At Calvert 22, The New East tells its own story. The New East Photo Prize 2018 brings an exhibition of the finalist sixteen entries from a total of six hundred from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and central Asia. The selection distils down portraits of the Eastern regions that continue to be underrepresented in Western narratives. Works by professional and amateur photographers argue that a shared past does not equal a shared identity. The New East, just as Eastern Europe, is much more that a singular story.
An open road at dawn cuts through the natural landscape and winds its way towards the horizon. The new day shyly unveils what seems to be the resolute presence of man. Next to it, crumbling buildings and war memorials suggest the impermanence of memory. Michał Sierakowski’s opening series Wild Fields proposes that man wields both memory and nature. Time’s measured in cycles, a new day beckons for every ending. Myths are made and unmade as man makes his way through history.
On the opposite wall, Latvian photographer Alnis Stakle shows another take on the confrontation of man versus nature. His series Heavy Waters is the grand winner of the New East Photo competition. The Crimean Peninsula, once a glorious holiday resort has become decrepit. Annexed by Russia in a move disputed by the UN, Crimea’s in limbo. Ridden by international economic restrictions, with some investments from Russia, its development’s patchy at best. The surviving facilities from the Soviet era still attract a flow of tourists. The hustle and bustle they bring has to do more with the stubbornness of nostalgia than with modern leisure. People are looking away. Light and shadow reveal the ghosts of the past in the landscape, sunbathing bodies, the scattered fragments of architecture. Yet, just like vegetation, human endeavour springs forth in the most inhospitable of places. Man and animal alike claim their spot in the sun in odd juxtaposition. A mother and child read a book together with their backs to the camera, reinstalling a sense of hope and equilibrium. But not for long. A man drops the bag he was holding to stare at the sea. As if punished for daring to take stock, he’s dwarfed by the water’s infinity. Blinded by the scorching sun he realizes his own ephemerality. Nature’s overwhelming.
Metaphysical questions are counteracted by the materiality of history. The jury, in its great majority made up of personalities from the New East, strived to build a complex portrait of the Eastern regions. Such a portrait would not be complete without the region’s experience of capitalism. Fyodor Telkov’s Ural Mari deals with Europe’s last pagan community. Defined by their communion and worship of nature, the Ural Mari survived persecution by Tsarist Russia and the USSR. However, the collapse of the latter brought on the dissolution of communities together with their customs and traditions. Reduced to spectres and traces, the Ural Mari in Telkov’s photographs are like wandering spirits. They can’t find peace as their union with nature was forever severed.
By contrast, in Lucia Sekerková’s Vrajitoare (‘witch’) series, change and tradition aren’t mutually exclusive but come together in an unlikely marriage. The Roma witches in Romania have practiced witchcraft and fortune telling for hundreds of years. The latest technological advancements have yet to thwart their practice. Mobile phones and social media aren’t threats but efficient means of self-advertising. Sekerková’s story is built on these unlikely associations. The gilded lavish interiors of the witches’ homes are a product of their exploiting the vulnerable. Voodoo dolls and sacrificed chickens are the ultimate commercial pursuits. Unlike the Ural Mari, the Roma witches thrive on the capitalist model.
The economic and social upheaval caused by the fall of the USSR’s further explored by Karol Palka’s Edifice series or Ilkin Huseynov’s Shared Waters. Zooming in, the New East Photo Prize delves deep. Built on insider’s knowledge, it’s a superb exercise in self-identity. The Soviet past which once served as an obliterating common denominator’s here a catalyst for difference. Negotiating the old and the new in conflicting ways the New East Photo Prize 2018 presents a diverse region that challenges labels of uniformity.
The New East Photo Prize 2018 is on at Calvert 22 until 2 December 2018.