– Let us break the ice with a couple of general questions about your primary interest in photography and your education. In which way did the degree in Audio and Visual Culture and Theory and the workshops you attended shaped your visual language, aesthetic vision? How have you benefited from the masterclasses by Jan Grarup and Nico Baumgarten?
– If we don’t count the deconstruction of my “Zenit” camera at an early age, then photography became a reality for me at the age of 9. Our Australian relatives, being impressed by my admiration for the photographs they took during their visit to Latvia, presented me a disposable camera.
First stages of my education were connected with other art forms such as drawing, painting, and ceramics. Leafing through books of paintings over and over again and trying to copy pictures helped me to build up my early visual experience and aesthetic vision. Favorites of my teenage years were post-Impressionists, as you would expect, headed by Van Gogh.
Latvian Academy of Culture, with a wide range of disciplines taught, has played a huge role in expanding my horizons. It was an explosion of visual and intellectual impressions of literature, culture, history of cinema, directors – number of important experiences I would possibly never come across otherwise.
It was also important to learn to analyze visual language and to understand which means of expression are combined to express a particular feeling or message. Despite mastering the technical aspects of photography and genres in professional school, only during the period of study at the Academy did I realize that documentary approach, with all its subjectivity and relativism, was what I needed. In documentary filmmaking as well as in photography.
For sure the so-called Latvian poetic documentary left a mark on my worldview. I have also admired the work of Ivars Seleckis and Laila Pakalnina. Among Russian directors it would be a shame not to mention Andrey Tarkovsky. I guess the mood of Lars von Trier’s and David Lynch’s visual language also made a great impact on me. Sometimes I can note it, as my photographs are compared to their work peculiarly often. One of my favorite film directors is also Wim Wenders with his delicate photographic views and tender approach to death or dramatic experiences.
I should admit, photography never seemed to me to be as hard or serious as cinematography or painting, which seemingly demanded more hard work and creative torments. And maybe because of its easiness and spontaneity (at least with my generally used method) did it absorb me so quickly. It was so quick that even my usual perfectionism failed to disturb.
I have never had established idols in the world of photography. We had a photography book by Vilhelms Mihailovskis at home. During my school years, I collected Elliott Erwitt’s photography books, who, as you might know, often photographed dogs. I was also inspired by some local photographers like Egons Spuris, Inta Ruka and Andrejs Grants. A lasting impression was left by an exhibition of Magnum photo agency set up in an old cinema in Riga.
A more fundamental understanding of contemporary photography, as well as development of a personal project, came to me during my studies in ISSP (a two-year informal educational program for young photographers).
If someone asks me to call the names of those who inspires me, I would name Alejandro Chaskielberg, Josef Koudelka, Richard Kalvar, Ricardo Cases, Stephen Gill, Hiroji Kubota, Jonas Bendiksen, Marcos López, Akos Major, Martin Usborne, as well as my teachers Alnis Stakle, Alexander Gronsky and others.
Nico Baumgarten… well, first of all, it’s about an inspiration from a person, who is so enthusiastic for his work that he is able to inspire others with his striking patience and playfulness. For me, the book as a form of expression is very organic. That’s why I consider it to be an important experience. Editing process that makes your work develop into new shapes and finds unexpected combinations. Nico introduced us to the world of self-publishing, a priceless method of presenting your artwork.
Having the one and only experience in photojournalism while working as a photo-reporter at the Chancellery of Latvian Parliament, I was lucky enough to be at the Jan Grarup’s presentation. Jan outlined the ways of finding your own stories while working on topical social issues. Then I realized how creative photojournalism can be.
– The approach you have chosen for your photography you call “a subjective documentary showing the ordinary in a form of elegiac photo narrative.” According to the simplest definition, elegy is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. What or whom do you mourn for in your photographs?
– Well, probably this epithet is exaggerated. I came up with it because I was forced to describe the mood that prevails in my photographs and the impressions that they leave on others. But it’s quite hard to put it in words and I don’t really want to do it. That’s why I have chosen this visual language with more blurred borders, more “right side of the brain” focused. Maybe “melancholy” could be a more precise word.
