We all want the same things – to love and to be loved.
We are social creatures. Mutuality is at the heart of our humanity. In evolutionary terms, it was our interconnectedness that allowed our species to prosper, accelerating the transformation of our hominid ancestors into modern-day humankind. The desire to connect with others is deep within the very fabric of our being. From the moment of birth, a bond is formed between infant and parent. As a baby begins to explore their immediate surroundings, feeling the first inklings that there is a world separate and outside of themselves, it is the parent that fills that world. And it is the parent’s love that helps to set the pattern for future relationships; of discovering how self and others connect, the depth of that connection and, ultimately, its limit.
For we are also mortal. Like all living things, we come into existence only later to pass out of it again. Although our genes, those most fundamental messengers across time and space, do pass on through future generations. Like the swell of a temporal sea, the cycle of life pushes each of us up to the light, carries us across the glistening surface of being until the undertow of death draws us back into the darkness below. The hands we held in life slip from our grasp and the warmth of human connection gives way to the chill of grief.
The Estonian artist Angelika Kollin uses photography, performance, and portraiture in her delicate evocation of the mysteries of human connection and loss. From figurative expressions of grieving and the unspoken presage of parting to the intimate connection of mothers and fathers with their children. She travels out against the tide of time from grieving and death foreshadowed back to the child’s first recognition that while we are separate from the world, we can feel connected to another and in that connection find the very worth of being.
What first drew you to the medium of photography?
For as long as I can remember I wanted to own a camera, but that wasn’t something we could afford when I was growing up in Estonia. I held my first camera in 1993 after we had migrated to Germany. It was one of those cheap plastic film cameras. I got it for free. From that moment, I always had a camera with me. My relationship with photography hasn’t much changed since then. I am still constantly photographing people, but now I do it through the lens of lifelong experience and an understanding of what it is I want to capture.
You were brought up in Estonia which, until you were in your mid-teens, was under Russian occupation. Has that early experience influenced your artmaking?
I want to say yes, but then I have no way of knowing the alternative. We were living during the approaching collapse of Soviet ideology. There was an air of frustration, fear, uncertainty… Looking back, I realise how tense and emotionally unavailable the world of my childhood was. Of course, I also recognise the rich ‘material’ that growing up amid such intensity gave me: it shaped me into a deep thinker and dedicated seeker.
Later, photography allowed me to revisit those childhood years, see them afresh, and start reshaping the mindset it had conditioned. Vulnerability, because it was absent during childhood, became the impetus for my artistic process.
[Left] © Angelika Kollin ‘Forgive Me’ 2021 from the series ‘Maps of Grief’
[Right] © Angelika Kollin ‘Faith’ 2021 from the series ‘Maps of Grief’
The first body of work I would like to discuss is ‘Maps of Grief’. How did it begin?
I started this work in 2021 during an eight-week trip to South Africa. I have created a lot of imagery on this beach with its beautiful, stoic rock formations. But I always felt that there was more serious work waiting to be made here. I am not a stranger to the enduring legacy of emotional suffering, and sought, through this photographic project, to explore and even challenge my concepts of sorrow. I have noticed that, for many people, grief is their most intimate and their most direct experience. I wanted to see how that might translate visually through the medium of photography.
How did you go about that?
My idea was an intuitive co-creation with nature and with the person I was photographing who was free to convey their emotions around grief in whatever way arose in them. To let their body guide them in a form of expressive movement. It never ceases to surprise me how perfectly they rose to this challenge. They were all seeking the same answers and were open to exploring this artistically without any choreographing or pre-planning.
For example, this image [above] was created intuitively and only made sense to me afterwards. I hardly knew two of the women here. They had accompanied the intended model and then decided to join her in the creative process. Intuitively, I drew on the sensation of grounding and support I felt from the surrounding boulders, as they arranged into this uncomfortably awkward position. Later, the woman on the bottom told me that her mother had passed away the year before and that she was still grieving her loss and the sense of a bedrock that a mother often represents.
Do you see this as a collaborative process?
