– Birgit, I know that you came to photography from professional journalism. After a successful career in a local newspaper, “Eesti Ekspress”, you decided to “replace words with images” and switched to photography. How do you explain this choice? Why did you prefer the visual language to the verbal one? And do your journalistic experience and your talent for words help you find your own way in photography?
– I worked as a journalist for many years, but I have to admit that despite the recognition, I always felt that I couldn’t find the right words. I always had the feeling that something was missing. At one point I was asked to start working as a photo editor in an Estonian daily newspaper and I decided to change professions. I really wanted to work with images, and that was my reason for leaving. I felt that to grow as a human being, I had to make that decision. It has been said that if you lose yourself in doing something, you are doing the right thing. When I take pictures or do anything connected with photography, I forget that I even exist.
When dealing with visual language, you don’t have to “translate” it for yourself. You either can “read” the image or you cannot. But of course, I still adore words and people who can really use them neatly. I am really happy and thankful to have that background and experience in working with text, which helps me in other things. If you can cope with all the nuances that are typically inherent in writing, you will have a green light in many other areas. Speaking of words and images, their synthesis is able to create something totally unexpected and poetic! They don’t exclude but complement each other.
– Your first completed project, “By the Lake”, had wide resonance. Reflections on the past and present of people born in the USSR are the leitmotif of the work. Where does your interest in this subject come from? Did it have any personal meaning to you? In your opinion, how does it help public to get to know the mentality of the Soviet (the Estonian/the Russian) people of Lake Peipus? Why did you choose to use diptychs?
– I started visiting Eastern Estonia about ten years ago, about the same time I started to explore the Russian Orthodox Old Believers’ community, whose ancestors were already escaping from Russia during the church reforms of the 17th and 18th Centuries.
In 2009, when I first thought about working on the project, I wanted to photograph people living by the biggest border-lake in Europe, on the shores of Lake Peipus. I knew that the greater part of the locals are Russian Old Believers, but I wasn’t going to limit myself to that ethnic group. I wanted to create close contact with all the residents (Estonians, Russians, Finnish) who live so close to the lake that sometimes seems as boundless as the sea. I was curious to know how this body of water affected their lives.
Russian Old Believers’ descendants, like most Estonians, were born in the USSR, but ancient traditions and religions make the core of their life, not politics. That’s why it’s hard for me to answer your question. While working on the project I learned a lot about the former situation, about times when the two shores, Estonian and Russian, were in close contact. For example, Estonians grew onions and other vegetables and sold them to Russians.
The project mostly tells about the memories of those people, about what remains of a once-flourishing community. It also touches upon the question of the new generation, as they keep leaving their home… What I found there was a luscious and colorful community, but at the same time the community was, literally speaking, standing still. In the homes of the locals, I found objects that were longing for the past, not the Soviet one, but for the times when their owners were Old Believers. The silence was everywhere.
To transmit those feelings, I decided to put two images together as a diptych. One portrays a person and the other an object – for example, wallpaper or other detail from his or her personal environment. It’s hard to say which part of the diptych is more important for me. The whole story comes together only by combining both parts; both are equally important.
– Your next project is called “Estonian Documents” and it represents an attempt to “preserve the psychological state of one post-soviet country in the 21st century”. The people whose portraits we see in this series are rather different from those we got to know in “By the Lake”. Can we actually compare them? Many of them seem to belong to the present rather than to the past. Is this really so?
– In the series “Estonian Documents”, I wanted to study my fellow citizens using the form of a document. I was fascinated with the idea that the face of a person creates a document of a certain time. The main part of my previous project, “By the Lake”, was based on the surroundings and personal environment of people, but I now wanted to exclude the environment and to concentrate only on the appearance of a specific person.
Answering your question, I can tell that the people I photograph belong both to the past and to the future. Those are the so-called “new Estonians”: mixed nationalities, and also the old bearded men who come to mind when one thinks about people living in the countryside or even thinking about our grandparents… The gray background I use also acts as a hint of the past. It is a symbol, a metaphor for what is not there anymore. I should mention that in modern societies, in Europe and in the States, national identity is becoming a more complex concept. It is also slowly changing in Estonia. And as I am still working on the project, its “face” is also still changing.
– What kind of “documents” have you managed to collect while working on this project? In which way are the viewers looking at the portraits discovering the current face of the Estonian nation? How important is this topic for you personally and for your people?
– Actually, I am curious to know what the viewers see in the photographs! Seriously, I am so happy that people became interested in the project and in the people who are shown there. It gives me the confidence to continue my work. Moreover, this kind of interest is evidence that with this project I am able to tell something about Estonians.
When I started working on the project, it had been 20 years since the Soviet army left the country. Reflecting on our present-day identity, I looked around and noticed how excited people are on the streets. Being Estonian, I wanted to look at my people from a distance. I tried to take one step aside to see their essence. I hope that the final result will surprise both me and my fellow natives.
– Birgit, what do you mean by mentioning “psychological state” in the project description?
– How people in my photographs present themselves tells a lot about them. Conclusions can be made using unnoticeable psychological details – their body language, expressions on their faces, how they look at you. I am happy if I can show even a bit of their state of mind through their appearance. After all, their appearances affect how we perceive the series and the idea as a whole. By means of repeating some of the elements in the project, I hope to create some generalization.
I also like the psychological process of making close-up portraits of strangers and people I know little about. It feels like creating your own psychological space, where you actually make an image. Mystical things can happen during the exchange of energies between two people! I consider those to be very special moments and I am always thankful when these moments magically happen.
– What public feedback did you get for your projects? Do Estonians recognize themselves in “Estonian Documents”? Is it a “mirror” of Estonian society or is it more of a “document”?
– I hope I am able to play with contradictions between the visual and the linguistic. I think that every work done by a photographer is subjective; however, the word “document” from the perspective of language means the opposite. Although this project has a documentary nature and mirrors real society, my aim is not to conduct social scientific research.
The feedback has been really supportive. Sometimes I feel that people are surprised with my choice of characters. Someone asked me directly how I chose my models. I invited to participate in the project both people who had already heard about it and those who were complete strangers. I am really grateful that almost all of them were very willing to be part of it, so the atmosphere around “Estonian Documents” is really favorable.
– Which one of these faces could actually be your own?
– I hope that all of them are, in a way, my reflection.
Birgit Püve (b. 1978) is a portrait and documentary photographer currently based in Tallinn, Estonia. Since she started working on her own personal projects, her works have won several awards. In 2012, the picture editors of The Sunday Times Magazine’s Spectrum named Birgit the Spectrum Emerging Talent 2012. In November 2014 she won the 3rd Prize at The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize organized by The National Portrait Gallery in London.
In February 2015 she was selected as a finalist at the LensCulture Expose Awards. Her works have been exhibited in USA, Canada, UK, Russia, Austria, Germany, France, Latvia, Poland etc and published in publications such as The Washington Post, TIME Lightbox, PDN Magazine, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, GEO, Ryanair Magazine, Newsweek Polska, L’Express, among others.