As a human being, melancholic in particular, I am grieving for the lost or even suppositional paradise. For the childhood – when borders of imagination and opportunities were further. It’s the time when you can idealize and live carelessly in a safe and ideal world, no matter what you think about it later. You can often see a figure of a grandfather on some of the portraits I take – for me it has become a kind of guard of that world.
Photography allows me to capture something I love and wish to keep – usually a kind of a love song, as well as an initiation song that allows me to get closer to the unknown and accept it, recognizing universal forms of unique and alien. If I have to describe melancholy in words then I would have to quote Nick Cave, as I find his words to be the most precise. In one of his lectures (given in Vienna in 1999), he talked on writing a love song. I would like to quote it here:
“We all experience within us what the Portugese call Suadade, which translates as an inexplicable sense of longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song.
All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all but rather Hate Songs disguised as love songs are not to be trusted. These songs deny us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad and the air-waves are littered with them.
How beautiful the notion that we create our own personal catastrophes and that it is the creative forces within us that are instrumental in doing this. We each have a need to create and sorrow is a creative act.
Ultimately the love songs exist to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine.
Through these songs I have been able to mythologize the ordinary events of my life, lifting them from the temporal plane and hurling them way into the stars.”
I was agreeably surprised by the response to my project. I realized that I was not the only one to “grieve” about the past, looking for the ways to slow down time, finding mythical in everyday life and archetypes in seemingly unique situations. I am interested in a myth that brings stability into the unstable world, brings the “sacral” into the “linear.” That is why I like taking photographs of family gatherings and little community rituals. Eclecticism or kitsch in home interiors attracts me. Familiar things in unexpected combinations remind me of creativity and acceptance that are typical for the children and the elderly; those who don’t know how or no longer want to be guided by stereotypes and persistent views of social strata on tastes that make us hide our fetishes in order not to drop out of desired elite groups.
On the other hand, it is interesting to observe specific tastes, encapsulated within different periods of time with its own importance. Interiors that represent absolute conceptual order that does not allow any hap. And the seriousness that the order of these spaces is guarded with, leaves a calming effect. As a little island of stability in an otherwise relative world.
– In the description of the project you quote Franz Kafka: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” You seem to find connections between photography, poetry and literature quite naturally…
– I am not an avid reader, as I would like it to be, but if I happen to “enter” a book, I would stay there for a long time. If I borrow a book from a friend or a library, it’s always hard to bring it back. It feels like it has become a part of me. For example, today I got engrossed in an interview in one of the magazines at the hairdresser, so they let me take it home and bring it back when I am finished. And now this magazine seems to be the most valuable one in the world. I feel I should read and keep in mind all the articles, including the strawberry dessert recipe.
It’s mostly owing to a list of recommended literature I had at the Latvian Academy of Culture and my mom, who used to work in a book shop, that made me read more often and discover new authors, who became my favorite ones. I would read and re-read them regularly, as they would resonate with me, and in turn it’s hard not to reflect this in my photography. In fact, everything we create is nothing but a one big selfie – your own reflections in landscapes, objects and faces. Perhaps the quote mentioned in the project description I have also dedicated to myself. It’s an excuse for being passive, in opposition, for example, to being ambitious.
– Please tell us more about the creation of the “Sit Silently” project. How did you come up with an idea to research “points where contemporary Europe” meet different layers of the past (like Soviet and National Awakening period in Latvia)? What were you looking for and what did you find in the end?
– Maybe more than a rational concept, it was working with diligently and intuitively gathered material. I was trying to notice direction where the lens of my camera will turn and to understand “why?’’. Thus the story has found its place around this “why”. For sure, it is a part of the world acceptance process, searching for comfort, that in my case obtained the face of such particular spaces, figures, and symbols.
Sometimes you create or realize something, but only later you would find a right word for it. Noticing my Latgalian neighbor dressed in a suit, ready to celebrate a New Year’s party with his colleagues, everything merges into something and I press the shutter. At this moment I do not manage to rationalize, and to me, it is the most beautiful thing. Rationalization happens later. Only later I realize that this episode is a part of a myth, my Soviet childhood, and the National Awakening time. Probably it’s only the ruins of something that remind me my grandfather before his choir’s party, who definitely had reached the same level of tiredness of life. But for me, this episode is filled with sentimentality. Longing for the time and place where my magic lived, my “Three from Prostokvashino,” my Astrid Lindgren, Marquez, and Joyce.
