From 07 November to 04 February, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is showing a striking exhibition on a little-known aspect of the roots of 20th century social documentary photography, Photographie, arme de classe [which roughly translates as ‘Photography as a weapon in the class struggle’]. Curated by Damarice Amao, Florian Ebner and Christian Joschke, the show deals with a comparatively unknown period in French photo history, from the end of the 1920s to the arrival of the Front populaire government of 1936 – when the socialist, communist and radical parties formed a short-lived coalition to govern France, with the tacit backing of the Soviet Union.
Photographer and activist Henri Tracol (1909-1997) was the first to formulate the idea that photography could be an “arme de classe”, in the tract he wrote for the photographer’s section of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires [‘Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists’ aka the AEAR], formed in 1932. Although this communist front, Moscow-sponsored organisation only lasted a few years, it attracted many of the leading figures of the day from art, theatre, literature, architecture, and particularly photography. Those who joined were either fellow travellers or politically attached to communism, seeing it as a bastion against the twin evils of the time – fascism and capitalism.
A white painted stone sits atop a pile of concrete from a fallen telephone pole. A seemingly random assortment of rubble, it has in fact been gathered to fasten a manhole cover in place. During a period of particular hardship in Ukraine in the 1990s, manhole covers were often stolen and sold for scrap metal, leaving dangerous open holes in the road. This makeshift device, erected over time out of miscellaneous materials, is one of the objects in Viacheslav Poliakov’s Lviv – God’s Will, a taxonomy of the “unexplored field of accidents” that make up his surrounding urban environment.
Gustavo Tavares has spent many years exploring the arctic, photographing the landscapes as a way to understand the climate’s harshness, and the relationship between man and nature. For Gustavo, the arctic embodies a fractured sense of home. It is not where he lives, but where he finds his spiritual and emotional balance, calling into question what actually defines our notion of home. His OpenWalls Editor’s Pick photograph is an image taken in Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet coal mining city, with a population of just six people. Gustavo is based in Aveiro, Portugal, a colourful town set along the Ria de Aveiro lagoon, often described as the Venice of Portugal – a far cry from the sparseness, and coldness, of Pyramiden. But these deserted, freezing landscapes are where Gustavo finds his sense of belonging. We spoke to Gustavo about his father’s photographic influence, protecting himself from polar bears, and his series ‘La Camera du Flaneur’, a project inspired by the words of Susan Sontag. Can you tell me about your background as a photographer? How and …
“If you live in Russia, you’re taught to love your family, and love your nation. It’s part of your life and education, we even have classes teaching patriotism at school,” says Alexander Anufriev, whose new project takes a closer look at what makes a modern Russia.
The idea for Russia Close-up came while he was studying at The Rodchenko Art School in Moscow, and starting to feel disillusioned with documentary photography. “At the time, it was important for me to tell stories and for them to be the truth, but it started to feel like a little bit of a lie,” he explains. “Even if you’re trying to be totally objective, it is always a bit subjective.
“I stopped shooting for six months, and I was about to quit photography, but then I thought, ‘What if I tried to be completely subjective?’ So I cropped the images very tightly, and included only the elements I wanted to show. It was a farewell to convention.” Unconventional it may be, but the series has already had some success, exhibited in Cardiff, Sydney, and Saint Petersburg, and winning third place in the Moscow Photobookfest Dummy book award.
“Childhood is my main theme,” said Dagmar Hochova. “During the totalitarian regime it was one area that could be freely explored and this determined that I sought children out. It was a different era; children played on the streets, in the suburbs. One could see them everywhere.”
Little-known in the UK to this day, Hochova was famous back in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia for her photographs of children. In fact her work extended far beyond this topic but, often critical of the communist regime, much of it could not be published or exhibited until after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
“One could easily say there’s nothing to photograph there, because it’s just like any other park,” says Latvian photographer Arnis Balcus of Victory Park. Situated in the Latvian capital Riga, Victory Park [‘Uzvaras Park’ in Latvian] was officially opened in 1910, in the presence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Mayor of Riga. But, as Balcus explains, “it is a park with a complex history”. First built to commemorate Latvian independence, the park was given its current name after the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII, and as such “embodies the historical trauma of a small Baltic nation”, says Balcus. It’s famous for its Victory Monument which, at 79m high, looms over Riga’s skyline and provides a daily reminder of the controversial issue it signifies.
Born in 1991, Polish photographer Karol Palka is currently working on a PhD at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, which he hopes to finish in 2021. His series Edifice documents communist-era buildings in Poland and neighbouring Eastern Bloc countries. It includes shots of the Polana Hotel, once owned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and the former office building for the management of the Nowa Huta Steelworks, which was once visited by Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.
On 08 December 2013, the Bessarabska Lenin statue on Taras Shevchenko Boulevard in Ukraine was demolished in the midst of the Euromaidan revolution. What followed was a wave of symbolic violence that came to be known as Leninfall [or ‘Leninopad’ by Ukrainians]. Seeking to erase all traces of the Ukraine’s Soviet past, the government launched an official decommunisation process, outlawing communist monuments. Prior to these events around 5500 statues of Lenin stood in former Soviet state; today, not one remains. Fascinated by the fate of these statues, Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sébastien Gobert went on a quest to find them, documenting the results in the series Looking for Lenin. Published as a book last year, the series now going on show at Espace Images, Vevey.
French documentary photographer Elliott Verdier’s A Shaded Path highlights the endless paradoxes of a region fossilised by its longstanding history of being forgotten. Kyrgyzstan is a peculiar place, completely landlocked by mountain ranges – a feature that has preserved its culture while simultaneously reinforcing its susceptibility to external domination. Since its official relinquishment from Soviet control in the early 1990s, the country has returned to its resting state of self-sufficient isolation. From October 2016 to February 2017, Verdier photographed Kyrgyzstan’s industrial factories, embedded in sprawling landscapes that are populated by the touching subjects in his accompanying portraits. Shortly after settling into his daily routine, the photographer began to notice a marked difference between the collective nostalgia of the country’s older and younger generations
Taking inspiration from the DIY culture of his homeland during the Soviet era, Belarusian photographer Alexey Shlyk’s series of playfully staged photographs explores craftsmanship and resourcefulness.