Hungary is still perceived by many as a pretty gloomy place. Not too long ago, it was branded the most depressed nation in the world for six years running, and its harrowing history undoubtedly hangs heavy on its reputation.
For photographer Eva Szombat, this is outmoded bullshit. She rejects her country's disposition for misery with work that focuses on the pursuit of happiness, in all its forms. In 2013, for instance, she published Happiness Book—a kitsch visual guide to being happy. Now, she's releasing its follow-up, Practitioners, which documents people putting happiness into practice, doing all the weird things they enjoy the most, from balloon twisting to frog collecting.
I caught up with Eva to talk about the pursuit of happiness, love, and how a perfect life can actually make you miserable.
VICE: Why are you so obsessed with photographing happiness?
Eva Szombat: Hungarians really like to complain about nothing. I don't know why, but it's a kind of tradition—maybe it's in our genes. But I just think everything's not so bad, you know? One of my friends once said to me, "Happiness is like math, you have to learn it," and I thought that was great. So that's where it came from. The title Happiness Book is ironic; it suggests ways to learn and practice happiness.
Your latest project, Practitioners, is way more documentary-orientated than your previous work. Why is that?
I wanted Practitioners to be about real people. Through them, I realized that the most important way to achieve happiness is through relationships. It's the love, the people, and the quality of relationships that are most important.
Do you know the people in the photographs?
Some of them are my friends, yes. The guy with the crocodile is my boyfriend. We were on holiday with friends, and he jumped in a lake with lots of water lilies. I also photographed Zoli, a friend of mine. He works at a hotel, and he lives in a modest, one-bedroom council flat in the suburbs. He's also a DJ—he goes by the name "Galactic Jackson" and collects rare synthesizers and LPs. He actually has one of the largest collections of synths in Hungary. As a hobby, he also likes to remake album covers with images of his own face. He did it once with Freddie Mercury, replacing his face with his own. He's a great guy, and he's so happy. I think his life is perfect, really.
How did you find the rest of your subjects?
Mostly through word of mouth. A friend of mine told me about an elderly lady called Maria who likes collecting toy frogs, so I called her and asked if I could photograph her. Later on, I found out that she started collecting them when she got cancer. Her friends and family would buy them for her as gifts because they knew she liked them. Eventually, she had so many that she decided to collect them. It gave her so much joy. She really believes having that hobby helped her to survive cancer.
Erika, the balloon twister, I met at an event where she was making balloons. She looked so happy, so I asked if she wanted to be a part of my happiness project. She agreed, but said she was very shocked that I had perceived her as happy. Two years before, she had lost her son to cancer. She was very depressed, but she also had a husband and another child, a little girl, to care for. Her daughter liked balloons, so Erika bought a little balloon twister set for kids and started making balloons to cheer her up. It was the first thing she'd found that could switch her mind off losing her son. It gave her so much pleasure, and she now does it professionally. I photographed a helium angel she'd made of her son.
Are these sad stories from people's past intrinsic to the project?
I think that people who've had everything aren't actually so happy. They always want more. Making this project made me realize that people who've had problems tend to appreciate life a lot more. I wanted to show that you don't have to think, What should I have? or I want more of this. The people in Practitioners have something in common in that they think differently about happiness. They know it's about appreciating the little things. I really appreciate these people; they give me a lot of inspiration, and I want them to inspire others too.
See more of Eva's work at evaszombat.com. Word by Francesca Cronan. Scroll down to see additional photos.