Elena Volkova

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A young woman’s face is held in profile by the hands of her mother, who is otherwise out of frame. The woman’s chin seems to rest on the heels of the mother’s palms, her eyes closed, her nose tilted upward as if she’s taking in a bouquet the viewer can’t smell, or rapt by some invisible force. The mother’s hands look gentle, supportive, even guiding. Such softness and intimacy from a part of the body that, in a different context, can just as easily be used as a weapon. 

Both daughter and mother are refugees from Ukraine, now living in Berlin, and subjects of Baltimore-based photographer and professor Elena Volkova’s latest photographic project, The Me Before The War No Longer Exists. Volkova considers these portraits a collaboration with each sitter, rather than the result of her artistic vision alone. With their help, she is working to make visible a population that can seem entirely abstract if one is merely reading the headlines. More importantly, the artist is trying to offer refugees an opportunity to be seen as they would like to be seen, to offer agency at a moment when so many decisions are out of their control. This binary is one of many that Volkova’s new body of work evokes.

In spite of a great deal of planning, when Volkova arrived in Germany to take portraits of Ukrainian refugees, finding people who wanted to sit for the project initially proved difficult. Contacts fizzled out, journalists turned up empty-handed, potential subjects were hesitant or uninterested. The artist, who grew up in Ukraine, was surprised, even though she had been warned that when it came to the subject of the war, people would speak ambivalently.

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the medium of tintype and the subject of refugees. Volkova’s project aims to fix, however momentarily, a population defined by movement—people dislocated by war.
Laurence Ross

Mirroring the reaction of her sitters, there is a visible ambiguity to the portraits in this series as well. Volkova employs a wet plate tintype process that makes her monochromatic images reflective, the faces difficult to discern depending upon the quality of the exposure and angle at which one holds the plate. Sometimes a frame will look blank and then suddenly a family of four flickers into view, father and son standing, daughter seated in her mother’s lap, all slightly iridescent. 

Tintype photography is an old, slow, manual process, most prominent in the mid-1800s. Images are created by exposing thin metal plates coated in a collodion emulsion, a sticky, transparent medium that is soaked in light-sensitive silver nitrate while wet and produces a direct positive image. A great deal of light is required for this process, and, as a result, exposure times are much longer than a typical photograph. The smallest movement in front of the camera—like the distracted head of a child—results in a blur.

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the medium of tintype and the subject of refugees. Volkova’s project aims to fix, however momentarily, a population defined by movement—people dislocated by war. They live in a state of suspension as the violence continues and the future remains uncertain. At the same time, the portrait sitters are engaged in the act of preserving this moment of fluidity. In most of these images, time is rendered multifaceted; though the context is one of extreme conflict, the people are most often choosing to represent themselves in a moment of empowerment, love, contentment, or joy. In one, a woman theatrically holds a ringed finger to her lips, staring askance at the viewer, as if she knows the next move is hers to make.

Volkova describes tintype as a medium in which an artist must let go of attachments to mastery because there are so many factors beyond control. Using volatile outdoor light, subtle shadows can quickly become dark and deep. Since she is collaborating with her subjects, she also needs to study a person’s nuances while navigating each fresh social circumstance: two lovers with their eyes closed, faces touching; a boy somewhere between smirk and smile; a woman shaking her head back and forth. There is no way to preview a tintype, nor can it be duplicated. The medium captures every success and failure with equal permanency, the irreplicable moment’s banalities and exceptionalities archived on a metal plate.

In the heat of summer in Stuttgart, Augsburg, and Berlin, the wet plates were drying more quickly than the images could develop, leaving behind milky white streaks. These ethereal waves and ripples—what some might call a mistake but what Volkova terms an “artifact”—make some of the portraits look ghostly, as though one is peering through a veil to another world. An aura laps at one woman’s hair; another young woman stares at a white apparition; one couple looks as though their faces are pressed to the folds of a sheer curtain.

At times, these “artifacts” also function as negative space in the image, an outcome with a significance on which Volkova is still reflecting. They bring an element of emptiness to each portrait—a genre that is ostensibly all about presence. Considering the subjects are refugees in a war that is still very much present, these people might be considered both literally and figuratively within a negative space. If to negate is to counteract, then the space these refugees (and consequently these portraits) occupy is indeed a negative one: a space sought out in reaction, a defensive measure. Thought of in this way, the negative space might be preferable for now, if not yet positive.

There is no way to preview a tintype, nor can it be duplicated. The medium captures every success and failure with equal permanency, the irreplicable moment’s banalities and exceptionalities archived on a metal plate.
Laurence Ross

For some Ukrainians, staying in one place is not an option. Individuals with specific medical needs or families who rely on Ukrainian support programs can’t get the help they need elsewhere and must periodically travel back into the war zone to receive care. For others, there are resources available in Germany but applying month after month to renew these resources becomes its own source of exhaustion. The slow process of making a tintype allows plenty of time for conversation. The storytelling happens off camera, adding yet another intangible layer to this body of work.

In addition to capturing stories, this portrait project has also offered a unique opportunity for a community to gather. While the material product is a series of individual or family-unit portraits, behind the scenes, many of these subjects interact with each other. Some sitters came with a friend, some met new people throughout the day. In this case, waiting—prolonged by the tintype process itself—facilitated connection amidst a dislocation that is also marked by waiting, which becomes a bonding activity in itself. Emotional attachment might seem impossible to capture in a portrait, as a connection to friends, family, and country are invisible. But when the artist pulls out a tintype of a mother and a daughter holding a tree branch between them, their relationship is perfectly clear.

According to Volkova, a portrait can assist in reclaiming one’s selfhood. Though the tintypes can’t be duplicated, the artist makes several images and gives one to each sitter to take with them. She believes the recreation of one’s self-image can also be self-care, in which case what she provides is a gift beyond the physical plate. 

When one thinks of a refugee, or what a portrait of a refugee might look like, one likely calls to mind images of terror, loss, or profound despair. Volkova’s Ukrainian refugee portraits contradict that stereotype, to the point that without the context one would likely not think refugee at all. Which, for the subjects, is precisely the point. After seeing the first tintype of their session, some would ask for another, saying they’d like to look more hopeful. And when Volkova would retake the portrait, they most often would.

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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