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About the shifting line between the private and the public memories of the Soviet period

Interview with Oksana Sarkisova and Olga Shevchenko, authors of the book titled In Visible Presence. Soviet Afterlives in Family Photos

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi

The book is a vivid outline of the role that family archives play in the almost constantly changing zeitgeist – it does all this in such a manner that we can structurally understand the individual ways that inspired, catalysed and influenced the ways of everyday photography practices during the Soviet-era.

What is your inspiration for conducting a time consuming research project focusing on family photography? As I imagine, research such as yours demands great involvement. Were you interested in the entanglement of private and public in an era that tried to redefine these notions in a sense?

Oksana Sarkisova: We share an interest in the seemingly banal, domestic images and the power they have to evoke emotions and prompt memories and storytelling. In this project we decided to bring together our backgrounds in sociology and history to explore the entanglement of public narratives with private memories and how their interactions empower different interpretations of the Soviet past. We designed the pilot framework for this project in 2005, when interdisciplinary research on visual material was a novel, booming field, and reconceptualization of the legacy and heritage of the Soviet past in public spaces and discourses went on with increasingly active engagement of both state and civic actors. At first, we planned to interview families in several post-Soviet states, but life made its correctives. The challenge was to do proper justice to the individual stories as well as to the most diverse photographic archives we encountered. Revisiting the narratives and images assembled during the fieldwork in 2006-08 over the years – we have several articles that were published on this material and finally completed a book manuscript in 2021 – made us aware how much of a juncture that period was in terms of memory politics in Russia. This allowed us to see the entanglement of private and public in a new, and quite dramatic, way.

Olga Shevchenko: You are quite correct, and it may well be that, had we realised the degree of involvement this research would require, we may have never mastered the courage to get started. Fortunately, at the outset we thought that the challenge was in collecting sufficiently rich data, so when it turned out that people were open and willing to guide us through their family albums, we considered the battle won. It was not until we got to analysing the interviews that we realised that the real challenge was in coming up with a method for triangulating between the images, the stories they elicited, and what Christopher Pinney called “corpothetics,” – the physical way in which people interact with their photographs. Figuring out how to do this took many years. But at that point we were too invested in the subject to stop. It also helped that the issue you identified – that of the shifting line between the private and the public memories of the Soviet period – was a pressing topic at the moment, and one we never got tired of discussing.

Studio and amateur portraits in private collections, 1920s-1950s, private archives, from the book In Visible Presence

When working with photographs, especially everyday photography one has a wide variety of narrative options while engaging with the photograph in hand. As Jan Assman said – and I think you also quote this thought in the book – there is a “horizon of everyday communicative memory”. The possibility of holding new meanings is intertwined with photography as a medium. As your research behind the book covers quite a long time, have your conclusions deducted from the oral history and the connecting photographs changed while working with them? Did this affect the direction you were taking?

Oksana Sarkisova: The interviews we conducted were very open and did not aim at covering all possible themes related to family photographs or at coming up with a ‘representative’ sample. What we were interested in is how the same family photographs evoke or prompt different stories shared by people of different generations – some of them are personal memories filtered through the concerns of the day, others are projections and imaginations rather than first-hand experiences. The generational dynamic is very important in understanding the many different ways photographs “work”. But despite these differences, for every person we spoke to the photographs worked as a material “proof” of their accounts. With the benefit of some hindsight, we see that the more distant the Soviet period is, the more the fantasies and politically charged public discourses replace and supplement the first-hand accounts shared over the photographs. 

Family archives are often decentered – or depending on the generation that safekeeps the photographs the focal points of these archives might change. What was your approach while gathering the material for the book? I’m quite curious what were the conditions based on what you chose the interlocutors you have visited?

Olga Shevchenko: Many studies of family photography take as their object collections that are in some ways quirky or unique, whether visually, or historically. We, in contrast, never knew in advance what kind of photographs we would see when a family that agreed to take part in our project opened their first album. There were a lot of surprises in that sense. What we started from was the assumption that all family collections were interesting because they all allowed an entry into a slice of experience. But we did care about variation – that is why we sought out families in different locations, and tried to make sure that we spoke not only with people of different generations, but also with representatives of different social and educational strata, rural and urban dwellers, those who thought their livelihoods improved after 1991, and those who felt themselves to be the “losers” of the post-socialist transition. Such a range of backgrounds would have been impossible for us to reach out to on our own, which is why we asked a public opinion company to help us with recruiting willing participants for our interviews. 

