Look at the Socialist Experience from a Visual Meta-Narrative: Sputnik Photos

We talked to Sputnik Photos, a collective of photographers from Central and Eastern Europe, about their drives, their collective conscious and background and their past and present works.

Interview by Ege Yorulmaz

Can you tell us a bit about the formation of Sputnik Photos as a collective? How did the photographers come together and how did you get established?

We all met back in 2004 at the workshop for emerging photographers from Eastern-Central Europe and Caucasus in France. We decided to use the fact that we all come from the same region and share the common experience of transition.

What brings these artists together? What is the common denominator among the people of the collective?

Aside of the fact of this collective memory and background, we share one of the most dominant factors in that we respect each other as artists. What’s even more important that we get along together pretty well.

Do you have a primary concern? Being the whole collective, are you trying to get something across? What would you say Sputnik Photos’ work is mostly about?

We want to tell stories from the region we live and can refer to. I think of Eastern-Central Europe but also all post soviet territory. I think what also marks our work is a large amount of metaphor in our documentary based work. We always try to use the current context and knowledge about the topics we work on, which allows us to keep the form quite open.

All the projects on your website seem to be long term, well-developed projects. Most of the projects are products of collective work. How do you develop the projects?

It’s different from project to project as for the past 10 years of our existence we have tried different models. We always try to keep a lot of autonomy in our collective projects. It means that each artist has a lot of freedom in creative process, which in most cases creates an interesting patchwork of all stories as the final result. In our upcoming Lost Territories project we are going one step further in terms of connecting our common work in one project. To emphasize the idea the merge of our images will be even more visible and authorship blurred.


From “Lost Territories”

In Speaking in a Loud Voice for example, did you have one big context about the post-Soviet experience and was each photographer assigned a country to work on? How do you generally work out the big idea and the individual tasks?

Again it works differently in each project. In case of Belarus or Ukraine almost all photographers went there to work on their individual stories. In Caucasus and Moldova it was only two photographers working in one country. Finally in Central Asia only one photographer will be assigned to one country. In general, it has no big importance to us as a territorial aspect of this project is secondary. All images from post-Soviet territories will be merged in one meta-narrative emphasizing one or several problems that are not strictly related to territory itself.

We love your Chasing a White Horse photographs in that series. Did you choose to work on Georgia? How much time did you spend there? Can you tell us about the process?

For past few years I have been fascinated by propaganda. We all are involved in some sort of it. I’ve chosen Georgia to look for traces of man who has changed the image of this country within past 10 years. Very often it was a brutal change. Micheil Saakashvili the former president of Georgia tried to implement his private vision in the space and people and at some point he was forced to withdraw. I tried to follow his unfinished dream and become a part of it. It was very interesting process for myself.  The longer I was there the more surreal and absurd my stay seemed to be. I could call it a development of someone’s dream I picked it from the place it was abandoned. On the one hand, I documented the results of Saakashvili’s activity, on the other, tried to capture the situations that could possibly fit his vision. It was a mix of both his an my dreams.

What is the influence of your personal post-Soviet experience on you as an artist? Can you try to specify roughly how living in a post-Soviet society alters your art? Because it is kind of a common ground in your works, generally in the collective’s works.

I belong to this place. I’m glad I have both experiences from before and after transition. It’s an identity question and I constantly ask myself where do you come from and to what I want to refer in my art. This is the question that drives me.

Sputnik Photos also has several photographic books published. You have a pretty disciplined attitude in using the books as a way of archiving the collective’s work. Still some of the books focus on specific matters and they have more like a documentary quality. How do you deal with them? Do you have writing partners for that?

Books are the traces and a record track of what have we done so far. It’s like building a library or a collection to keep reminding ourselves what is the core of our activity and why we exist as a collective. That’s why they are so important to us and very often they are the main outcome of the projects. We try to be disciplined which not always works but we have an entire team helping us organize ourselves like graphic designer Ania Nalecka or project manager Marzena Michalek-Dabrowska.


Your own celebrated photographic book, 7 Rooms, is an artistic study of a generation living in metropolitan Russia in the Putin era. Can you tell us a bit about the story of the book? How did you personally deal with the sensitive situation of the country?

It’s again on transition. I share this experience with protagonists of the project. They were born in USSR and grew up in Putin’s Russia. I was born in communist Poland and grew up in contemporary one. 7 Rooms is an almost seven-year long work where before I decided on telling six intimate stories I wanted to tell a wider story about Russia. I understood that was pretty impossible and arrogant idea so I narrowed down my interests to the points I could refer to. Six chapters of the book are visual stories and the seventh chapter are texts by Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich interviewing people who decided to commit suicide after the collapse of Soviet Union. The stories from texts and pictures overlap in time both mixing experiences from soviet and contemporary Russia but in different proportions.


From “7 Rooms”

7 Rooms is a few years old. Russia has seen some serious and surreal events lately, especially in the last year. Do you think this will result in a sequel to 7 Rooms?

This project is done and I will not continue this work. It’s at least my position at this moment as I’m involved in different projects dealing with what is going on in the region also including Russia’s growing strength and aggression. I’m still in touch with some of the people I photographed for 7 Rooms as we have become friends but I for the time being I do not plan to keep working with them. I believe I can comment on the situation in the region with different stories.


From “7 Rooms”

What is Sputnik Photos working on right now? What is the next thing we will be seeing from these photographers?

We are currently working on our upcoming project called Lost Territories which deals with all 15 former soviet republics. 25 years of collapse of USSR, which will pass in 2016, is our deadline to finish some stage of work in the region. We have been working on that for past eight years and now we are going to mix our individual stories to create a large archive of images, which will serve as a database to build several meta-narratives out of it. We are going to decompose individual stories and change the contexts of images, which will be an interesting experiment in terms of our documentary practice. This is the next step in our collaborative work and we feel very excited about that.


From “Lost Territories”