For me, an image is successful only when it makes me think about something that lies beneath the surface of the visible.
I have always been drawn to the side of things that is hidden.
Only connect! For the writer E. M. Forster (1879–1970) these two words summed up a whole attitude of mind. They are spoken by Margaret Schlegel, a character in one of his novels who is searching for meaning not just in relationships between people, but in the way the world works: cause and effect, ethic and action. But while they are the words of a fictional character, they are understood as the sentiments of the author himself: a mantra and a philosophical lens through which to observe the world and ask “why?”
Connection is at the heart of the work of Viktoria Sorochinski, but it is a wistful yearning for connection, for something just out of reach, as though mislaid at some time in the past. It is not the demonstrative thrust of rejection nor the clash of conflict. Here conflict is not so much between people as within the individual. Somehow the internal experience of the person has drifted away from the present moment, the present person. The old Ukrainian villagers remain when the world has moved on, like wraiths haunting the remnants of a once lively community. A childlike mother and a father battling self-doubt each struggle to connect with parenthood. These are not so much documentary images as psychological dramas. They play out the emotional interior of their protagonists: the aching desire to connect, a desire that can never fully be realised; caught in a state that remains forever unresolved.
This is not to wallow in self-pity, nor is it to turn loneliness into spectacle. Far from it. These are subtle, intimate and deeply honest images that offer a kind of hope. For they extend the hand of empathy; in sharing an experience of disconnection they help us understand that we are not alone in how we feel. In an irony of the human condition, it is in acknowledging the ultimate impossibility of complete connection – of ideas and with others – that we understand what truly unites us as human beings.
Alasdair: Although they are photographic, your images seem to be seeking something deeper than just the way things look. What drew you to work in this way?
Viktoria: For me, an image is successful only when it makes me think about something that lies beneath the surface of the visible. I have always been drawn to the side of things that is hidden. I’m interested in psychology… constantly analysing human behaviours and relationships, my own included.
How did the series ‘Lands of No-Return’ come about?
I think this project is one of my most personal. It arose from my memories of visits to the village where my grandfather used to live. I remembered a place of warm feelings and a direct connection with the land of my heritage. Even though I never lived there, I felt a strange nostalgia for those places. When I returned to the village after many years away I was struck by the horrifying reality of deteriorating houses and poor, miserable people, most of whom were old. I decided that I must capture these remnants of a dying culture and commemorate what will soon be only history.
While the first section of this series was made in Ukraine, you also made a second section in China [called ‘At Home with Strangers’].
Yes, that happened unexpectedly. In 2010, I was invited by the Chinese curator Yan Li from the High Noon Culture and Art Corporation to participate in a photo-trip. I was one of eight photographers who were supposed to photograph two specific cities: Tangshan, the city in northeast Hebei province known for the 1976 earthquake; and Daqing, China’s ‘oil capital’ located in the west of Heilongjiang province. We travelled between locations by bus, stopping in small villages along the way. I decided to use this opportunity to extend my project about disappearing rural lifestyles. I hope to continue this project in other countries when the opportunities arise.
Did you find similarities or differences in the situation of the people you photographed in rural China and in Ukraine?
The Chinese villages still had a sense of life. The people were very open and welcoming and I would even say fearless, which surprised me a little. They didn’t look as miserable as those in Ukraine and children were living there. It reminded me of visits to my grandfather’s village when I was a child.
The series you began first is called ‘Anna and Eve’. Who are Anna and Eve and what drew you to photograph them for seven years?
I met them by chance at a Russian cultural event. I was surprised to find out that Anna, who seemed to me like a teenager, was actually the same age as me, and that she had a four-year-old daughter. They had an unusual, sister-like relationship; at times the child seemed to be more of an adult than her mother. There was a struggle for power, love, hate, despair, hope and many more feelings that were in constant flux. They seemed to be growing up together and learning from each other.
How did you develop these scenarios with your two subjects?
My intention was to create scenes that would portray both a specific relationship and a more general metaphor of the mother-daughter relationship. It was a very ‘organic’ process with a lot of space for spontaneity: a mix of my own ideas and what I would see in the situation. I would observe them very closely.
A parent–child relationship is also the subject of another series called ‘Daddy’. Who are your two subjects and how did you meet them?
I met Andrew and Lucy at a house party. Again, it was just a lucky chance.
As I got to know Andrew a little better, I realised that, while the daughter was the dominant character in Anna and Eve, in this story it is the father who is the main subject. Andrew had such a complicated state of mind that I was immediately intrigued by him.
In what way?
Andrew is a vulnerable man who is confronting himself deeply. He does not feel he can ever be a strong person but he believed that if he had a son, his son could somehow save him. Instead he had a daughter, which made him more conflicted as he now felt there would be two ‘weak’ people and this was his responsibility. He feels as though he is still a child who needs love and care, but at the same time he is now a parent and must be strong and take care of a child himself.
