Jukeboxes, cheap shots and 90s hits: Zsófia Sivák lenses the declining tavern culture in rural Hungary
Between sharing drinks with locals and dancing the night away, the photographer admits that she often forgets to pick up her camera whilst documenting the pub culture in her home county.
- Elfie Thomas
- 29 March 2022
Zsófia Sivák is interested in projects which allow her to develop a long-term relationship with the community she seeks to photograph. She’s particularly fond of documenting the changing social backdrop of Heves, the rural county in Hungary where she grew up. For her on-going series Our Prices are in Forints (an old-school pub inscription which adorns many a local tavern), she decided to turn her lens to the pub culture of her home county.
Through the series, the photographer captures a culture in decline. Zsófia explains that in the past forty years, rural villages have suffered from anti-rural politics, urbanisation and the destruction of traditional social structures through the forced establishment of agricultural cooperatives. As a result, many rural taverns have had to close their doors in recent years. But it wasn’t always the case: “The pub was the place where the labourers threw back the cheapest kind of shots at dawn in order to gain strength for the daily sweat,” says the photographer. “It was the place where abandoned husbands could lean on the counter and whine about their problems, that life is not worth a dime without a wife. The pub was the place where no one asked you but someone always listened to you.”
Tavern-hopping her way through Heves and visiting the venues that are still open, Zsófia seeks to preserve a fragment of these public spaces that were once a “defining and fundamental venue of provincial life”. When she finds a new place to photograph, she never takes out her camera immediately, preferring instead to order a drink and make a scan of the pub, “looking for opportunities”. Bringing a camera into these spaces can often provoke suspicion, the photographer explains. On previous trips, she’s been mistaken for an undercover quality control person as well as a local press delegate aiming to expose the venue in a negative light.
But with a patient and understanding approach, she sometimes gets very positive responses from tavern-owners and locals: “We keep on talking for hours while having a couple of beers and some of the cheapest shots, then we dance to hits from the 90s played from the jukebox,” says Zsófia. “Sometimes I forget to shoot in these situations.”
As a female photographer, another difficulty that gets in the way is the fact that pubs in these communities are traditionally “the territories of men”. “You rarely meet any women in pubs,” she continues. So when the photographer came across a rather indomitable-looking woman wearing baby pink trousers on one of her trips to the tavern, Szofía took her picture and it became one of her favourite images in the series. Holding the camera with a confident stare, her figure takes on a “statuesque” quality, unperturbed by her male-dominated surroundings nor the gaze of the photographer’s lens.
For the future of the project, Zsófia would like to make a photobook of her images. Although, she admits that she finds the whole process rather confusing (“someone please help!!!”). In the meantime she will continue to work on the project whilst constantly challenging herself to question her gaze: “Where do the moral and ethical boundaries lie in documentary photography? When and how much can I show?” While these are questions which inform every project she embarks on, she admits: “I never find a clear answer, perhaps they are always determined by the circumstances”.
Zsófia Sivák: Our Prices are in Forints (Copyright © Zsófia Sivák, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.