Eye to eye: The Photographic Art of Sandra Ratkovic

Sandra Ratkovic is an artistic photographer, which means she filters images out of reality and fixes them with her machine, the camera. She develops the connection between eye and machine. She doesn’t force herself into this reality accidentally, but instead refines her themes and topics through her travels to countries, counties, cities, settings and communities. Some of these themes are rooted in her back story, some spring simply from curiosity.

Ratkovic’s parents are German-Croatian and she has spent lengthy periods resident in England, which explains some of the themes which she is intent on exploring: Europe at its centre and on its fringe. At the moment Sandra Ratkovic professes to feeling as if she is always living in two separate places at the same time, with Berlin as her home base. In Berlin she prepares her travels, and analyses them afterwards. But usually she is on the road.

Born and raised in Germany, she experienced two separate social worlds, that of her mother and that of her father. The artwork of record covers and pictures from magazines made a lasting impression on her. After she finished school she worked as an au-pair in England for a year. This became the beginning of her abiding fascination with the island and its people. Back in Germany she studied art history, soon focusing on photography and video art.  Somebody gave her an analogue camera as a present, and from that point she began to take pictures always and everywhere. She finished her studies with a diploma on the works of Richard Billingham and Cindy Sherman. By then she had realized that she needed more technical skills in photography and continued her studies in a private art school under photographer Ursula Kelm. Her teacher’s strategies for preparing photographic ideas and travels influenced Ratkovic, and still do. By this time Ratkovic had already developed a deep fascination with the photographic world of William Eggleston, whom she admires deeply. But reading art theory is an inspiration, too, and one that she enjoys profoundly.

She prepares painstakingly for her travels – travels planned with the specific task of producing images which reflect current realities – rather than inventing some contrived version of these realities. She explains that she writes a lot down while preparing, carries out research on historic backgrounds, and decides what her photographic focus will be.

It is very important for her to “know what I am looking for artistically, define my artistic centre point, know where to find what I am searching for and how to achieve something special.“ This is all part of her reflective writing process. This research includes books on art history as well as inspiration from poetry and in song lyrics. Her painstaking preparatory work enables her to be extremely “spontaneous and intuitive“ when on site. But on location she likes to work with writers, too, so that defining her artistic approach happens as part of a discourse, and leads to a parallel series of images and text.

Today we live in a thoroughly designed world. That includes not only architecture and city planning, but also daily routines full of ‘images’ and ‘designs’ that arise through human construction. These in turn define specific guidelines to which all people should adapt themselves: to follow images that go with the ‚trend’ or to create an individual image, that goes against it.

This is the point from which Ratkovic sets off. She examines the surrounding images, dissects them, searches for their core elements. It is always surprising to see how modern international companies set foot into even the rarest places and infiltrate these with their corporate designs. The old is mixed with the new, to imply something that will go on forever. Disparities of change and constancy occur.

Sandra Ratkovic is looking for these disparities, digging through reality. This may take a long time, waiting, observing, checking out what happens. She exposes herself to a street scene, to an environment, a space, focused and intense. Meeting people here she talks with them. It helps that she is an artist instead of a journalist, as that makes her less dangerous. Speaking several languages, she talks to the people she wants to take pictures of, before and after shooting. She confronts them with her camera. Ratkovic wants to be part of the process, to meet with them eye to eye and not only stand back and observe them.

This is the only way for her to find this special moment, when an authentic image has the possibility to happen, something that might stand up for a certain reality, for a moment of truth. Ratkovic is working on a style of photography which, freed from physical, political and economic interests, allows for the possibility of inventiveness.

Michael Freerix, culture journalist and curator




Merseyside and Brexit

Is it possible to know what someone thinks, how he feels or – even – what his political stance is? It seems unlikely. The fact that we often allow ourselves to be carried away by snap judgements and knee-jerk evaluations may well come from our deeply human need to assess the person standing in front of us, to know just who we are dealing with.

With her photo series “Merseyside and Brexit”, shot in Great Britain, Sandra Ratkovic approaches this phenomenon against the backdrop of a political event that has transformed the lives of the populace, and the effects of which can still hardly be guessed at: the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016. The photographs are as incidental as the title of the series. As if taken while simply strolling around, the pictures seem to catch perfectly the atmosphere and mood that permeates the life of the ‘working class’ in the Merseyside area in the North of England, around the time of the referendum.

