Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q & A with Photographer Lili Kobielski

Photographer Lili Kobielski is no stranger to dealing with challenging situations and difficult material. In some senses, her documentary work is concerned with the underlying emotional aspect of structural inequality through the lens of human beings and their resilience. 

As we all face the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kobielski’s photobook projects on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and Chicago’s Cook County Jail mental illness epidemic shed light on the need for an empathetic eye in times of crisis. We spoke to Kobielski in between her busy schedule that includes teaching three undergraduate photography courses now online and raising two young children with her husband, all while sheltering in place. Here’s what she had to say about documentary photography, photojournalism, the process of making a book, her next project and more.

Photograph from Rockabye by Lili Kobielski

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: How does your work as a photojournalist intersect with your work as a documentary photographer and photobook author? Can you tell us the difference between documentary work and photojournalism? What draws you to the photobook format as a container for your photography?

LILI: Photojournalism and documentary photography are about storytelling; photojournalism just often tells the story faster. Photojournalism is the headline and documentary photography is what happens after the headline stops running. It’s about time; it’s a slower way of working without the pressure of getting the news out. I’m most interested in doing work that the news cycle has forgotten about or never noticed to begin with. I love the space that photobooks provide…the space to hold this big body of time-consuming work. Photobooks allow you to go deep into a subject. And I love objects; something beautiful that you can hold in your hand.

 Cover of  I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail by Lili Kobielski

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: So far, you have published two photobooks—Rockabye (2015), about The Rockaways in Queens, New York after Hurricane Sandy, and I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail  (2018), about a notorious Chicago prison with a large population of inmates with mental illness. Can you tell us what sparked the idea for each of these projects? Did your work on the former prepare you in any way for the latter? 

LILI: I was born in New York City and felt I had to find a way to photograph what happened here after Sandy. I went out to the beach right after the storm and was one of dozens of photographers documenting the same devastation. I felt like I wasn’t contributing anything to the world by putting more photos of disaster into it. 

It wasn’t until the one-year anniversary of the storm that I went out to photograph again. On the very first day, I met Dona and her daughter Doniece, who had lost everything in the storm and been displaced to a first-floor apartment that flooded weekly with the high tides. I spent a year with them, photographing and talking and walking the Rockaways. I hope the book is a glimmer of the sadness, beauty and resilience of this place, more than I could have accomplished that first day photographing the wreckage. 

I began working on the Cook County Jail project a few months after Rockabye was published. The governor at the time had cut an enormous amount of money from mental health care services and closed several mental health facilities. The immediate result was that more and more people were ending up in jail for treatment. It is believed that Cook County Jail is the largest mental health care provider in the country. I wanted to humanize the statistics with verbatim interviews and collaborative portraits of the detainees, corrections officers and health care workers in the jail. Going through the process of making Rockabye certainly helped with I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul. I knew what to expect and how to improve with content, layout and promotion of the work. 

Photograph from I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail by Lili Kobielski

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: When making a photo book, do you shoot an entire body of work and then begin to edit and sequence? Or, is it something that happens as you go along? What do you think is most important in the editing and sequencing process?

LILI: I photographed both bodies of work first and then edited afterward. The designer of I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul was enormously helpful in editing the project. She made little prints of everything and we broke down the project into A, B and C edits. It’s so important to have another set of eyes in the editing process.

Photograph from I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail by Lili Kobielski

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: What are your interests or preferences in terms of storytelling— linear narrative, a poetic montage, dramatic plotlines or individual open-ended scenes, etc.? Were you trained in any particular technique, and if so, did you have any difficulty finding your own style?

LILI: I think now, my favorite method of storytelling is collaborative portraiture and verbatim interviews with the sitter, like I did in I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul. It’s important for the people I’m working with to be involved in the process and tell their story in an unfiltered way. 

Doniece Drake watches as water creeps towards the front door. A year after Hurricane Sandy ripped through Far Rockaway, Beach 84th Street continues to flood. Photograph from Rockabye by Lili Kobielski

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, what are you working on now? Do you have your next photo book in mind? If so, what is its relationship to your past two projects?

LILI: I’m working on a project documenting the small upstate New York town I grew up in, where the water has been poisoned by a local factory and many people have been getting sick. The story was in the news for a while, but national interest has died down. I’m photographing and interviewing people in a beautiful, yet semi-dilapidated ballroom in the center of the village. I’d like to expand the project over the next year or two and put on an exhibition in the ballroom space for the town; I hope a book might follow! 

Photograph from Rockabye by Lili Kobielski

For more about Lili Kobielski visit her website at www.lilikobielski.com

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