I felt the relevance of my project in conjunction with others, presented at the exhibition «European Prospects», designed to reflect the diversity of identities and experiences of today’s Europe. The international photo exhibition “Celebrating Europe” was organized to mark the tenth anniversary of accession to the EU. Photographers from 15 countries of the “old” and “new” Europe gathered in a gallery in Kaunas, Lithuania, reflecting the diversity of the European Union, which does not cease to doubt the reality of his own existence.
As Agne Narušyte comments reviewing the overall picture, “the cultural landscape, which has formed not on national bases, connects everybody like the secret home for the soul. Thus I am not surprised when Katrina Kepule suggests we should escape to that place: while staying in Latgale, one of the most distant corners of Europe, we should sit quietly, waiting for the reality of Franz Kafka to manifest itself. The writer is at home there, found in every borderland where one can live more slowly and where everybody had been participated (non)voluntary in The Trial for fifty years trying to figure out their guilt, while literary fiction had been transferred into reality perfectly.
Imaginated by photographers, Europe’s ethnographic variety is at the brink of extinction, but cultural masterpieces still feed the imagination”.
– In your touching essay “Turning Point,” written for “London Independent Photography,” I found this quote that I really liked: “When entering one of these multi-layered islands of safety, especially after a longer absence, I feel with the click of my camera shutter I am re-affirming my belonging in the world. It is like finding the true reflection of my face in the bathroom mirror again; and is a platform to remember and redefine the path that was once important for me.” In which way did you actually see your own reflection in the “Sit Silently” project? How much of your character is made of the Soviet heritage? How did the collapse of the USSR shape you and other people from Latvia?
– I am in that process of waiting, staying within snug spaces in which you can afford to be yourself, in your own dressing-gown and your own indecision. Taking into account my desire of wandering around, enjoying “the undefined space between here and there”, I also tend to linger, not to rush, stare through the window, as if playing “Find 10 Differences.” It’s an ambivalent status with its privileges and barriers in which I have tried to discern some beauty or poetics.
I like placidity away from the center and those jars – different and similar at the same time – in which people have been trying to preserve time. That would be the mission impossible to precisely measure where the Soviet heritage ends and my individual character starts. Same can be said about the Latvians in general.
Perhaps some part of the Soviet heritage might be in the specific ethical standards we use to measure everything. It’s a mix of Latvian national sense of dignity and imprinted Soviet ideology. On one hand, it protects us from bravado and everyday impunity when we see ourselves as morally superior to those grown-ups on the other side of the Iron Curtain in a “free world” without censorship. On the other hand, there are mental restrictions which express themselves in increased fear of being oneself, discussing certain questions in public and standing out from the crowd because those who differ are being evaluated through the ethical scanner of the rest of the population. And not everyone can deal with it.
There is a kind of inner voice from the past that still whispers that, for example, it could be mean or vain to be interested just in clothing and showing off. However, the youth of today is becoming less and less affected by these restrictions.
Interiors and environments that I often visit reflect practicality and thrift typical of a Soviet-born person, revealing their ability to build things by hand, and choosing to repair instead of throwing away. The post-Soviet person finds it hard to adapt to marketing tricks that are forcing us to buy new things every second year. One may think that such attachment to things is not about the new generation. But vintage markets are very popular in Riga, indicating that people of my generation are not able to throw old things away, choosing to exchange them.
Sometimes Latvians don’t really know how to be proud of themselves; in a way, they still see it to be unworthy. It’s easily noted by an expat coming for a short visit. One friend of mine once said: “People here are so tense, as they expect something bad to happen. There, where I live now, there is an active volcano, but people are actually very relaxed.” Most often a Latvian is not going to go to a bar with his or her colleagues straight after work. It was enough communication through the day. A Latvian would quietly come into the shop, not looking at the shopkeeper, looking around by himself. The shopkeeper would easily scare him away by just offering his help (with a certain self-pressure and forced kindness, as he more likely would choose to save his energy on talking as well). The Latvian would take a protective position saying: “No, no, no” trying to escape sooner.