I love to co-create with people who feel comfortable stepping into the creative flow with an open mind… allowing the process to work with us and through us. While the end result presented to the viewer is always an image, our focus was the process itself. For me, it was interesting to watch how differently each person responded to that process. Most told me they experienced a sense of liberation and release, calm and self-awareness.
[Left] © Angelika Kollin ‘Loyalty’ 2021 from the series ‘Maps of Grief’
[Right] © Angelika Kollin ‘A Mother’ 2021 from the series ‘Maps of Grief’
When I photographed these two best friends [above left], we kept our minds open. As they arranged themselves on the rocks, two golden Labradors suddenly appeared. They just came and sat there. The dogs stayed for the duration of the photoshoot and then they were gone again. We all agreed that what had unfolded was all about loyalty and trust.
What for you was the impact of moving to Africa?
At the time, I was not very happy to find that we were moving to Africa. Little did I know that this vibrant continent would become the love of my life. In the six years I lived in Cape Town I was fortunate to meet some of the most incredibly talented people. They helped awaken my own creativity from a semi-dormant state of unconscious inhibition. In Africa, I changed, and my practice changed, and these two separate things became one. It’s hard to explain in words, but I felt it happening within me with absolute clarity.
I began to let go of pre-conceived concepts and expectations when photographing. I became aware of something invisible yet perceivable that inhabits form. Call it spirit, call it soul, I just knew I was finally, genuinely seeing the person in front of me. I was no longer searching for how to photograph something beautifully – I was discovering the most beautiful ‘something’ in everyone and everything. In 2018, I stopped all my commercial photography and offered myself entirely to life as an instrument of its creative expression. As I have said before: I came to Africa as a photographer but left as an artist.
© Angelika Kollin ‘Hold Me ’Till I Go’ 2020
Tell me about ‘Hold Me ’Till I Go’.
For me, this series was the most delicate, requiring especially sensitive handling. It was made in early 2020 in Cape Town with my two close friends, Jana and Katinka.
Katinka, the central figure, was one of my closest friends. For months before and after these portraits were made, she was going through chemotherapy. We knew what we were photographing at this moment. We had no illusions. It was a peaceful session with a lot of tenderness and vulnerability. Nobody tried to be strong. We allowed ourselves to feel our emotions authentically. Yes, we had hope, but we also knew that, at the fragile age of seventy-five, the odds were against her. My dear Katinka passed away in March 2021.
How was the work received?
I was initially worried about publishing these images. I was concerned about judgemental comments regarding age and nudity. But, on the contrary, this series of portraits found great resonance with viewers. And, most importantly, Katinka loved them. She witnessed the work winning first prize for portraiture at the Independent Photographer Awards and first place in the Lensculture portrait awards, which we celebrated together.
[Left] © Angelika Kollin ‘Nokulunga and Luntu’ 2022 from the series ‘You Are My Mother’
[Right] © Angelika Kollin ‘Lah and Niku’ 2022 from the series ‘You Are My Mother’
You have created an extensive double series on parents with their children, beginning with ‘You Are My Mother’.
This series was such a learning curve for me, not so much in terms of technical skills, but in my approach to life. In April 2020, during one of South Africa’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns, I found myself forced to spend much more time at home resting rather than working – something that is very difficult for me to do. Abruptly, I had no access to the things I loved to photograph: nature and people. This only amplified my anxiety. Although visits were not permitted, a close friend invited me to come over and photograph a mother and her adult daughter who were staying with her. It felt very different from the work I had been doing before, but I agreed nonetheless and went to give it a try.
From the first moment, there was an amazing connection. A few weeks later I realised that I had begun new project.
[Left] © Angelika Kollin ‘Beryn’ 2020 from the series ‘You Are My Mother’
[Right] © Angelika Kollin ‘Sandiswe and Lithalethu’ 2020 from the series ‘You Are My Mother’
How did the Covid pandemic affect the making of this work?
In my immediate circle, it was evident that Covid pushed us to the edge. We became more open to examining our lives and to do so with greater honesty. When I made those first mother-and-daughter photographs, I was witnessing their process of forgiveness and reconnection prompted by the pressures of unforeseen world events. What was more, making those photographs, and the enforced slowing down of the Covid restrictions, brought me to reflect upon my own fractured relationship with my mother – possibly my deepest wound.
