interview

about my win in the Sony World Photography Awards. Marek Pros from Aktuálně.cz asks

My dreams came true

Tomáš Vocelka has become the winner of the professional category of the 2021 Sony World Photography Awards. "I’m glad I trusted myself and did a career change, at the age of 50, from the managerial post back to the photography," he says.

Could you please introduce yourself? Where you live and how long you have been a photographer?

My name is Tomáš Vocelka, I live in the Czech Republic and I have been a photographer since 1990.

What was your first experience with photography? Did anyone in your family take photographs?

My father is an enthusiast photographer, so I have had some experience with photography since my childhood. My parents gave me the first camera when I was 12 years old. It was Lomo, a very simple Russian 35mm camera. In my opinion, I started taking pictures in 1977.

How did your photography approach and expertise grow through the years since you started photography?

When I was at university, I saw the exhibition of great Czechoslovak documentary photographer Gustav Aulehla. It was such an amazing experience that has changed my life. I realised that photography can tell stories. He lived in the same city as I did, and he became my mentor.

In 1990, one year after the Velvet Revolution, I started my professional career as a photojournalist of the regional newspaper.

After the decade I completely changed my professional career and substituted photography with writing. For the next 12 years, I worked as a front page editor of the most influential Czech daily newspaper and then I promoted to the deputy editor in chief. But photography has always been my passion.

At the age of 50, I realized to feel exhausted and I desired to return to professional photography. I fulfiled my dream and made a comeback as a photographer (in the lifestyle section of the online newspaper Aktuálně.cz).

Could you describe your photographic process from discovering an initial interest in a topic or theme right through to completing a series of photos?

It is a natural process for me, because I am a journalist. It is all about events and stories around us. I don't usually plan my photo shoots too much. I trust my heart and follow my feelings. I believe in empathy. I try to adapt to the surrounding atmosphere and to be a part of it. And then I want to translate my feelings into a visual language of photography.

I love natural light, so I don't need a lot of gadgets. While working on the photo story, I take a lot of photos, because I like to experiment sometimes. Finally, I make hundreds of shots, but only a few are selected in the next round.

What sparked your interest in the topic behind this series of photographs?

You know, when my colleague, Magdalena Medková, who wrote the story, first mentioned the Eternal Hunting Ground, I thought: Oh my God, why should I photograph that? The old memory of my two dogs dying slipped my mind - it was such a painful experience. But soon, I realized that something extraordinary is behind this story.

Could you share a story behind these photographs?

The former Drnov military complex has been empty for 17 years since the army left it. Two friends bought it to fulfill their dream of building a final resting place for pets, called Eternal Hunting Ground. With the help of a minimalist architect Petr Hájek, they have created a mourning hall and a crematorium of 40 hectares with wildlife.

Does any one moment or photograph stand out to you as significant?

While I was taking the photos of Eternal Hunting Ground, the strongest moment for me was to see the soft, ethereal glow coming from the minimalistic mourning hall. That was the place where I realized how equal to us are our pets in our minds.

What message did you hope to convey with this series of photographs?

It is the story about the humanisation of our pets. It is the story about the paradox of loneliness in the crowded world - because the closest and the most loved partner for many people is a dog or a cat. But it is also the story about the amazing world where we could change the former cold war army facilities into the pieces of the art and architecture.

What challenges did 2020 bring for you as a photographer? How did you overcome these challenges?

I do photography for the lifestyle section of the online newspaper and our subjects of interest are famous people, culture events and interesting stories. But due to pandemia, it is much complicated to search for topics we could inform about. As you know, there are anti-epidemic measures, for example meeting people face to face is complicated. How did we overcome these challenges? We try to be optimists and find our ways.

Due to the pandemic, many photographers have seen their work online rather than a physical exhibition. What do you feel is a positive outcome for it?

Working online is nothing new for me because since 2016 I have been doing my job like that. I work for the online newspaper, and I have to say online work has some benefits, too. For example, we have more space for photography than in the printed media. The series or photostory could have up to 35 shots without problem - something not manageable in the newspaper or magazine.

Your thoughts on imagery moving into a more digital world?

I think there is no reason for worries. According to the statistics I can see every day, people love visual strorytelling. Photo reports and photo stories are definitely among the most-watched and popular materials in our online newspaper.

What was your motivation to enter the competition?

If you don't enter the competition, you can't win. And my motivation was to win, of course. Every photographer who takes part in such a prestigious competition wants to win.

What does the Sony World Photography Awards offer that other photography competitions don’t?

It is one of the most important photography competitions in the world. Its aim is to recognise and reward the best contemporary photography. I think the contest is really special thanks to jury, which is made up on the photographic industry’s most esteemed individuals. And it is contest made for all photographers, not just for an authors of a certain genre.

What does it mean for you to have your work recognised in this way by a panel of judges for the Sony World Photography Awards?

My dreams came true. For me it is a proof that I am on the right way. I’m glad I trusted myself and did a career change, at the age of 50, from the managerial post back to the photography. Thanks to my achievements, including Sony World Photography Awards, I can say it was really succesfull comeback.

Do you think being the Architecture & Design category winner for 2021 will benefit your career?

I hope so and I believe in it.

What would be your tips for photographers entering Sony World Photography Awards in the future?

Be yourself. Do not copy the work of others and don‘t stop learning.

Why do you think photographers should enter the Sony World Photography Awards?

They can learn a lot, it could help them to follow and understand modern trends in photography and they can even win the competition