A post-Soviet person has a strong fear of officials, of that look over the top of the glasses. They are often afraid to object, express their opinion, of a loud protest. After the breakdown of the USSR, some earned a lot, some changed their professions, but many couldn’t find their place, that in those circumstances wasn’t guaranteed anymore. They couldn’t learn to take responsibility for their life and spent time being dejected. Some brought up their children in this way – certain part of my generation. Even now, mostly artists, find it difficult to manage the material side of their creative work – advertising, presenting, selling their work. Poetry and creativity are prevailing. There is something of a teenager in a Latvian – he is still not taking full responsibility for his life, waiting for someone to solve his problems.
But, at the same time, instead of talking too much, the introverted Latvian can go deep into his reflections, and when creating something, it won’t be shallow; think of Latvian delicate lace. And if they make friends with you, they will treat you with homemade jam and cucumbers from their garden. True friendship is valued very high.
– As far as I know, you found the title for this project on Google Poetics searching for “sit.” “Sit silently/sit silently doing nothing/we sit silently and watch the world/we sit silently and watch.” What would this title tell the viewer about Latvian identity?
– As we well remember, during the Soviet era many issues were considered to be non-existent. For example, issues of growing up (mentally as well as physically, understanding yourself, building relationships, discussing private matters) were often out of the question, even in the family. In this sense, the majority of Latvians are self-taught. Today the Internet plays a major role in the dissemination of information, though still a large number of people “sit silently,” ashamed of their problems. Conflicts that could be easily solved when discussed.
Latvians are still good at remaining silent and holding things inside, withdrawing into themselves when solving problems and sometimes expressing their opinion on a particular issue with the significant sigh. Be silent and represent the epitome of drama, a detached monument of inner resentment.
– And how did your fellow countrymen react to the “Sit Silently” series? Was there more interest coming from abroad rather than from Latvia?
– The project has been received warmly enough. The interest primally shown by foreigners can perhaps be explained by the exoticism or even a trend attributed to the post-Soviet space. Reaching the Top 50 by LensCulture Emerging Talents 2014 has contributed greatly to the popularity of the project. Outside Latvia, the so-called contemporary photography, personal project or documentary story format is more common and better understood. Here, except in a circle of currently established enthusiasts, purposefully going wider, this kind of photography utterance does not yet receive so much attention as a tantamount form of art. However, I can not complain about luck of interest now and feel touched by the appreciation.
In general, it seems to me that resignation, gloominess and alienation are coming into fashion in contemporary portrait photography. Probably such features are more natural for a Latvian than for somebody from the south, for example. Also, it seems that a frozen with flash portrait of a person, wearing his uncle’s shorts in an unpretentious situation is now “brought to the stage” of the contemporary photography and is met a great ovation … I don’t know how to explain it.
– Katrina, to what extent is your photography typical for the current visual language used in contemporary Latvian photography? What issues are in the focus of Latvian photographers?
– Latvians have their eyes on the past, looking there for themselves, their roots, a source of strength. They like spending time in an attic and abandoned houses, leafing through old photo albums. This trait has always been in Latvian literature, art, cinema and theater, as it seems to me. Latvians feel anxious when time erases traces of the lives and destinies past. It is the anxiety of losing a part of identity and not being protected. This theme has always been important here, and now it’s making its way into contemporary photography. I’ve seen this trend developing in the works of my teachers, course mates and other young photographers from Latvia.
Latvians believe that they should keep carrying their inheritance, which can be useful in bad weather. But this load, probably, does not allow them to be more playful. Of course, it is worth noting that this is just my personal look at the world from the height of the window sill.
Katrina Kepule was born and lives in Latvia. She has received a B.A. in History and Theory of Audio-Visual Culture from Latvian Academy of Culture, and also graduated from a two year informal education program at the International Summer School of Photography in 2014. Katrina participated in a masterclass by Jan Grarup (Essence of photojournalism, 2013) and in the Artist’s Book making workshop by Nico Baumgarten (2014). She is also a recipient of the 2015 Roberto Villagraz scholarship at EFTI, Madrid.