In the 1960s, the workers of military factory Dvigatel were given free patches of land for an unlimited period at Suur-Sõjamäe, in the outskirts of Tallinn (capital of Estonia) – let the people toil, let them grow their cabbages and carrots. That was the beginning of the dacha culture in the surroundings of a local airport, despite the quagmire soil of Soodevahe. Looking back wraps you in nostalgic mist, where sweet sounds of garmoshka fill the air above the shantytown and children run barefoot amidst the onion-beds. However, nostalgia is neither the concept nor purpose of the “Plane Watchers”.
I started shooting the “Plane Watchers” series already in 2010. The series that contains both portrait and documentary photos reflects the conflict between the followers of the culture of a fading era and new social order pressing down on them, showing how a group of people hangs on to the past in the teeth of the new rules. I call them the plane watchers, as their shanty-town that was built in the Soviet time, is located right next to the Lennart Meri airport in Tallinn and the air above it is constantly abuzz with landing and launching airplanes.
From early spring to late autumn this was a place for sweet idyllic village life, only a short distance from the bustling and noisy city – true Soviet people were busy weeding and watering. Come winter and the residents of dacha-district hide away in their suburban warrens, only to slip out and stick their fingers in the soil again in spring. In the course of time, some people settled permanently in the surroundings of the airport. City apartments were sold or given at the disposal of the next generation.
The collapse of Soviet empire brought about certain changes even in the life of Soodevahe shanty town. Capitalist rule deepened social stratification. The Younger generation was no longer interested in idyllic country life. The shanty town became the demesne of old-age pensioners. Furthermore, an entirely new type of residents emerged. Almost overnight the area became exposed to the poor and the homeless, who were not supposed to exist under the fertile conditions of the Soviet rule. Such people found refuge in the cabins near the airfield. However, their attitude distinguished them clearly from the permanent habitats. They used to occupy an empty shack and after the place was completely ravaged or even burnt down they moved to another abandoned dacha.
Although Tallinn Airport became the new owner of the land of the former collective farm, it took years to figure out what to do about this weird urban region. The first impressions of those arriving in Estonia by plane were rather creepy and made them feel insecure. Today the decision sealing the fate of this area has finally been made. Demolition of dachas and improvement of the aerial perspective or “visual calling card” puts an end to this stuck-in-time district raised decades ago. The spring of 2015 will be the last one for Soodevahe shanty town.
New life is a possibility only for the newer generations. Destroying allotments rearranges peoples’ lives. People can’t be forced into learning to live in a new way. Land left empty, houses falling apart reflect the feelings of “others” living in Estonia: you’re at home, yet you’re homeless, your system is not part of the general system.
As for the concept, I aimed at drawing attention to the contradictions arising from political changes within a single commune, i.e. what happens when time runs out and it meets its end. Visually joyous and colourful façade conceals both the bitterness of the dacha-keepers, but also their silent acceptance of the inevitable. Local population has grown old and feeble, young people have no interest in tending the veggie patches and the homeless moving in the dacha district at the dawn of new age do not care about the beauty of the gardens. This has brought about the desolation of former idyll. The last person holding on to the veggie-plot culture keeps bustling about in the garden, but is closer to giving up than before.
Bulldozer has been rustling at Suur-Sõjamäe already since 2011, justifying its presence at Soodevahe, which looks more and more like a junkyard. But the stories and fates of people who have toiled here are still worth exploring, and that is why I considered it necessary to document the plane watchers as a unique cultural phenomenon before it is buried under concrete. In order to capture the Soviet atmosphere I have used the camera Ljubitel and latitude negative film – to my mind, the sterility of digital photographs cannot convey the authenticity of the human spirit.
Annika Haas was born in Pärnu, Estonia in 1974. She received a BA in Finno-Ugric languages from the University of Tartu and studied photojournalism at Tartu Art College. Annika’s work has been published and exhibited internationally. She is a finalist of the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2014 and the recipient of the Grand Prize in Estonian Press Photo 2014. Annika lives in Estonia and works as a portrait and documentary photography editor in photo magazine Positiiv.