Meet Aga: The Award-Winning Photojournalist Who is Expanding Conservation Efforts Through Her Lens
Aga!! It is SO lovely to get a chance to catch up with you once again, especially after so many huge achievements in such a short time! Firstly, you have got to be one of the most inspiring women we know….and second- a massive congratulations on your recent Leonardo da Vinci and Cameroon Awards are given to you on behalf of your incredible work… (which we’ll get to chat about soon)!
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read our first conversation with Aga, you can read that here.
I personally cannot wait to dive in and learn more about your journey in the past year! So without further ado….
At this very moment, you’re still in Europe after what looks like the most stunning trip where you’ve received The Cameroon Award AND the prestigious Leonardo da Vinci Prize for your work in socio-cultural photojournalism/documentary work! Can you tell us more about each award and their significance / what they honour?
Leonardo da Vinci Prize was awarded for the documentary project on behalf of Photographers without Borders in Tanzania. The project was focused on documenting HIV prevention and education efforts in rural Tanzania lead by the Tackle Africa team more on the subject can be found here. The 14th Julia Margaret Cameron Award was received for winning documentary series on plastic pollution of San Blas Archipelago in Panama. Both awards are very significant as they are for documentary work addressing important issues our societies face, such as adequate access to healthcare services and advocacy for prevention and treatment as well as removing the stigma associated with HIV. San Blas reportage was focused on the ecology and pollution of the autonomous archipelago of San Blas populated by the indigenous people of Guna Yala tribe. Guna people fought for independence from Panama and now are faced with tough choices of leaving their islands and ancestral practices for the mainland as the islands are rapidly sinking due to climate change. In addition, Guna has no means of rubbish removal, so the idyllic islands associated with picturesque vacations in paradise are laden with plastic rubbish, bottles and cans.
- It’s easy for me to say that without a doubt you are so deserving of both! Your photography is like a storybook through the lens of someone else’s soul. What do these awards mean to you? Did you know you were nominated to win either?
Thank you so much, it is incredible privilege and honour and privilege to have my work recognized by international communities and various publishing houses, especially Dodho and Lens Magazine AND as always Matsidiso for your continuous support. Every publication, award, and exhibition is always very unique, unexpected, and special, it is a privilege to meet people who have an interest and find meaning in my work, it’s very humbling and inspiring to meet fellow artists and be part of the international community. I was awarded Leonardo da Vinci Prize while working on the project in Uganda and JMC & Pollux were part of the juried entry and also unexpected, I always keep my hopes high and expectations low…. It feels amazing to be a recipient of such prestigious awards.
- What has been your most impactful and life-changing trip in the past year? Have there been any difficult moments?
I believe that each experience has an impact on our lives, we often just do not pay enough attention to [life] it during daily hustle and bustle, and my daily aim is to be as conscious and aware of my thoughts and actions as possible. That being said few events stand out, first being my recent trip to Uganda and my work with both Batwa People from the Sanuriro Batwa Community and Bunyonyi Teenage Mothers Empowerment Initiative lead by Kitojo Empowerment Girls Preparatory and Vocational School.
Batwa are indigenous forest-dwelling pygmy people who call the forests of Bwindi and Mgahinga their home. I had a privilege to work with an amazing young man, Alex, who selflessly on crosses the Bwindi forest on foot, leaving his young family behind to help Batwa community. In 1991 Batwa were displaced from their homes when Bwindi and Mgahinga became national Parks to protect endangered mountain gorillas. Nowadays, besides the loss of their forest-based social system, culture, and traditional practices, Batwa face multiple challenges in their family planning, education, marginalization, and adaptation to a new lifestyle. Alex helps to advocate and coordinate efforts to help Batwa people lead a fully sustainable lifestyle and preserve their endangered culture.
During my project with Batwa community, Benjamin, who is community coordinator and mentor at Kitojo Empowerment Girls Preparatory and Vocational School, pulled me into covering another project involving the empowerment of young women who were taken advantage off by the members of society. In many rural societies, young women face limited access to education and career opportunities, which causes them to move to bigger towns and cities where they often become victims of abuse and mistreatment. Benjamin along with Asiimwe Lucky, School Director, established community-based school focused on providing free education for young women and their children helping to break the cycle of abuse and enable children to pursue further education. It is a mighty effort lead by two charismatic men with very limited resources, I strongly encourage everyone to read the article about them and get involved as we all have the power to make a difference in other peoples lives.
