Under socialism, east Europeans were expected to prioritise the state over the traditional family unit. A generation later, photographers from the region are training their lenses on their closest kin to better understand a complex past.
Looking in the mirror one day you realise that you have your mother’s eyes and your father’s nose. That you are going to get old, just like your parents were once young. This feeling is similar to the soft yet powerful thrum in the chest you get sometimes when walking through East Berlin, Belgrade or Moscow. The sensation that tells you: history happened here. Beneath the asphalt in Prague or in the empty imperial shell of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest lies a trace of a vanished world, the same world that exists in the family album where parents still laugh on a park bench in 1977. The post-communist landscape is the place where both collective memory and amnesia have the strongest grip on people. To deal with it, some study architecture and some read history books. But a new generation of eastern European photographers turn to the the small rooms of their childhood memories — to the idea of family.
As any old holiday snapshot will tell you, capturing family is the most natural and universal of desires. The idea of visually recording your loved ones is older than photography itself and, taking it for granted, we often overlook how multi-layered an artefact a family image actually is. Even the humblest family photo is a repository of complex emotions and memories. And in the post-communist world that personal legacy comes intertwined with history, ideology, the state and changing definitions of public and private. In the Soviet past, parents were workers and engineers aiming to build a better world. They bequeathed to their children a world of collapsed ideals, leaving the young generation torn between a desire to preserve those memories and an urge to overcome them in order to live in the present. Are we completely determined by our forebears? What is our relationship with time? And how does family exist in the modern world? These are the questions being raised in visual form by photographers all over eastern Europe.
Polish photographer Joanna Piotrowska’s family shots from the book FROWST are unsettling. They suggest that family is not about smiling by the birthday cake. It is a dark and complicated matter. The term FROWST denotes a warm or stuffy atmosphere. Frowsty spaces are both cosy and claustrophobic, intimate and airless — in other words, like the inside of a family itself.
“In Poland and other homogeneous and religious countries, where meetings with other cultures rarely happen, there is one unquestioned way of living and thinking and all alternatives are suppressed,” says Piotrowska. “The message about the family is very clear and one-sided — family is a positive value that everyone should aim for in life. How relationships between family members actually look and what kind of mental states they cause is swept under the carpet. Her photos capture the inherent tension of family life; the struggle for individual identity set within the fact of belonging to something bigger and stronger than yourself. “In Frowsty spaces we can’t breathe easily, it’s a good metaphor for being a part of a larger whole”, says Piotrowska. “The space of intimate drama is always airless.”
Hungarian photographer Viola Fátyol shares Piotrowska’s interest in exposing hidden family dynamics, and she didn’t have to go far to find a subject to study. Her project Family Drawing is based on four years' work with her parents, who allowed her to capture them in a range of uncomfortable poses. The result is deeply personal yet universal: Fátyol uses gestures and situations that come from the everyday reality of a family’s coexistence. “I used visual memories from my childhood and restaged them in the present”, says the photographer. “My grandmother washing my hair, my mother cradling me, my mother trying to give a shape to my father’s beard and so on. I looked for these gestures as visual elements which could be enriched with additional meanings.”
Igor Omulecki’s Family Triptych is also based on personal experience, more as father than a child. The series reflects the five-year process of change in Omulecki’s life following the pregnancy of his wife Daria. Omulecki uses images rooted deeply within our consciousness: family as a sanctuary in the deep woods of life; family as a sacred garden; Adam and Eve, nakedness; birth; death; the soft yet inexorable fact of ageing. Emotions give way to the calmness of eternity. “During the journey, Omulecki's garden imperceptibly flows into the cosmos”, writes curator Jakub Śwircz of the rich, allusive photos that Omulecki creates. “Clouds appear, the moon, finally a nebula of stars. A wide-angle view is shown, and with it, we see the oldest connection with the family, whose history the artist only began to learn at the garden's edge.”
Kseniya Yurkova’s book Letters for Two, And No-One Else is based on letters to her mother from friends, parents and lovers written from the 1960s to the 1980s. “I’m a product of what others have invested in me,” says the Russian photographer. “In my parents are their parents in turn, their love, and their blindness. And so on, into the depths — it’s all the same. Every artefact from my ancestral tribe built me up. Each led to the unavoidability of my appearance. All of it came together in one point — in me.” The project consists of archival photographs, small artefacts and self-portraits: a restless quest for similarities, only to deny them; another love letter powered by the desire to break free from the encompassing presence of parents.
Hungarian photographer Andi Gv’s series About my Mother is also a love letter of sorts, a photographer’s attempt to visualise the most intimate of all relationships. She juxtaposes her portraits with ones of her mum to create a study of family resemblance and to grapple with how women, historically deprived of the right to age, come in terms with time. “In this project, dedicated to my mother, I try to examine her pain, her age, her sorrows and her joys”, says Gv. “I am at an age when I am starting to accept myself as a woman, while she is refusing to become old.” There is an opposition here between coming in terms with age and femininity and refusing to accept ageing.
Russian photographer Ivan Mikhailov has put women in the centre of his exploration of family as well. His project Mothers and Daughters is a fascinating study of contemporary Russian society as seen through the links between female family members. In each picture he captures three or four generations of women in a style influenced by classic portraiture. The project, says Mikhailov, “is an attempt to examine the nature of time and its effect on people by tracing similarities and differences, mutual relations, the details of the period — like a vast domestic family archive”.
Talking about family in eastern Europe always means talking about society, the territory where ideology, politics and history meet. The Epic Love Story of a Warrior, by Hungarian photographer Peter Puklus, is a semi-fictional story of a central European family and a photographer’s exploration of history, pain, collective memory and the body. The imagery is seemingly abstract — staircases, sculptures of small wooden blocks and nails, motionless bodies — yet the narrative suggests subconscious memories of the shared paths of eastern Europe’s violent history.
There are an infinite number of artistic takes on family in contemporary photography, and many of the stories are endlessly beguiling because, in essence, they are all the same primal story. Yet each image resonates differently with every viewer through the prism of their own memories. A sudden pinch of grief during a family dinner; the happiest moments of childhood commingled with memories of trauma we struggle to repress; the fear of becoming our parents; all-consuming love and the torture of separation. However painful exploring this territory can be, it takes us closer to an understanding of who we are and how we coexist with the people closest to us.