Latvian Museum of Photography, Riga, Latvia
1st November 2018 - 13th January 2019
University: University of Brighton
Homeland. The Longest Village in the Country (2015-2018) is a multi-layered photographic narrative in a form of a photobook with cross-references like hyperlinks to additionally inserted stories connected to the subjects and landscape. The book is about the village where my Armenian-Greek father once had a dream to build a house for our family, but unfortunately couldn’t finish it as he passed away when I was only 6 months young.
The project explores the sea, the land and memories, how the time affects and changes our sense of a place at the same time serving a nostalgic representation of the village in Latvia - Kaltene and its recent history from World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 via interviews, notes and archival imagery. As the Iron curtain fell, the local economy changed and upon joining the EU in 2004, it changed again. These historical shifts made a huge impact on the society and its dreams, many of which the younger generations have abandoned.
The place is located between the forest and the sea about 100 km northwest of the capital Riga. In the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century it was the second most productive village in the country as 55 seagoing sailing ships were built there.
Where did you attend university? Tell us about your experience. I attended the MA Photography course at the University of Brighton. Not being a native English speaker was a great challenge for my academic writing, reading and translation from one language to another - especially for my final MA dissertation and body of work which was closely related to my home country in Latvia. The whole experience was wonderful - it shaped my beliefs and helped me to expand my visual and critical thinking as well as writing. It has opened completely new horizons and new ways of how to approach my individual practice as a visual storyteller.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? It is difficult to name just one. Maybe completion of my MA with a distinction and meeting likeminded people.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into and what themes do you find yourself exploring? At the beginning of my photographic practice I explored subjective aspects such as moods, associations in documentary reality, which formed and still forms my visual narrative today. Themes are mostly about regional and national identity, genetics, ethnography, memory, nostalgia and existentiality. I am working on personal self-initiated long term projects about contemporary issues from historical and ethnographical aspect on the line between reality and fiction. I like to combine poetic and metaphoric ideas with contemporary and archival imagery in the field of documentary reality. Works are very much multi-layered and research based.
What initially inspired you to make this work? What drew you to Kaltene? The idea of my father building our family home by the sea was the actual starting point and inspiration for my project. Kaltene is my homeland, the place where I spent my childhood and of which I have so many fond memories. After being away for so many years and re-evaluating my own feelings and thoughts, I decided to return and recreate my homeland through photography, to retrace the place, its landscape and identity. In April 2015 when I was still living in London I went back to my home country during an opening of my solo show at the Riga International Airport (RIX) in Riga where I have played with the subjects like spaces, traveling and intuitive indoor landscapes. The project is still ongoing since 2008 where the spaces of airport becomes existential visual metaphor for a life between lives. At that time when I got back to Kaltene after the opening, everything fell into a place for my following project. I saw the light and fog, I saw the people who are still living there and I saw how it’s just slowly disappearing and fading. Back in 2015 there were still some expired rolls of film in my fridge in Kaltene so I took them and started to explore the environment for the very first time and realised that I would love to continue to do it further. At the same time I wanted to encourage a critical look at contemporary issues where the visual narrative of life outside the city could act as a signal for dialogue on modernity and the political and economic processes affecting the emigration of the younger generations. I was driven also to explore ethnographic questions, community, memory, historical events, life by the sea, inevitable disappearance of our youth and information preserved by the landscape.
Can you explain your series title? Homeland represents the memory of landscape and what it can hold for us, how important this land where we come from is and how we become connected with it in our childhood. As Liz Wells once wrote: “Landscapes – actual, remembered or idealized – feed our sense of belonging to whatever place, region or nation that we view as homeland.” Information preserved by the land over the years reveals the past, present and future, and is a reflection on how passage of time affects and changes our sense of a place. I wanted to show that throughout my photobook and exhibition. On the other hand using the geographically longest coastal village in the country as a metaphor, Homeland. The Longest Village in the Country is a constructed and multi-layered story of the birthplace of a human being, memories, the journey of a life, our road and human connection with the land. The length of the village represents the length of our lives and the cycle of it. We never know where life will take us, but we always will know where we come from. So the project touches the ideas of existentially and our destiny. Geographically it also refers to documentary evidence of the longest village in the country through photography, recorded memories and interviews. Kaltene extends for about 7km along the coast of Gulf of Riga 100km northwest from our capital and was founded over four centuries ago. In ancient times well known for the sleek, branchless trunks of its pine trees, which were exported to Western Europe to be used as masts on ships. Back in 19th and 20th century it was the second most productive village in the country as 55 seagoing sailing ships were built there. In ancient Danish, Kaltene means “naked tree”.
Name some photographers who inspire you. My very first influence and inspiration from photographers was Andrejs Grants. I feel privileged that I could actually grew up with his original hand printed black and white photographs in our family drawers. I always looked at them with curiosity, fascination and excitement. Later I attended his documentary classes in Riga. My other great influences in photography of all time are Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Jeff Wall, Alec Soth and cinematographers Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. My sources of inspiration while working on Homeland were Marlene Creates’ The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories (1988), which explicitly engages the relation between social groups, memory and place, Dragana Jurisic YU: The Lost Country (2011-2013) about Yugoslavia and Vèronique Kolber’s work Appearances (2003-2005). In terms of photobook - Paul Graham’s book The Present, Kazuma Obara’s book Silent Histories and publication by David Favrod and Julia Katharina Thiermann Hikari – Talents 35. Otherwise I like to see works by Diana Markosian, Carolyn Drake, Jim Goldberg, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Murray Ballard, Gregory Halpern, Jack Latham, Petra Stavast, Dana Lixenberg, Rafal Milach and the latest work by Jonas Benediksen - The Last Testament.
