Where the Wildflowers Grow – Michaela Nagyidaiová

– 

I was born and raised in a small, quiet neighbourhood in Bratislava, Slovakia, but I have been living in London for more than five years now. Aside from photography, I really enjoy making amateur publications, zines and book dummies. I would love to learn bookbinding.

Last December I  graduated with a Master’s in documentary photography and photojournalism from the London College of  Communication and photography has been my main job ever since. In addition to my personal work, I also do freelance work like making portraits or creating visuals for musicians, bands, and artists. 

Similarly, I do a bit of graphic design work for online content and publications. Lately, I’ve been  trying to find at least a part-time job mostly due to COVID-19’s impact on the industry, to feel more secure and have more financial means to invest in my documentary projects.  

To keep the creativity going, I’m one of two founders of ‘In Conversation With’, a platform for visual discussions as well as one of three founders of Album East Central, which focuses on personal stories from the regions of Eastern and Central Europe.

What’s your story?

Before moving to London, I underwent a year of college in Brighton where I enrolled in a photography course focused mostly on analogue photography. I had been photographing digitally before but I wasn’t taking photography very seriously – the images were usually only for myself and I never showed them to  anyone else.

The course in Brighton taught me how to use 35mm film cameras, process films, and print black and white photographs in the darkroom. It was an experience that made me realise how much I enjoyed doing something creative, and I began to contemplate working within the arts industry one day.  

My photographs usually address very personal topics ranging from home environments, family roots, heritage, identity, hidden histories of sites to recollections, and rural isolation. Documenting places, people, or objects that I am connected to is very meaningful to me as well as working with memories, visualising someone else’s or my own memories through photography or archival materials.

These topics intrigue me as I have always enjoyed examining historical materials or events which have had an impact on communities, lands, or even helped to shape our current society. I find that delving into and studying people’s personal stories or past occurrences is vital in order to comprehend how individual beliefs, opinions, or customs had been formed.

Collaborating with people, talking with them, discovering personal stories, and translating them into visual material is why I’m grateful for being a documentary  photographer. 

Tell us about your project. What was your motivation behind  making the work?

‘Where the Wildflowers Grow’ uncovers concealed family secrets and stories in my family. It explores part of my family’s story, their forced migration from a small village called Antartiko in Northern Greece, which they had to leave behind as a result of poor socio-economic conditions and the Greek Civil War that happened from 1946-1949.

Until today, the Greek Civil War and its aftermath was a very sensitive topic, rooted in the landscape and many communities in Greece. The work is a journey through my family’s  homeland through which I familiarise myself with the complex history of the environment and document the remnants of my ancestral heritage and past events that affected the region.  

The motivation behind making this work was to discover the family roots that I knew so little about. Similarly, my grandmother’s migration to former Czechoslovakia has always been a taboo topic in my family and I wondered why.

Through this project, my aim was to analyse a very traumatic event of the forced migration that she underwent as a young girl. My goal was to turn it into something that might actually be therapeutic for her. The collaboration with my grandmother was an essential part of the work, and I have interviewed her on many occasions to discuss the departure from her birthplace. Since it’s such a sensitive topic, it understandably took a long while for her to open up to me about it.  

What was your experience while making the work and journeying through Greece? Did the project help you understand things better. Do you perhaps feel a kinship with your ancestral land?

At first I couldn’t believe that I was finally there, as the whole journey took me a while to plan.

The village of my ancestors, Antartiko, is a small place with only eighty residents, hidden in the mountains of Northern Greece.

I  must admit that the first walk through the place was creepy; it was early evening, the sun was setting, there was nothing around but ruined houses and demolished shops, local dogs, and myself. I could feel that it is the type of location where there must have been numerous reasons for residents to leave it behind.

But after spending days of coming across beautiful, silent places in the village and its  surroundings, I could feel strong sensations of comfort and happiness there. I wanted to stay for a longer period of time. The project was a vital connection to my ancestral land and ever since last summer, I’ve been wanting to visit it again to explore it even further and connect with more people living there.

Have any of your family followed your project? What were their reactions to the work?

In the beginning, my family members were really surprised that I was interested in studying this topic and talking to them about it. They couldn’t really comprehend why. However, after having conversations with them and explaining that it was very important for me to become more aware of my grandmother’s past  and heritage that links us to Northern Greece, they understood.

My grandfather and my mum were the biggest help. As the story began to unfold, I found out  that my grandfather was conducting a secret investigation into the event himself, the reason why my family was separated due to the Greek Civil War and how my grandmother arrived in former Czechoslovakia – and this was done all behind my grandmother’s back. He was afraid that all this information might upset her somehow. We met up many times, talking about it over a coffee or tea, trying to find answers to these questions together. Eventually, I began translating our findings to my grandmother, trying to learn about her opinions and experiences.  

Overall, my family has been extremely supportive and curious about the work. The moment of showing them the project them in a book format was very meaningful to them and for the first time, my  grandmother said that she would like to visit her native village in Greece with me. 

While working on the project, were there any moments or experiences or realisations that stood out  to you?

When I got to meet the locals from the village, they were incredibly welcoming and helpful even before finding out that a part of my family originated from there. One of the locals, Nikos, even remembered the street where my ancestors used to live, and he took me to the ruin of their original house. It was one of the more intense experiences of the whole journey. I went there every morning to walk through the small wildflower field and attempted to memorise and document every corner of that place.

Recommend us something.

I’ve been listening to new albums by Michael Kiwanuka and Sevdaliza, they are both extremely  talented artists and their work is beyond inspiring.

I have also just finished reading a book by a Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova called ‘The Border’ and it was absolutely amazing. If you’re intrigued about the role of borders in a political context and during communism, read this.

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

When I think of something that has strongly influenced my photography, it must be this old family album, full of photographs taken on a large-format camera.

Ever since I was a child, I loved to visit my grandmother’s flat and look through old family albums and photographs. She and my  grandfather have quite a big collection and it’s also one of their favourite activities to sit down and  reminisce.

There was one specific photograph that is stuck in my mind, of my great-great-grandmother  dated right before the first world war, where she was pictured with nuns in the garden of a nunnery. The  location was somewhere in the Czech Republic. I don’t know the exact town or history behind the image but it’s very strong; the look on her face is somehow ingrained in my mind. The act of passing down objects, letters from one to another generation is very significant to me. It almost feels like I can get a hold of many memories this way.

Even though many writers and photographers inspire me every day, I always think of a typical photo album which was the trigger for my photographic interest, the way photographs are made, and what they represent. 

www.michaelanagyidaiova.com / @michaelanagyidaiova