Mafalda Rakoš is a photographer based in Vienna, Austria, focusing primarily on social issues and their impact on the protagonists’ realities of life. She holds a BA in Anthropology from Vienna University and is currently enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Since 2011 she has realised various long-time projects in Vienna and other regions of the world such as the Middle East, India and West Africa. Her project I want to disappear is an in-depth and touching account of those affected by eating disorders. Her photo book of the work is now available to pre-order on her website.

What is your background in photography — how did you get started and how would you describe your approach?

When I was 14, I switched to a high school that was very focused on photography in Vienna. Almost since then, I started to work on my own projects. My approach is very documentarist, but there is often a very close link between me and my protagonists. I mainly work long-term, and have a background in anthropology as well, which has also influenced my practise a lot.

What was starting point for I want to disappear?

I was affected by an eating disorder as well and found that it was a very important subject to talk about. The phenomenon almost only occurs in industrialized countries, and the number of people who are affected is much higher than someone would assume. Nevertheless, it’s still highly stigmatized and invisible – I wanted to contribute something to the discourse around eating disorders that shows a less extreme picture and raises awareness that it’s less about food and looks and more about a general feeling of insecurity.

C. has been suffering from Anorexia and Bulimia for several years. The picture shows the burn marks she is continously receiving from hot-water-bottles. “I am always cold. I don’t know why. I feel that I cannot sleep anymore without this thing, but I always make it too hot.. I don’t know why. I guess I don’t care.”

C. has been suffering from Bulimia and Anorexia since her early adolescence. According to her, she is rather addicted to purging than to being thin. She lives on her own in Vienna and dreams of studying medicine once things are better.

The project is layered with portraits, interviews and documents used to explore the complexity of eating disorders. How did you decide on this approach and how integral is it in representing those that you collaborated with?

Collaborating with the protagonists was crucial in this process. The topic is so intimate that I quickly realized I had to give them all the space and options in participating in the project they could think of. It wasn’t easy to let go of control in the beginning, but in the end I am really happy and grateful for how openly everyone shared their experiences with me. I think everyone was extremely brave. Of course the juxtaposition and the project itself are only my interpretation of all this material, but everyone was extremely positive about its outcome. This was very, very important for me.

Ulrike suffers from Bulimia and Anorexia. Her story is long and complicated and reaches back to her grandparent’s generation. According to her, food and eating always were difficult topics and her family. The feeling of being to fat has accompanied her since early childhood days – and finally lead her into a mode of life where phases of restrictiveness alternate with those of extreme bingeing and purging.

Even though the disorder occupies a high significance, it is still incapable to shut her down entirely. Ulrike studies at a local Art Academy and hopes to find an occupation in her life that truly fulfills her.

Waiting Room, Vienna 2014. Underlying: a sheet designed by one of the protagonists after a long stay in an clinical institution specialized for eating disorders. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have gone there. It was a very big step. Somehow I am grateful that I had this illness – I learned a lot of things about myself … that I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”

What was the process of getting to know those that you collaborated with?

All in all, it took me almost more than a year to find the right way of approaching possible protagonists. In the beginning, I worked with friends and acquaintances (indeed, the phenomenon is very widespread – it wasn’t difficult at all to find people who are affected), and then found a self-help group for eating disorders, which I joined and regularly attended. Many of the people in the book are from this group. I found an amazingly inspiring group of people, and a lot of them were willing to participate. The group was really aware of the project and that it wouldn’t focus so much on the individual’s drama, but more on the phenomenon in general. I think that helped a lot, since people knew each other and had the feeling that they’re not having their “coming out” all by themselves.

How long did your spend with each person in the project and how did the project develop into a collaboration?

The collaborative approach kind of happened naturally on the way, and it was different for every person. Some I met on a regular basis and some only once or twice. Usually we would first meet up for a very open interview, which I recorded and transcribed afterwards. Then we thought together about how and with what the person would like to step into the project. Many of them didn’t want to be photographed but gave me documents, drawings or sculptures they’ve made – others were very open about having their portraits taken, and shared everything very openly with me. I realized that this made it much easier for contribute, and that it was crucial that we succeeded in creating a safe space for this exchange. I tried to be as careful as possible when asking difficult questions and their possible triggering effect. Anyhow, I have to say that I also learned that people affected by an eating disorder are not made out of sugar at all – rather on the contrary.

Katharina suffered from Anorexia as an adolescent.

Her mother remembers: “She wouldn’t eat anything anymore, except for apples and pretzels. At some point I started going to the gas station every morning to buy bread rolls – so that we would have them in the house, at all times. In summer we went on a hiking trip. That wasn’t easy. My biggest concern was whether we could buy those damn rolls there – If not, my child would starve.”

“This picture, where I am leaning in front of the bathroom is somehow special for me, even though I didn’t think about it when you took it. It makes me think about how often and at what stage I went through this door… I thought I smiled much more when you photographed me, but now the observer can actually really see how I feel. I avoid contact with others, and I am so occupied with food, purging, and sports all the time, it‘s like beneath a glass cover. For me, this is what the picture shows.”

What are the most poignant moments for you of making the work?

I think a lot of the most poignant moments happened in the beginning of the project. Sometimes I would meet up with people who were interested in taking part, but after a first meeting they quit and said that they didn’t feel comfortable or ready for it. It made me realize that I really needed to create another level of communication in this project and never try to force something, in order to build a solid base of trust. That’s when I started to change my approach to a much more collaborative one. Another very important moment always happens when someone who is affected or who is part of the project looks at the book and is completely positive and enthusiastic about it. It feels extremely good to get the impression that the work is really fulfilling its aim, and those who are involved fully support it.

What are your hopes for the work?

At first, I hope that it’ll be able to reach people who are affected by an eating disorder, and that reading and looking at it will help to relieve those feelings of shame and loneliness which are so strong in this illness. Further, I hope that viewers in general will reconsider their preconceptions about eating disorders and get a better insight into what it’s like to be affected. I think in general everyone can relate to it when presented less about food and more as a coping mechanism. Who does not feel lost, insecure, or stressed some time?

“For me, it shows the ambivalence of food and eating in general. I think the knives look very brutal. It‘s like fighting yourself every time you eat a piece of bread.”

M. suffered from Bulimia for almost 6 years, but finally succeeded in overcoming the illness after a long-term stay at a local clinic. She definitely considers herself as not affected by this diseases anymore. Nevertheless, she regularly attends a self help group to exchange with others who are struggling with eating disorders. Marie is an inspirational person for many of them – listening to her optimistic and strong statements often gives other participants courage to work further towards their own self-acceptance.

Do you still keep in touch with those that took part in the project?

Yes, definitley! With some rather loosely, but in general we have a good relationship, and a lot of them were friends of mine before the project.

What are you working on now?

Producing and printing the book is almost like a project on itself, but we’re slowly reaching our final destination. For my study at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, I am now starting a project about hitchhiking and the highway. It’s still very much at its beginning, but probably will prove itself as another technique of disappearing.

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