Klavdij Sluban, is based in Paris. His poetic black and white photographs have been celebrated around the world. Sluban’s work reflects movement, journeys between his home base in Paris and Eastern Europe from where his family originates. A special part of his oeuvre involves a series of photographic workshops with young men in prisons. Sluban has been developing these very special projects for over a decade in Paris, Eastern Europe, South America, and most recently in Ireland. I spoke with him recently on this project and his work.

Peggy Sue Amison: You’ve been working in prisons for 10 years. What gave you the idea to begin such a project? And why do you only work with young prisoners?

Klavdij Sluban: Adolescence is a crucial period of one’s life. The theme of my master’s degree was ‘Adolescence in American Literature’. I started photography when I was 14. Prison is a concentrate of time and space, the quintessence of photography.

PSA: How do you choose the prisons you work in?

KS: According to the countries I will travel to. Most important they must give me a positive answer that they accept the project in its full realization, as an artistic approach and development. To work for a long period inside a jail you do need a certain kind of trust from their side. It is a form of mutual cooperation even though I am totally independent in my work and selection. There must be desire on the side of the jail administration for such a project even if I am the one who triggers off this desire.

PSA: Why are you only working with young offenders?

KS: Because of their energy. To be imprisoned at this young age means they
have a quest beyond the norm, or in adaptation. I show them how their energy (rage, violence, hatred...) can be channeled through art too. It is much more efficient. And on top of it, you can even be rewarded for it through recognition, because we all need recognition.

PSA: Do you feel you have a specific goal in mind while working on these

KS: The primary goal is photographic. To show the kids something constructive is possible in these conditions. It’s very important to have a precise goal, but it is also out of moral considerations. I do not question the fact they are in jail, but I give them the tool to question themselves, their confinement, and the space they are confined in.

PSA: When did you begin working with photography? Can you tell me a bit
about your background, your relationship to Paris, your travels abroad and
your connection to Eastern Europe?

KS: Photography was a way of channeling the too numerous emotions from the
adolescence on. I was born in Paris, childhood in ex-Yugoslavia, back to Paris,
then constant trips between Paris and Livold, a small village in Slovenia. Too
many back-and-forths. At one point I decided to make something out of it.

Photography is a pretext. Eastern culture is my emotional background, so with my education in France I think French Cartesian, yet through my eastern emotional background I behave loco Slavic. Paris is neutral and very convenient to me. I would not live in Paris if there were no metro. My parents decided to go to France when they fled from Yugoslavia in 1960 because my mother was passionate of French literature and had devoured all French classics.

I am all the time aware I could have been German, American, Argentinian...that’s why at one point I decided to be me.

PSA: Do you feel your work is influenced by writing? Does your past study and interest in literature inform your work in any way?

KS: I feed on literature so my life is influenced by it. Especially visual writers, such as Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Proust, Beckett, Sebald, Arno Schmidt or Werner Schwab. I mention these names because I live constantly with their writing in mind. Every single moment of my life is translated into my mind and heart through literature.

PSA: Your work outside the prisons seems to be made while travelling... Do
you feel that this will always be a recurrent theme in your photography?

KS: Travelling is part of my genes. My great-grandfathers, grandfathers, and father all travelled to make a better living. Mainly to America (in fact 'Amerika') and France. At the age of 18 months I was in a train for a big trip, so photography is just a personal way of giving shape to something my ancestors have implanted into my genes.

But jails have also to do with traveling because it is the end of the trip. I started the project in jails aware of my total freedom as a traveler, with a western country passport in my pocket on top of it. I wanted to see what it looks like when everything becomes impossible. It is a way to prove to myself life is possible even when it is impossible. I don’t like it when it is smooth and predictable. My trips are as tough as my sojourns in jails. The maximum freedom is to choose your burdens.

Peggy Sue Amison is an American photographer and writer based in Cobh, County Cork, Ireland where she is the Artistic Director of the Sirius Arts Centre. Peggy has been working in photography for over 25 years, her photographs and articles have been published in the US and Ireland.

Klavdij Sluban will complete a second series of workshops in St. Patrick’s prison in Dublin in December through the Artist in Prisons Scheme funded by the Arts Council there in partnership with the Department of Justice and Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, County Cork. St. Patrick’s is the only prison for young offenders in the Republic of Ireland. In 2007 continuing his partnership with Sirius Arts Centre he worked with Belfast Exposed in Northern Ireland to complete a similar series of workshops for young men. The work was be curated and developed into a touring exhibition.

Watch a short video interview with Sluban about his work with adolescents in prisons: