In an age of highly manipulated digital photography, a young generation of Latvian photographers is turning to a poetic form of the documentary genre to explore their national identity. For a small nation like Latvia with a complicated past, the search for identity has been ongoing since the country’s independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union 24 years ago.
The following five photographers are interested in depicting the lives of communities, their surroundings, and personal narratives. The works are united by what could be called “local poetics” — a lyrical and dreamy tone that has been characteristic of Latvian art for many decades. Nature often serves as a background in these photographs. By contemplating the relationship between the human being and the world, these artists seem also to question what it means to live in Latvia, and ruminate on its past and present.
Ilze Vanaga in her own words is an “old school artist” interested not only in what she captures but the manner in which she presents it. In the series European Borderlines — Katrina, Vanaga turns to her own childhood, gathering memories of a lost world. The photographs are accompanied by notes scratched with a pencil, kids’ stickers and cut-outs from old magazines or books, all presented in the form of a photo album. The images are mainly portraits of the artist taken in the 80s, when children were expected to pose obediently and seriously for photographs. Don’t we all desire to go back and ask ourselves what we have become? What are we now? Where are we heading? Is there something that inevitably ties us together as a generation? Vanaga’s album holds memories that we — the last children of the Soviet Union and the first to experience capitalism in the 90s — can all identify with. Yet for her it’s also a deeply personal story, a journey to her childhood, full of doubts, fears and sweetness.
Iveta Vaivode is another young photographer who traces her family roots, returning to a place where she believes her grandmother lived — a small, sparsely inhabited village called Pilcene in Latgale, Latvia. The series Somewhere on the Disappearing Path captures not only the rural people she met and engaged with during several trips there, but also the charming natural surroundings of Latgale, the poorest region of Latvia where strong Roman Catholic beliefs hold sway. Instead of documenting individual lives, the images conjure the atmosphere of this small town far from the buzz of the big city, and reveal the magic of the place. Two boys stare out from dense foliage, dwarfed by the bushes around them; a ragged girl stands in a churchyard in the light of setting sun; a white horse wallows in the snow on a bright winter’s day. The spell that Vaivode conjures transports us to an imagined land — a past that she imagines for herself.
A similar approach can be found in Evita Goze’s series Imaginary Homelands. She is interested in “a wish to remember, a longing for an impossible permanency and at the same time a desire for movement and faraway lands”. Her main subject of interest is people — her friends and acquaintances — who she portrays in an intimate way, but also at a slight remove. By combining detachment and a longing for closeness, a condition of our digital modernity, these portraits seem very contemporary. Goze’s work also resembles fashion photography — the purity of details and staged expressions, the steadiness bordering on coolness.
Performance is an important aspect in Viktorija Eksta’s work. In the series God, Nature, Work, Eksta staged various scenes with a young woman, played by the photographer, in an old, abandoned house — sewing, dressing, reading, washing herself and doing housework alone. The photographs, inspired by local writer Anna Brigadere’s autobiographical trilogy of the same name, depict a young woman in picturesque chiaroscuro interiors, stand in opposition to how young females see themselves today. Eksta’s work points to the social changes of the last century, the new lifestyles and social dynamics that have remade our identities. She takes us back a century to remind us of the beauty and silence of nature that embraced us then.
For Andrejs Strokins, photography is a way of depicting his impressions of the everyday world. His series People In The Dunes is devoted to Bolderāja and Daugavgrīva, peripheral neighbourhoods of Riga, which were once significant but now find themselves degraded and marginalised. Strokin’s photographs of these places are tinged in a soft, mellow tone, like looking through a foggy veil. We don’t find out anything about the lives of the people in the images; Strokins keeps his distance, capturing a feeling of remoteness.