Winner of the European Publishers’ Award of Photograpy (EPAP) 2009
EAST TO EAST : published by 6 European publishers:
-Actes Sud, France
-Dewi Lewis Publishing, England
-Braus Verlag, Germany
-Peliti Associati Editore, Italy
-Apeiron Editions, Gteece
Text by Erri de Luca
Twenty years ago, a dividing wall was breached and the door to Eastern Europe thrown wide open. To talk of ‘the fall of the Berlin Wall’ is not strictly accurate: it didn’t fall down, there was no subsidence. Its time had passed and it was torn down. I have been a builder; for many years I have also knocked down walls – it’s good when they are no longer needed. To tear down a dividing wall is wonderful; to clear away the sentry post on a border which no longer exists. The one thing I love about new Europe is the abolition of internal borders. I love the word ‘union’. Walls have two sides and two purposes: one is to offer protection from the outside elements, theother to keep people in – to imprison those inside. The twentieth century has seen more imprisonment than any other period in the history of mankind. In my own country, Italy, people of my generation, the last revolutionary left-wing generation of the West, have been imprisoned more often than at any other time in the history of the country, shattering the record of incarceration set during the Fascist years. The walls of the twentieth century were built to confine people.
Klavdij Sluban comes from the segregated half of Europe, he is used to fences and to bars. He has even taught photography in prison. In this book he visits the East, an East whose people have been
set free, like monks released from an enclosed order. Twenty years ago, in Berlin, a dam was demolished. One autumn evening, a throng, a tidal wave of people poured towards the forbidden half of the divided city through the first breach in the wall. Just a few metres and they were reunited with their compatriots. That night Germany slowly began to emerge from the effects of a war that had been lost forty four years before.Twenty years ago the Eastern part of a world in conflict, a world then divided in two, broke down the barriers and broke ranks. Poland, Hungary, East Germany: Eastern Europe dismantled the locks and the bolts. In Romania, the Latin Slavs subjected their dictator and his wife to summary trial and quick execution by firing squad. Like his fellow countrymen Klavdij Sluban, who spent his childhood in Livold, Slovenia, belonged to Yugoslavia, a country which ended up being torn apart in the final decade of the century. As an aid convoy driver, I experienced the war of the southern Slavs: as soon as the shackles of union were removed they became free to destroy each other. I saw the flowering bushes of barbed wire, the multiplication of frontiers, the desecration of graveyards, the destruction of places of worship, the names expunged from registers one by one. From this region of all-consuming hatred the photographer emerges, his Leica slung over his shoulder and loaded with black and white film. He tells about those in the East, to those who hardly knew the East existed. For those who, like me, know that the day begins in the East, the photographer’s revelations upset the equilibrium, revealing the shadows that emanate from there. Even the snow is dark, the light a faded white, exiled to the surface. The photographer walks through the abandoned cities of the East. Where have all the inhabitants gone? Is anyone left hidden in the mist, is there some poor wretch on the run or with their back to the wall. The photographer presses on, in search of people, beyond Europe, advancing into Asia, Russia, Mongolia, China, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but he finds no areas of dense population. Everywhere it is the geography that dominates, making human beings insignificant. Lake Baikal, in Siberia, the deepest lake in the world and the richest in oxygen, is an unseeing eye to those on the passing train. To those who know of Asia as a continent teeming with billions of people the prophetic vision of an empty world is offered. It is peopled only by the one or two souls who are left after who knows what mass exodus or population disaster: the remaining few live on there without hope. The Hebrew word kèdem indicates both time past and the East. The journey of the photographer, rather than leading him to an East that is conceived as time past, opens a crack in the wall of time and takes him into the future. He visits the East as if he were a pilgrim consulting an oracle. From it he receives visions veiled in smoke and mist: the East is a defeated future, a time yet to come for humanity, stretched out and flexing, as if it were a tail, still wagging, if only feebly. The tail, as every butcher knows, is the hardest part to skin. And the future depicted here in photographic images is hard, hard to listen to. From the noisiest century of all, the greatest producer of mechanical clatter, we shall pass into a world of silence. The future will be accompanied by the silence of those who have been struck dumb. In these photographs, the use of black and white is like the fitting of a silencer to the barrel of a gun. The photographer is a marksman. The rumble of escalators, nuclear power stations, trains and urban landscapes breaks up into whispers. The photographer is homesick for the native snow of his childhood, the snow that used to blanket his corner of the world. But here it has become a white leprosy; it doesn’t coat the ground but eats away at it. Its silence is oppressive. Occasionally the photographer uses a fast exposure to capture a movement, a sudden rush. More often he uses a long exposure and a very small aperture, so that the image is suffused with silence. To give subjects stillness a longer exposure is required. Stillness is the state of grace of a messianic moment, not the thrill of a divine visitation, but the conclusion of a race. The trunks of four slender birches stand out from the wood, like sentries in white. They signal the land’s return to nature, free from human intervention, reclaimed by the wind. I am moved by the single historical flashback which appears in the book, the rush of the sailors across the square for the onslaught on the Winter Palace. The photographer wasn’t there, but he wanted to recreate the scene, and so he photographed a painting exhibited in a museum in St. Petersburg, known as Leningrad to those of us from the twentieth century. It is the only image of a mass of people in motion in the book and it comes from a painting from the beginning of the revolutionary era. Anyone with an imaginative ear can hear the crackle of the bullets and crunch of the trodden snow. The balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed was changing throughout the world with the revolutions in the East. Ours was a century of insurgents. One photograph is a portrait of our times, the face of a woman with her lips parted to kiss
nothingness, caught in a mirror image. She is turning and is divided for ever. The whole of the East
looks in this way towards the West. Its speechless gaze is the mutest of the whole collection: it
offers and invites a greeting – and silences the onlooker.
Erri de Luca