Oksana Sarkisova: Other important conditions were to interview the family members of different generations individually and also to strive for some gender balance, although women are the primary keepers of the photographic archives, and this transpires in our conversations as well.

A group of colleagues greeting their coworker and her husband upon discharge from the maternity hospital, 1970s, private archive, Vladimir, from the book In Visible Presence

There is a particularly lyrical concept you introduce in the book concerning the fact that making an exchange over a photo archive can be pregnant with unexpected emotions – I find it a beautiful and apt view on family photo archives. The questions around representation and politics in the post-soviet region made your task complicated because it seems you had to convince your interlocutors to take part in your research. How did you clarify the purpose of the study to those you have interviewed and what were the most common reactions?

Oksana Sarkisova: We started this research at the time of an ongoing genealogical boom – which still continues to some extent, although perhaps less visibly. The lifting of censorship and the opening of the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union stimulated not only an explosion of interest in political history – the period of Great Terror, political repressions, and other painful and silenced parts of Soviet experience, but also heightened people’s interest in their family genealogies. Recovering the obliterated family histories and extended family networks that many chose to hide or break off with in the Soviet time was a common thing to do in the first post-Soviet decades. Most of our interlocutors were very interested in their family history and some even took steps to discover more than the older generations passed on to them through stories by going to archives, drawing “family trees” for their children, and searching for the lost relatives abroad. The challenge was to sometimes convince the people we talked to that these stories could be interesting to share, as quite a few referred to themselves as “common people” and started with disclaimers that they have nothing interesting to tell about their family history.  

Olga Shevchenko: In a way, this relates to your earlier question about the tension between public narratives about the Soviet century and personal and family histories. When our interlocutors felt that their archive confirmed or amplified recognizable stories and roles (a grandpa who was a war hero, a family member who knew a historical figure), they recognized these stories as worthy of sharing. It was the stories that didn’t fit with the available plotlines and modes of narration that were originally brushed aside as “untypical” and thus not worth sharing. As you may imagine, these are precisely the stories in which we had a lot of interest. 

The second page of Konstantin Petrovich's family album, private archive, Moscow, from the book In Visible Presence

The inherited silence and the act of selective remembering are concepts that come up again and again in your book. What aspects of these photographs show the huge influence the political sphere had on private life? 

Olga Shevchenko: There are so many visible markers of Soviet political structures in these photographs: banners on walls, Pioneer kerchiefs on children, posters with the members of the Politburo on photographs from May Day demonstrations. So in a way, the political loomed large in the family albums (parenthetically, it was exactly these photographs that are now sought-after on flea markets and online auctions, and they get the better prices, the more trappings of Soviet ideology the better). At the same time, to our interlocutors, these features were so normal as to be barely remarkable. And so you have a situation where the political structure is most striking in these blindspots, it is not its presence that is telling, but their invisibility. I think this is more generally true - the power of any political system is in the ability to conceal and skip over things that should be taken most seriously, whether it’s propaganda, or homelessness, or gender inequality.

Oksana Sarkisova: In addition to the visible ideological traces in the images, the conversations also pointed towards widely shared practices of silencing traumatic or potentially dangerous experiences, knowledge, and relationships – some of these traces were visible in (full or partial) destructions of analogue images, others – in stories where children were told to keep “their tongues behind the teeth,” as a Russian idiom has it. As a result, the images of the past create spaces for revisions in both a simplified and an imaginative way.

Caucasus, Arkhyz Pass, 1972. This image is posed, but it relies on the conventions of action shots to communicate the spontaneity of the travel experience, private archive, Moscow, from the book In Visible Presence

In the beginning of the book you give an introduction into the history of amateur photography in the Soviet past. It was quite interesting to see that in the beginning, the state looked at photography enthusiasts as a “growing army capable of documenting places and events where the foot of a professional photographer has not trodden”. It seems like the discourse around amateur photography gives us a peek into how the ideological control changed over time. Could you trace these changes via the photographs?