Where do the stories they are ‘acting out’ originate?
They are based mainly on my conversations with the father. Andrew was very generous in the way he opened up to talk with me about his complex relationship with both his daughter and, even more so, with himself. While they are based on reality, these images are metaphorical. In their everyday life, Andrew and Lucy don’t do anything particularly unusual and he tries very hard to be a good father. However, in his head Andrew is going through a very complex internal conflict, constantly doubting himself and his role as a father, constantly haunted by various fears. In this project I was trying to let him act out his fears and all the multiple layers of this relationship, but in a kind of playful way.
While they are based in the real word, your images (including those in ‘Lands of No-Return’ and ‘At Home with Strangers’) have the feel of a fable or folk tale about them. Is that something you seek?
Yes, certainly! This is exactly what I’m pursuing in all my work. Folk tales and myths are very strong sources of inspiration for me. I’m glad that you have mentioned ‘Lands of No-Return’ in this context because I believe that land people are the first keepers of traditions and the wisdom of humanity, which for centuries was passed from generation to generation by the word of mouth. The first understanding of the world we get in our childhood is from the fairy tales. I like to use this approach in my work to talk about important issues of humanity.
In your most recent series, ‘Silent Dialogues’, the psychological tension seems even stronger.
This series was made much more spontaneously. Here I am photographing people I have barely met, and so the process is much more fragile and intuitive. I have to create a comfortable and trusting atmosphere. There is a lot of waiting involved. It is almost like meditation.
What ideas are you pursuing in this work?
My aim in this project is to capture something about the relationships that lie beneath the surface; something unspoken. I think that all relationships – especially within a family – are like dark wells into which we deliberately keep falling throughout our lives, never knowing what is at the bottom. In this project I’m trying to glimpse the reflections at the bottom of the well.
Part of the series is about mothers and sons, what did you seek to express about the role of women as parents?
I did not want only to talk about the role of women – I am interested in the dynamic of relationships, both sides. However, ‘Silent Dialogues’ did start out as a project about mothers and sons. It was partly inspired by my personal relationship with a man who had a very conflicted relationship with his mother. I began then to analyse this specific bond and I came to understanding that this is maybe one of the most complex of all human bonds, because all the relationships of men with women are deeply rooted in their relationship with their mothers. From this perspective, I think mothers carry an almost unbearable responsibility towards their sons.
How do the people you photograph respond to the final images?
I get different responses. Some people are happy and say that I really captured something about them, but others just don’t understand why I photographed them in this way… or perhaps don’t want to accept what they see. And there are also situations where someone can’t perceive the meaning because they can’t get beyond their physical appearance in the image.
What kind of response do you get from audiences seeing your work?
For me, the audience responses are the most rewarding, because people often connect emotionally and personally with my work. I like this because then I feel my work communicates with their subconscious. Of course, there are also people that don’t connect so deeply and want to know the meaning of each image. I try to avoid answering such questions directly, because the meaning is what each person sees for themselves. If they don’t see, then how can I explain?
Do you think that being a woman brings any particular sensibilities to the work of an artist?
I think women see and feel the world somewhat differently to men. That’s maybe a bit of a generalisation; I’m just talking about a tendency. There is a different sensibility… I notice quite often that women give more attention to the emotional side of their work while men are more preoccupied with the technical side. I do think it is often very apparent when a work is made by a woman, perhaps people have less fear and more trust when it is a woman that enters their intimate space. But that too is a generalisation.
Why do you think the history of photography appears to include so few women?
Actually, I think nowadays we are seeing more and more very talented female artists and photographers becoming famous. I even think that women may soon come to dominate the photographic art scene. Today, it is often the case that the majority of students in [western] photography schools are women.
What is the most unexpected thing you have learnt through making your work?
It continues to surprise me that people are ready to let me into their intimate spaces and reveal things in front of my camera that I myself would probably never agree to reveal. I greatly value this level of trust and openness from people who are often total strangers.
Viktoria Sorochinski is a Canadian artist born in Ukraine in 1979 and now living in Berlin, Germany. She has a Master of Fine Arts from New York University, USA. Her work has been exhibited in more than sixty exhibitions in eighteen countries across Europe, North and South America and Asia. She has won many awards and fellowships including Discovery of the Year at the prestigious Lucie Awards in 2012, a worldwide photography competition staged annually in New York. In 2017 she won the LensCulture Exposure Award and, in 2018, the Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture. Her book ‘Anna and Eve’ was published in 2013 by Peperoni Books, Germany.
Photo: © Andrej Glusgold
This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. Dates for series have been updated to reflect the current range.