13 lessons with Saul Leiter’, a documentary which makes my heart jump every time I watch it.

Finally, tell us about one piece of art that has influenced you.

To keep it short, I narrowed it down to two things: a band and a book.

The National have had a big influence on me and are my all-time favourite band. Their music helped me through some very dark times and for many years they never ceased to awe me with their music.

Secondly, Saul Leiter’s work has mesmerised me since I first found out about him during my studies. His book ‘Early Color’ is one of my most viewed books in my shelf and I still have so much to learn from him.

antonysojka.com / instagram.com/antonysojka