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On the liquid time of photography – Summary of the In Visible Presence book launch 

by Dorottya Balkó

With the passing decades, the changes in memory politics require us to constantly reflect back on and contextualise certain parts of our national history. The photograph functioning as a kind of lieu de mémoire can help us either recall bygone events or create a subsequent connection to our ancestors’ past. Showcased on bookshelves, organised in numbered albums or kept in shoeboxes, everyday photographs are especially powerful tools to engage with stories that are often missing from history books – the private narratives of ordinary people. This was the focus of the almost two-decade long research of Oksana Sarkisova, a Research Fellow at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives and cofounder of the Visual Studies Platform at CEU and Olga Shevchenko Paul H. Hunn ’55 Professor in Social Studies at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Williams College. On the occasion of the launch of their book titled In Visible Presence: Soviet Afterlives in Family Photos, Sarkisova and Shevchenko discussed with the director of Eidolon Centre for Everyday Photography, Róza Tekla Szilágyi their driving force behind the project, their process of research and some of their most interesting discoveries. 

From left to right: Oksana Sarkisova, Olga Shevchenko and Róza Tekla Szilágyi, photograph: Neogrády-Kiss Barnabás


It starts with an itch

Usually, there is a strong driving force behind every research – for Sarkisova and Shevchenko, it was the desire to put together the living memory of the Soviet past. Their project started in the middle of the 2000s, just around the time the importance of visual studies had appeared on the scientific horizon. The new wave of interdisciplinary approaches had also whirled up a brand new interest in everyday photography, thus the Russian family archives proved to be an engaging material to uncover and use to reflect on the recent and rather turbulent Soviet era. The researchers' aim was to ‘make photos speak’ through examining the way different generations relate to their own photographs; the way they store and handle them; the way they react while flipping through album pages or photos found in plastic bags. Their project that ended up lasting for seventeen years had its twists and turns. Although Sarkisova and Shevchenko originally planned to include more of the Post-Soviet states in order to analyse the differences in memory-construction, due to the available resources they decided to dive deeper into the Russian personal narratives. An additional challenge regarding the book proved to be the constant changes in the zeitgeist that bring about a number of private and public interpretations to photographs – for instance, the current war is also modifying their meaning in unforeseeable ways. In order to tackle the issue, the researchers chose a writing style that effectively preserves this inherent nature of photographs. 

From left to right: Oksana Sarkisova, Olga Shevchenko and Róza Tekla Szilágyi, photograph: Neogrády-Kiss Barnabás

Never-told stories

The book is based on the oral history interviews conducted by Sarkisova and Shevchenko between 2006 and 2008. Although this style of interview is a quite complicated research method since it can evoke sensitive memories that are difficult to deal with, people were eager to share their personal narratives. Shevchenko pointed out that their field work preceded the instrumentalisation of Russian history as a source of affirmative pride so, around the mid-2000s, the shared past was uplifting and something to be interested in. Even though locals created well-crafted and mostly cheerful stories around their identity, their photographs as memory objects often brought up less pre-determined and not-so-joyous memories – sometimes not right away. Sarkisova recalled an elderly lady showing a photo of herself taken in the 1950s, when she was a university student. She shared some good memories regarding this period of her life, then at the end of the interview, she circled back to add that shortly after the picture was taken, she was arrested for telling a joke of Stalin. A few months later Stalin died and she was set free – this is the only reason she didn’t get a sentence of thirty years. 

Through the youngsters eyes

The pages of the book reveal stories of two, mostly three or sometimes even four generations. Born after the examined period, the youngest generation can only imagine what it could have been like living in the Soviet era; hence they are much more affected by the words of their parents or grandparents, as well as the public discourse constantly reinterpreting this part of their history. As the researcher’s emphasized, they weren’t interested in ‘testing’ the younger generation’s knowledge on their ancestors’ past; they were rather looking for unique personal feelings and opinions regarding the situations depicted on the photos. The attentive and empathic attitude of Sarkisova and Shevchenko led to the discovery of some interesting contradictions. For instance, a photograph depicting nursery-age children sporting a unified hair – and clothing style called forth fond memories in a grandmother working formerly as a nurse – while symbolised the depravity of Soviet life to her granddaughter.   

From left to right: Oksana Sarkisova, Olga Shevchenko and Róza Tekla Szilágyi, photograph: Neogrády-Kiss Barnabás

On the edge of private and public

The processing of the transcripts and videos recorded during interviews led to various unexpected but fascinating discoveries. The researchers realised that it’s worth categorising the diverse ways their subjects interact with the photographic object as it could function as a prop, a time machine or even a substitute for a long-lost person. Sarkisova and Shevchenko also noted that because of the memory politics of Russia, they had to weave the public discourse into their research more tightly than they previously expected. Even more so, since the public identities of people living in the Soviet era seemed to be a recurring element in their private archives. The lingering presence of Board of Honor portraits and group photos with colleagues signifies the internalised need to participate in the Soviet project; to take an active part in something greater than individual life. However, Shevchenko pointed out that this clash of private and public identities often brought forward compromising situations in the archives – for instance with the discovery of a photograph taken of a formerly imprisoned family member.  


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.


Read our interview with Oksana and Olga here!

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