After receiving a wide range of entries from 26 New East countries, the New East Photo Prize 2018 is back with a new set of 16 finalists, with projects exploring modern-day witchcraft, graduation albums, legendary cosmonauts, contested territories and more. This week, we caught up with Latvian photographer Alnis Stakle about his winning project, Heavy Waters. The exhibition is on display until 2 December at Calvert 22 Foundation.
Alnis Stakle’s Heavy Waters focuses on the towns and rural territories across the Crimean coast. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea was one of its most popular resorts, with its sanatoria and spas serving prominent functionaries of the Communist Party. Today, Crimea is an internationally unrecognised part of Russia. Its economy has undergone radical changes since the closure of its resorts, leaving a situation of low employment and little industry. Heavy Waters presents an image of the slow decay of the region’s Soviet legacy, interspersed with splashes of the peninsula’s new capitalist rebirth.
How has the place where you grew up affected your work as a photographer?
I grew up in a small Latvian town which, in Soviet times, was a markedly industrial residence of factory workers. I took up photography at the dawn of the 90s — a period when the Soviet Union was teetering on the edge of collapse. At that time, almost all the factories in my home town went bankrupt and their territories turned into ill-guarded ghost towns. Naturally, these semi-deserted industrial territories became the main attraction for local youths to spend their leisure time in. My first photographs were taken while prowling these forgotten and deserted places of collective pride. I suppose this initial nostalgic interest in disappearing places and spaces is a heritage that still remains part of my creative practice.
What do you think makes a compelling photo story?
Based on what’s popular in the Western art market, I’d say the most successful photographs or photo stories are those that combine the situational, the intimate and the political.
Pick one photograph from the project you submitted and tell us something we would have never known about it
Certain artworks are intriguing and interesting until you get to know the underlying details — the what, where and when of the depicted scene. This photograph captures the moment where a drowned person has been pulled out of the water, completely white and unconscious. While he was being dragged over the rocky shore, his head was repeatedly knocked, as if he were already dead. And yet, after a half hour or so of the medical staff’s fussing over him, his body suddenly turned pink and he started to move. Against all odds, he survived.
What was the last photo story/film/book that touched you?
For the last several months I have been going over my old negative archives from ten years ago or older — a lot of old, forgotten places, memories and unfinished ideas. The last book I bought and enjoyed was Hot Mirror by Vivian Sassen.
How do you think Instagram is influencing photography?
Social media in general has changed the circulation of images and our image consumption habits. Instagram permits a non-critical consumer to live in their own stereotypes about the world of photography, which, all in all, is neither good nor bad. That said, it’s the algorithm that suggests the content that could be of interest to us, creating a kind of comfort zone by proposing images of the same type. As a university lecturer on photography I’ve learned that Instagram is often the most significant place where young people encounter photographs, and that the Instagram algorithm is the basis for their knowledge of images. It hardly bears saying that their understanding of photography is somewhat skewed: although they constantly consume images on social media, they have no knowledge of any online or printed photography-focused media.
Was there a moment you ever regret taking a photo? How about a moment you didn’t take a photo but wish you had?
I have never regretted photographing anything. If I were a journalist, I would probably have to deal with more sensitive situations where I could potentially harm someone by publishing my photos. I would have liked to have taken more photos of my father. I lacked the courage to photograph him on his deathbed. I still have dual feelings about it. For an artist who makes his private life public, I ought not to have any problem sharing such moments, but in that situation I chose simply to be an ordinary person.
If you could get a scholarship to a prestigious art school, a chance to assist your favourite photographer or a plane ticket anywhere of your choice which would you pick and why?
I would love to go back to China again someday. I have been there to shoot several times already, and I have a feeling that I am not finished with China just yet. Although it is all quite irrational and intuitive, I cannot name any rational reason for that.