This work is very personal to you so what do you think you've learnt about yourself during this process? During the interviews and conversations with locals I realised one important fact about myself and the sea. Whenever I lived abroad I’ve searched for this feeling subconsciously and only from the project I realised what I was looking for. It was simply the presence of the sea and possibility to breathe the air of it, see the vastness, horizon and feel the freedom. It is very important for those who grew up by the sea that they are not loosing connection with it.
Do you have personal connections to each location and person in your series? Can you explain some of them? Yes, I do. The village is really long and each protagonist of the series has its own connection with the specific location or the place closer to their homes. The most important of course is the land and the sea, but what was really interesting about making this work and asking about their special locations were stones along the coast. Most of them have referred to one of the great rocks by the sea. I thought of the idea that rocks are always at the same location and does not really move anywhere else. You can always trust and rely on them that they always be there at the same place where we can reflect on the past and travel down to our memory path. I thought of the idea of how rocks could actually record the history and events from the past around them. It can preserve the information over the years. Our lives unfortunately are much shorter than lives of the rocks. It just feels that lives of the rocks can last forever.
Tell us about your accompanying photobook. How did you decide to go down this route to complete the work? At the very beginning I understood that it will be represented in a form of a photobook. In my opinion it could also work very well as an interactive web platform or installation in an exhibition space which is now open at the Lavian Museum of Photography. As an author I am really interested in photobook making, archival materials, notes and investigative recordings and ways of how photography, design and materials could possibly shape the story of an entire photographic project. Homeland. The Longest Village in the Country is a multi-layered and interactive narrative in its form with cross-references like hyperlinks to additionally inserted stories connected to the subjects and landscape combining photographs, text and archival imagery. In my opinion it works best as a photobook rather than single prints. The images are linked one to another. The photobook's entire story is divided into three sections: introduction where it represents ethnicity of the place, main body about contemporary issues and conclusion where it has a sense of an ending before a new beginning of the cycle. Each spread in the photobook has its own story or in other words story into the story. Two designed circles throughout the book in different colours works as guides to a page or unit number of each insert.
Your work is being exhibited at the Latvian Museum of Photography; tell us how this opportunity arose. After graduating university in 2016 I stayed in Brighton for another year. In 2017 I decided to return and bring this project back to my home country where it was created. I think it is really important for the community. I have made a list of exhibition spaces in Riga and the Latvian Museum of Photography was the first at that time. I decided to approach Maira Dudareva (Head of Latvian Museum of Photography) with my first limited edition photobook and shortly after our meeting that same week she has offered an exhibition in November 2018 as a part of Latvia’s State Centenary program. I was thrilled and honoured for this proposal, but at the same time understood my responsibility as an artist. So when dates were confirmed I started to put together a layout for the show and kept working for a trade edition of my photobook.
How do you think your work will progress in the near future? Are you hoping to gain more recognition and embark on new opportunities? I’m really happy to bring this project to an end as a completed body of work. Now it’s going to live its own life. For me as an artist this completion is a wonderful feeling. It opens the gates for the next projects because working on one takes a lot of effort, time and energy, and it’s not easy to divide the time between. Homeland. The Longest Village in the Country as a photobook has been nominated for the 10th Book Award for the Best Photography Book in Central and Eastern Europe 2017-2018 and it is on view at the House of Arts (Dom Umenia) as a part of Festival Month of Photography in Bratislava, Slovakia. In 2017 I started to work on a new photobook and exhibition, Krunk. The Crane that flew over the Fatherland, even though the pictures had been made since 2005, in 2017 I just decided to take the project further with more advanced conceptual ideas and research. The work is a story about my father, who was of Armenian origin, about Armenian diaspora, genetics and history of the land of my forefathers in Armenia and Georgia. "Krunk" means "crane" in Armenian and it is a symbol of longing for one’s homeland, a song sung by wanderers that embodies the historical fate of the Armenian people. The song, composed by Komitas and sung for centuries, has become a quasi-official state hymn, a hymn of sadness and longing. Both projects - Homeland. The Longest Village in the Country and Krunk. The Crane that flew over the Fatherland are connected. Each project is in parts – First and Second. The first obviously talks about homeland or place of birth and the second about my fatherland and roots. It touches genetic, identity and belonging questions. In 2017 I received mentoring sessions of my choice from a Magnum photographer as a part of Magnum Photos Graduate Photographers Award 2017. In 2018 I received a Creative Grant from the State Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia to continue to work on this project and cover my travel costs to Armenia and Georgia and some of the material and production costs. In 2018 I made my first photobook dummy during the Photobook as Object workshop by Yumi Goto and Jan Rossell at the International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) in Latvia and have been nominated with the series for the Riga Photography Biennial Award 2019 Seeking the Latest in Photography. Just a few days ago my two connected projects have been shown for the Night of Photo Projections at the Contemporary Art Gallery TSEKH in Vilnius, Lithuania. In 2019 I’m invited to put together a solo show at the Archdiocesan Museum during International Photography Festival Bialystok INTERPHOTO in Poland and later at the Sargis Muradyan Gallery in Yerevan, Armenia. So there are few happenings ahead.
Have you got any tips for new graduates? To be persistent, believe in yourself and the work you are creating, to be able to explain it, work hard and never give up when you get to the down point.