- With photojournalism and documentary- especially in a socio-cultural setting where you’re telling a story through the lens of tribal people in the most honest and truthful way, what are the biggest challenges?
Most important for me is to tell their stories through their eyes and not be biased in a way I envisioned their community. Do I have a right to rearrange the interior of the hut or people’s outfits to capture “authentic” and “ethnic” look we see and expect from travel magazines? No, the answer is no for me, hence I transitioned into documentary photography where one is not allowed to manipulate the environment and I aim to capture communities in the purest form I’m capable to do so, knowing that my focus and framing is already introducing personal bias. I do question ethics and integrity while on the project and in postproduction, as well I do not promise what I cannot deliver.
- How do you push your own boundaries year on year and expand upon your work?
Continuous learning from literature, podcasts, documentaries, valuable conversations with my partner, friends, and family, staying curious and inquisitive, accepting that not every submission for publication will get accepted or nominated and pushing through that, not always the easiest part, as we are all emotionally connected to our work on a deeper level. Travelling with an open mind to off beaten path destinations and learning from classics such as Gaudi’s use of light or being taken back in time to the Renaissance when walking the streets of Florence. I place a big value on communication, so my preferred way is to learn from locals, whether it is a village elder deep in the rain forest or a patron in Rome. I always aim to have personal interactions with people rather than digital ones, and that includes my limited time on social media.
- We spoke about this a little in our last interview, but I still find this topic to be extremely important for the here and now… with all the world’s chaos, grief and suffering from the fires in Australia to war-zones and depletions of our ocean and land- what is it that humans can learn from tribes? What insights do you naturally absorb by being in these communities?
The state of our planet is truly heartbreaking, and most of our leaders/governments are doing next to nothing to address the issue. Indigenous people are very environmentally conscious, for example, Batwa people are planting trees to encourage ecological diversity and revive species lost to deforestation.
Members of the communities living on the Changthang Plateau regularly remove plastic rubbish from the pristine shores of the Tso Moriri Lake, which is one of the most fragile ecosystems and breeding grounds for critically endangered migratory birds. We tipped the scale and loss of our ecosystems is tremendous, and I strongly believe that sometimes we overlook the importance of our individual choices. We do make a difference by recycling, upcycling and limiting our consumerism by buying less, supporting local businesses which are sustainable such as Matsidiso, which embraced the philosophy of “slow” fashion, using only materials which are locally sourced and all items are produced in the ethical matter by artisans.
- Where to from here for you?
Just a couple of weeks from now for the 15th Julia Margaret Cameron Award and Pollux Awards' Exhibition hosted by the FotoNostrum Gallery in Barcelona, followed by the exhibition in May at the International Norman Biennial in Palermo, Sicily.
- As a part of our ‘Shoe For The Liberated’ series, we always ask this one questions: What does liberation mean to you?
Liberation is knowing that I can travel without boundaries, choosing projects that have meaning and personal interest, knowing that I do not have to conform to other people’s needs or expectations, knowing that I can pave my way freely and with support of my friends and family, knowing that I can freely make choices and speak my mind, knowing that I have access to education and health care, knowing that I can make a difference in other women’s lives …….
It is knowing that there is always more to be explored and learned and that life always works out and that the path we are travelling on is where we should be …..
- And finally, what is your favourite Matsidiso product right now?!
OMG, that is the toughest question as I LOVE, LOVE and LOVE all your products equally, I’m still madly in love with my ostrich feather clutch bags (yes, I do have 2 of them) and they are part of my attire for all events, exhibitions and award ceremonies, can’t live without them. I love the new Rosa Bag and as always Dino and Zola oxfords, as they keep my feet comfortable and stylish.
Thank you so much for all of your time, Aga!! We can’t wait to see what the future holds for you and will be following along your journey!! All the love from our team!
To learn more about Aga and to see more of her brilliant photography: http://www.agalphotography.com/
Follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/aga_szydlik/
Additional Links To Current Projects:
Batwa People: http://www.agalphotography.com/documentaries/african-pygmies-batwa-people-of-uganda/
Teenage Mothers: http://www.agalphotography.com/teenage-mothers-project-bunyonyi-initiative/