Photographer Arnis Balcus has been exploring Latvian identity for almost a decade. Since studying in London gave him a chance to look at his native country from a distance, he’s been following the shift in the national mindset and carefully studying the language, environment and collective rituals that define Latvians.
Balcus’s project Latvian Notes started in 2010 with the acquisition of an old Lada. “I got my driver’s license and bought an old Soviet Lada car, so I was able to travel extensively around Latvia and go to rural places without causing too much suspicion among locals”, he remembers.
“At first I concentrated on things that related to Soviet times. But later I got fascinated by the public environment and national rituals and how they tell stories about us, and that became the core of my project. I think the title is as unpretentious as my approach to the subject, almost like images from classic Soviet photo albums. I hope that in 20 years this work will have the same emotional effect as picture albums from 1980s or 70s do now.”
Balcus travelled all around Latvia visiting remote towns and meticulously capturing the details which for ordinary visitors would hardly appear remarkable. He also tried to overcome the less than sociable attitudes of the rural areas. “Most often when arriving at a town or village I would go to the central square, bus station or main shop — places that normally attract people. Almost half of country’s 2 million population live in Riga, so the countryside is relatively empty. However, this lack of sociability is not just due to demographics, but also because historically, Latvians lived in single farmsteads. Interaction was not common, unless you wanted to trade or rob,” he says.
Landscapes for Balcus tell just as much about identity as the people’s attitudes. The typical Latvian landscape definitely exists for the photographer: “If you look at calendars, then yes – it’s probably beautiful, glamourous views from Sigulda in autumn, when trees have yellow leaves. For me, it’s perhaps the dark autumn, when yellow leaves are washed away but the snow hasn’t come yet. It’s grey, wet, cloudy and this is when the images become nostalgic, mysterious and tragic, just like Latvian identity.”