In many ways, in ‘You Are My Mother’ I constructed a safe, emotionally expressive world that I could observe from a distance. All these emotions that for me were not safe to feel, all this intimacy that didn’t exist in my childhood. It is no exaggeration to say that each person I photographed helped me to find and reconcile aspects of myself that had long been suppressed.
[Left] © Angelika Kollin ‘Peter’ 2020 from the series ‘You Are My Father’
[Right] © Angelika Kollin ‘Tando’ 2020 from the series ‘You Are My Father’
You then extended the project to include fathers and their children…
On one level, ‘You Are My Father’ was a logical continuation of the ‘Mother’ project. It was important not to exclude the other parent. But, more profoundly, it allowed the child in me to revisit my relationship with my own father. I was raised in a generation and society where it was uncommon for a father to show tenderness or vulnerability. I found great joy in the time I spent photographing this new generation of men. Whatever their background, they were all the same in one aspect – their natural ability to love their children.
This was the first time you had focused on men in your work. Did this require a different approach and, in making the work, did you discover anything new about parenthood?
Interestingly, it felt completely natural to suddenly find myself working with men. What was really interesting was that photographing these fathers made me feel more feminine and motherlier. They taught me how to soften in some way.
And there was another interesting response when I added the hashtag #newmasculinity to posts of these images I shared on social media. I received comments from some of my younger followers from western countries who couldn’t understand what it was that was new. I think this is a positive confirmation that we are moving in the right direction, at least in some parts of the world and in this aspect of masculinity.
[Left] © Angelika Kollin ‘Damian, Clinton, and Lexy’ 2020 from the series ‘You Are My Father’
[Right] © Angelika Kollin ‘Janine, Wade, and Valentin’ 2021 from the series ‘You Are My Mother’
You included same-sex couples in this work on parenting. Did that bring new insights for you?
I couldn’t imagine making this project without including every kind of parent. For me personally, it didn’t raise anything new, nor have I received any critical messages concerning these images. Of course, I am aware that, even in 2022, it is unfortunately still a problem for some people. To people with such a worldview, I want to make it clear where I stand – I support freedom of choice. In essence, these images of parents make evident the things we all share. We all want the same things – to love and to be loved.
Can artmaking and engaging with art help in the recovery from trauma?
The short answer is yes. While I don’t speak much about it, people who work with me know I don’t shy away from working with certain non-acute forms of trauma, though I do so with caution and careful research. There are endless ways to go about this but, because each approach is particular to the individual and the situation, there is no one formula for all. I use elements of meditation in my sessions and apply my knowledge of different alternative modalities such as controlled breathing, family constellation therapy, tapping, and so on. There is something deeply harmonising in the pursuit of an artistic practice within a safe natural environment.
In making this work, what have you learned about yourself that you did not previously know or understand?
My life, like my art, is a work in progress. It is a process through which I have come to face many of my fears. I have discovered how emotionally closed I was, how much shame I carried, how difficult it was for me to be vulnerable or to be intimately connected to other people. The more I uncovered these hidden and painful fragments, the more compassion and understanding – and indeed admiration – I have felt for other people. Helping them became a way to also help myself.
While my journey is far from completion, it has given me a most important insight: love yourself as you are and be of service to others.
Angelika Kollin was born in Estonia in 1976. She moved to Germany in 1991 and then, via time spent in the USA and Spain, to live in Africa from 2013 to 2020. It was here in Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa that she began her art practice. Self-taught, her work explores themes of human interconnection and intimacy, suffering and loneliness. Her photographs have featured in solo and group exhibitions in Barcelona, Berlin, Bratislava, Cape Town, Helsinki, New York City, Paris, and Rome. She has received a number of accolades including first prize in the Lensculture Portrait Awards 2020, first prize for portraiture in the 2020 Independent Photographer Awards, and first prize for a portfolio at the 2021 Budapest International Foto Awards. She currently lives and works in Tampa, Florida.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.