Oksana Sarkisova: It is important to emphasise that despite the ideological pressures, amateur photographic practices in the Soviet Union were in many ways comparable to those in Europe and other parts of the world – both in terms of thematic, technological, and aesthetic choices as well as in terms of market dynamics, albeit sometimes these transformations happened with delay. From the mid-1950s, amateur photographic ranks and activities grew exponentially, stimulated by the expansion of the photographic market (including cameras and also photo albums and other accessories) and economic growth. The amateur images changed from the static compositions to more spontaneous, unrehearsed ones, and the number of people taking photographs in their leisure time grew substantially. Thus the number of post-war domestic images in family archives grew exponentially. These images tell us volumes about changing practices of leisure, new touristic experiences, changes in lifestyle due to continuing urbanisation, and many other social transformations. At the same time, although continuing to subsidise amateur photographic clubs (often through the trade union networks), the Soviet state still attempted to control the amateur photographers by “edifying” them on what and how to shoot.

Rare action shots of returning from a trade union package tour to Estonia, goods in tow, early 1980s, private archive, Vladimir, from the book In Visible Presence

What makes these family photo collections from the post-Soviet region differ from their counterparts elsewhere?

Olga Shevchenko: Where do we start? Apart from these visual trappings of Soviet propaganda that we had mentioned earlier, one can note a number of additional features that are perhaps more subtle. One is the overwhelming number of group photographs, featuring a range of collectives, some of which were stable (for example, one’s co-workers), others more fleeting (say, a group of people who happen to be vacationing at a subsidised resort at the same time). We mention in the book at some point that the Soviet family album very often featured people who were not actual family members, which became for us a sort of metaphor for the album as a tool for forging a larger, Soviet collective identity. Another feature is the mixing of DIY snapshots with particular genres that originated at the workplace or in a studio, such as ID photographs (which were required for a myriad of various documents and membership cards), or portraits commissioned for the so-called Board of Honor at one’s workplace. These photographs bring in a touch of people’s “public identities” - as a shock worker, or a Komsomol activist - into the home. Finally, the technological context - the fact that there were no photo printing services in the USSR - meant that all photographs that were not posed studio portraits had to be either obtained through various institutional channels, or made, developed and printed at home by practising amateurs who were, by the standards of today, actually not amateurs at all because they had a good technical understanding of all stages of the photo production process. When printing photos, they would often print multiple copies for distribution to everyone in the picture, and these threads of print exchanges now tie many dispersed photo archives together. And yet, in the end, even with all these distinctive features, it is important to note that many photographs on the pages of our book will strike the readers as relatable and recognizable, because the features of the “home-mode aesthetic” in photography are actually shared very widely. That’s the paradox: these pictures are “faraway, so close.” 

Studio portrait in private collection, 1920s-1950s, private archives, from the book In Visible Presence

I think the book and its research is important preservation work, because most of these pictures might become victims of indifference over time “as broader currents of memorial culture shifts and people’s relationship with their archives undergo transformations as well”. Do you have any plans with the digital, scanned images collected during the work process? 

Oksana Sarkisova: Our original intention was not to build an archive of private images – which is a fascinating yet different task in itself, something like Fortepan in Hungary, for example. What we set out to do was to see these images in their “natural” habitat – in family circles, where they can also be very mobile objects, often moving places or owners, multiplied and shared by extended family networks. We are very happy that the MIT Press  included over 250 images in the book – an exceptional number for a publication that is not a photo album. Yet this is still but a fraction of the images we saw and discussed over the course of our research. The repetitiveness of family photography is well known, our challenge was to show that behind similar topics and compositions there are unique and sometimes very different experiences and complex histories, many of which are manipulated, silenced, or reimagined in the contemporary public discourse on the Soviet past in Russia. 

Olga Shevchenko: Indeed, we don’t have plans to put our full image database online; and this was in agreement with the families that participated in the project. At the same time, one of the key messages that we hope the readers will take from our book is that photographs never stand still: their meaning, resonance and circulation are always in a state of becoming. The conversations we are having with our readers now that the book is out in the world give us new ideas and angles from which to approach this archive, which means that we may continue to draw on it in our work. 

In Visible Presence 
Soviet Afterlives in Family Photos

By Oksana Sarkisova and Olga Shevchenko 
488 pp., 7 x 9 in, 259 b&w photos 
ISBN: 9780262048279 
Published: October 3, 2023 
Publisher: The MIT Press

Order via this link.

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