Suspended in Time

In my mother's box of Latvian photos are a handful of images which I return to again and again. They are tiny - the size of contact prints - the image measuring just 5 x 4 cm with the deckled edges typical of the era. They are yellowed with age and looking on the rear it is evident that the photographs have been removed from an album, unlike the others in the box. On the back of one of them is written the date and the word pavasari, which means spring, and the location is somewhere in the country, possibly a farm. In one photo three female friends are pulling out of the ground what looks like a giant vegetable. In another the same three are lying on their stomachs by the banks of a pond or stream. You can imagine they may be talking about their sweethearts and dreaming of the future.  The other three photographs show different girls dressed in summer frocks, one girl holding a kitten whilst her friends gather round her, and one with a young lad, his arms round the necks of two of them, laughing and having fun in this bucolic setting, seemingly without a care in the world. Yet this is 1943 and Latvia is under Nazi occupation. It is hard to believe that when these photos were taken, not so very far away people were being herded into concentration camps, whilst the Germans and the Soviets battled it out on the Russian front.  Clearly, without some context, a photograph can never tell the whole story.

Like all photographs of strangers, so much remains a mystery: the identities of the subjects and the photographer, the reason for taking the photographs, why they were ripped from an album and why they ended up in my mother’s box are all questions that can now never be answered with any certainty.  I don't know what it is about these pictures that I find so affecting - they are at the same time both carefree and obviously posed. Perhaps it is the knowledge after the fact that this way of life was soon to end for my mother and countless others. Perhaps it is the impression that these young people are forever suspended in time - as visual artist and writer Victor Burgin notes "the uncanny effect of photographs that show the apparently living presence of someone long dead. Light reflected from a living being imprints itself in a photosensitive emulsion; the impression exists unaltered by time". (Victor Burgin, The Shadow and the Ruin - Voyage to Italy, 2006)

Who knows what became of them.....