The country of Georgia is a small nation in the Caucasus, nestled at the crossroads between East and West, Europe and Asia, history and modernity. A little known, former Soviet republic that remains cloaked in mystery for much of the world, Georgia is a nation with an identity crisis, still grappling with a long history of Soviet domination peppered by brief periods of independence. For photographer Ksenia Yurkova, this crisis of her homeland provided the subject for her latest project, Dos Passos. Beginning with a series of prose-poem snapshots—crystallized moments culled from Yurkova’s childhood memories—the book proceeds in a series of black and white images that retain a persistent, old-world feel, the tiled baths and tattered Playboy towels speaking to a time far-removed from the 2013 present when they were captured. The 28 year-old, who now resides in Saint Petersburg, describes the project on her Facebook page, “It’s about me and the place where my childhood remained.” Yurkova spoke to Resource about the project, what it means to come from a nation in flux and the importance of memory.
How would you describe Georgia to someone who knows nothing about the country?
It is the country I would never recommend an artist to go to for a residency. I mean if that artist wants to do something there, in Georgia. Because you can’t get anything done there. You can drink wine sitting in the garden; you can travel to the mountains; you can taste fried meat with three million kinds of plum sauce; you can have long talks with all your neighbors and their relatives, getting to know their names and life stories; and your friends will visit you there more often than at your place. But you won’t ever have time for art.
How has Georgia changed in the twenty years since it officially gained its independence?
Externally it has changed for the better; most of the signs of the hard, Soviet past have been erased. But on the other hand, people have a big lack of self-identity. The old-ones forgot who they were. The youngsters still do not actually understand it. The Georgians still can’t find their national self-esteem.
What is your first memory of photography? Were you exposed to it at a young age?
I remember my admiration when I saw the Soviet camera Crystal. My grandfather refused to give it to me and put it in his locker. Now I keep all my photo equipment in this locker.
Why did you decide to pursue photography as a career?
I got that it is my most effective and precise way to express myself and to be understood.
You now reside in Russia. Why did you decide to revisit Georgia for this project?
To close my Gestalt.
Your book is titled Dos Passos, named for the American novelist. What was his significance to you? Why tie him to your story?
Just several things about him. Once he was there in Georgia in 1928. I accidentally discovered it when I saw a memorial plaque with his name. I knew that he was a representative of the “génération perdue” writers. I wondered, “How he could write something about someone he spent so little time with?” (He was in Georgia for several days and only about two or three months in the Soviet Union and wrote a novel, Orient Express). I asked myself, “Was his view superficial, or not?”
And another fact from his biography—he was actually on the front with Hemingway. But he was very, very scared. A man full of doubts.
I liked his doubts. Because I had such questions about fears, routes, doubts and superficiality regarding myself.
Are these spontaneous, street photography shots, or do you plan them out and pose them?
They are spontaneous.
Why do you prefer to work almost entirely with black and white film?
This medium is apprehensible to me and very close to the discrete memories I tried to reanimate.
Do your photos always tell a story? What do you think makes photographs such powerful tools for storytelling?
My photos always tell a story to myself. And I try my best to make them tell a story to others.
The concentration of signs, of figurativeness, something that is above words makes photographs such strong tools.
The OSE (Other Side of Europe) Project is a collective of Eastern European photographers founded in 2010 by Laurence Fromme. Not only are you a member but Dos Passos is also the group’s featured story this month. What is the purpose of the project? How did you get involved?
I knew about this project some time ago. My friends and colleagues are among the authors of the project. I liked the owners’ statement: “Areas beyond this point are little-known and as a result have been ascribed a stubborn uniformity. Perceptions of the vast Eastern half of Europe are mired in a single endlessly repeated narrative of past events and their consequences. This ‘single story’ of collapse and hopelessness, with small geographical differences, remains an accepted and unchallenged standard for many around the world. Knowledge of myriad cultural traditions and diversity, often very much alive and evolving in unexpected directions, is suppressed by media focus on a narrow range of economic and political matters.” So I decided to send my project to Laurence Fromme.
What happens when we try to erase the past?
We kill something in ourselves. There is one small but conceptual difference between Georgia in the past and at the present time—people have stopped singing. In the evenings, people would traditionally go with a big family or company to the garden or the restaurant to have dinner, and they would sing. But they have stopped.
With the Internet, we are now able to share photographs and stories from around the world. What do you hope non-Eastern European audiences get out of your photos?
My story is very personal. There was no aim to teach. Just to show two things. First, that history always repeats. And the second is that if someone tries to erase your past, you will find it anyway.