The tensions that the country was subject to at the time, which split it into two seemingly irreconcilable halves, affected Ratkovic directly. The German artist had lived in Great Britain for several years: until the referendum, flitting between mainland Europe and the island had been a privilege, something taken for granted until it was thrown so suddenly into question. This fact served to sharpen the artist’s gaze. Numerous images in the series focus on excerpts that refer to the omnipresence of Brexit and the reawakening of national consciousness: vegetable boxes, price tags, seat cushions, bed linen, motorcycles, amusement parks, even milk bottles – the Union Jack in all its fiery glory is emblazoned everywhere.

Other photographs concentrate on people. Wandering around, Ratkovic captures fleeting moments: of quiet contemplation, or a group of people eating ice cream, or just people walking past. A touch of over-exposure makes the scenes and excerpts glow – a promising, peaceful glow – and a pleasant contrast to the tense wait of an entire country.

But how does it look below the surface? The people, shown up close, appear open, friendly, and look at times almost challengingly into the camera. Ratkovic approached people directly, asked if they would like to be photographed, and captures their looks and their body language. She photographs them in high contrast, at times making use of the sunlight to lend her conceptual portraits a still more marked sense of monumentality. There is a lot to be seen in the faces – a fulfilled life marked by work as well as joy, contentment, worries overcome… there’s just one thing that is difficult to make out: what the people in Merseyside have voted for – for or against Brexit? The question hovers over everything, imperceptibly pushing itself into the foreground, always and everywhere.

The photographer senses that. No matter how close you get to a face, not matter how much it reveals from life – one thing remains unclear: whether people have chosen to stay in the European Community – or to leave it.

Regardless, you inevitably feel compelled to attempt to read more from the pictures. Isn’t the mischievous smile of this kindly-looking man into the camera a clear sign of approachability and openness to the world? Does the tattooed guy’s nonchalance not contain something somehow indomitable? It doesn’t help, however much the viewer tries to refrain from making a snap judgement, the temptation to project their own expectations and prejudices onto the presented images wins out again and again.

Sandra Ratkovic is all too aware of these mechanisms. And she knows too the suggestive power of images, which is ever-present to the point that even documentary photography can never really be neutral – even if a rigid corset of rules of objectivity is applied. For this reason alone, the artist prefers the aesthetics of street photography, which – at least in this respect – retain a chance of true authenticity.

In this way, she has worked in a game for the presentation of the series: the viewers should decide which vote – for or against – the people portrayed have endorsed. With this, the viewer is made uncomfortably aware of how deceptive pictures can be. Even spontaneously shot photographs, by their very nature, suggest a lack of planning or intention. And the game turns out to be a lottery, in which chance and chance alone decides on who achieves the highest score. In case you don’t manage to choose correctly, there is consolation in knowing that Sandra Ratkovic herself, having approached the people in Merseyside and stood as near to them as her often intimate photographs show, found that her preconceptions too were often wrong.

It has been a long time since “Merseyside and Brexit” was created, and the vote on June 23, 2016 marks a turning point in Britain’s recent history. We now know that Brexit is no longer an option, but a reality. The euphoria of simply rolling the dice, as the entire country seems to have done, was followed perhaps inevitably by a sense of disenchantment. And there are many indications that the mood in Great Britain is even now somewhat gloomy. The uncertainty about how everything will continue has weighed heavily on people, on both sides – for supporters as well as opponents of the exit.

In this light, the outcome of the game that the artist offers in the exhibition, at the end of the photo series, where a vote is assigned to each portrait, eventually shows only one thing: that we are dealing with snapshots,  both in photography and in our personal encounters. And that every encounter in which we try to put the person in one box or other, deciding whether this is someone we’d be happy to get to know or not, is a great challenge. It is a task in which our own projections, prejudices and indeed even our mood can become stumbling blocks, that impede our view of what is important.

Maria Morais, Art Historian



Introduction International Paneling

Berlin-based artist Sandra Ratkovic is traveling a lot these days! Her shows seem to find the mirror/dividing lines which separate similar people. Using photography as the main medium to express these social-conceptual works, Sandra often presents opposing sides of issues or borders. The boundaries themselves become almost as visible as the people or places pictured. The seemingly random ridiculousness of the people-made barriers give her work a lightness and a sense of humor which also help distinguish her unique style!

Leo Kuelbs, Curator





Street Art in the Country Side

Sandra Ratkovic discovered and photographed completely different objects than street art – such as coverings of plants, or ribbons as fences and much more. So she opened up completely new perspectives and insight for me, which are constantly expanding.

She made me look at this county in which I have been living for over 50 years, with new eyes.

The fact that this process is still ongoing, and hopefully will never end, and is not only focussed on the Donnersbergkreis county, shows how profoundly a change in our viewing habits can also affect other areas.

Katharina Elsinger, Board Member Kunstverein Donnersbergkreis




Rheinpfalz Newspaper, 2022