The point of departure for Lilla Szász’s photographic project Greetings From My New Home is the story of the retornados, the nearly 800,000 Portuguese citizens who were resettled from Portuguese colonies in Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe) to Portugal in and around 1975.
As a result of the Portuguese colonial war which began in 1961, the dictatorial Second Republic gradually weakened, and with the military coup of 1974, a rapid process of decolonization began. The accommodation and integration of the retornados, equivalent to nearly a tenth of Portugal’s overall population at the time, was a major challenge for the state and constituted an important chapter in the 20th-century history of the country.
Szász’s photographs capture the personal aspects of this historical event, drawing attention to questions of nostalgia, memory, homelessness, and the plasticity of identity in the lives of those who have left their homes and were able, in varying degrees, to adapt to their new environments. Lilla Szász makes use of a wide array of approaches to portraiture, offering us portraits of people and portraits of places. The points of departure for these private stories were locations which still exist today, homes of varying quality, from former five-star hotels to military barracks. These sites are the physical repositories of their former dwellers’ memories. The postcard quality of the photographs – their size and subject matter, which can be understood as a kind of allusion to the frequent portrayal of hotels on contemporary postcards – conjures a sense of travel, of transience, and offers a reminder of the past. Thus, the images of Greetings From My New Home arrive as messages sent half a century ago.
Known for her socially inspired works, Lilla Szasz focuses on stories of human vulnerability and is concerned with issues of immigration, identity and gender. Her practice is rooted in the process of documentary photography. In her long-term projects, Szasz engages with marginal groups of people living in closed, special communities. She has photographed elderly women in shelter houses, young criminal girls in detention homes, a family of prostitutes, a retired porn star caring about her mother and Autistic nephew, and, most recently, a woman living with HIV, who lost her husband 10 years ago and now completely devoting her life to voluntarism.
In her 16-year-career, she worked on many of her series of works for months and years, growing close with her portrait subjects and telling very personal stories. Her sensitive-emphatic and poetic images are careful observation of details to explore human relationships. During the process of photographing, she does not obtrude in front of her protagonists, the author’s own personality does not suppress the figures, but let them in front of the stories.
With a deep interest in human destinies, she is documenting and interpreting contemporary post-communist conditions, which extend far beyond her native Hungary. In Saint Petersburg, she captured Sunbathers, a group of poor people spending every day, from February until late November, at the wall of Peter-Paul Fortress. Her portraits of Russian Jewish Veterans of the Second World War living in New York prompt us to questions where does a person’s ideology come from and what forms our identity?
Lilla Szasz has always been impressed with how people under most miserable circumstances try to find goals in their lives and survive with the help of simple joys, with which they can forget about their misery for a while. She searches for stories that are very personal and universal at the same time to reveal the socio-political contradictions in contemporary society.
Beyond her artistic work, Lilla Szasz teaches art and photography, curates and has won several international awards. She has taught children with mental and physical challenges (at “Smile Foundation”), and children of drug user parents (at “Sober Babies”), on a voluntary basis. She has visited numerous workshops, with, among others, Sylvia Plachy, and Steidl and Aperture Publishing Houses. She was guest lecturer at Saul Robbins workshop “Regarding Intimacy” at International Center of Photography, New York. Her work has been exhibited and published internationally, including recently, Photo Espana, Aqui Estamos (Here we are) with Richard Avedon, Richard Billingham and Paz Errazuriz; Shanghai World Expo, LIVE SYNC. Contemporary Photography from Hungary; and Laboratory East Swiss Photo Award. Aqui Estamos (Here we are) was curated by Gerardo Mosquera and Monica Portillo, received 640,000 visitors and won the prize of the public at Photo Espana.