Julia Autz – Transnistria
WORDS BY MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM FROM SPLASH & GRAB 3.
While the world we live in today seems to have all but abandoned the idealist dream of a socialist revolution and capitalism reigns supreme, there exists a small slice of land in Eastern Europe wedged between Moldova and the Ukraine that honours the former communist regime of the now defunct USSR. Almost as if time has stood still the breakaway republic of Transnistria reveres the Soviet symbols, monuments and slogans long forgotten since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it remains unrecognised as a legitimate state by almost all countries and world institutions. Yet despite these obstacles it has forged its own constitution, a national anthem and issues Transnistrian passports to its citizens. But what is Transnistria? Is it a place where people united in a common historical choice are moulding a new post Soviet identity? Or an enclave where Russian oligarchs have seized control and are relishing new opportunities to burgeon their ever growing offshore bank accounts? Either way its ordinary citizens are left in limbo as members of a nation with limited prospects, no freedom of movement, unrecognised qualifications, and consequently ostracised from a world that is becoming increasingly smaller.
The German documentary photographer Julia Autz spent around two months in Transnistria immersing herself in the lives and culture of its people, focussing particularly on the travails of the younger generation. Her photographs offer a revealing insight into the lives of these citizens who reside in a state where a bygone ideology looms large. She reflects on her experience in meeting the people who inhabit a country that is shunned by the rest of the world, of how it is to live in a hinterland between Russian and European culture. “The question about their identity is very interesting and not easy to answer, there is a huge discrepancy in views between the young and older generations, of how it feels to live in a country with such an uncertain future.”
The series of images presented here reveal these intentions. Her portrait of the young couple posing formally portrays fundamental desires of young love. The mural in the background adds a taste of Soviet kitsch to the sparsely furnished room. There is serenity to the couple’s demeanour, or maybe a touch of stoicism that enables them to endure isolation. Conversely the image of the young girl at a parade reflects her suspicion and disdain, her isolation in the portrait metaphorically mirrors her social status. At first glance the images seem timeless, only upon close inspection do we realise they are contemporary, but there exists a down at heel quality, peeling wallpaper, dilapidated buildings and old Soviet era vehicles are evidence of slowed progress and abandonment.
In Transnistria it seems as though the outside world ceases to exist. The city’s monuments go unseen, its history unheard, and its culture a relic of the past. As Autz explains, “it felt like being on a journey through time, back to the Soviet Union. There is a very special atmosphere in Transnistria exacerbated by the country’s endless nostalgia for the Soviet past. It is particularly the elderly who reminisce wistfully about Soviet times, when they were part of a world power. Conversely, you also see melancholy and sadness in people’s faces, especially the younger generation who dream of a more colourful and more hopeful world, of a life, which represents youth: rebellion, perspectives and finding yourself.” Autz’s intimate portraits reflect these emotions. Her subjects seem to convey a sense of detachment from the outside world. The spaces are equally emotive in eluding this sense of loss, exclusion and timelessness.
As Autz herself recounts, “my main concept was to show the daily life of the people in that unrecognized country. There are some articles about Transnistria, which only show the negative side. They write about corruption, the KGB or the huge presence of the Russian military. But rarely do you hear something about normal people and their daily lives, it was therefore very important for me to show that.” This Autz evidently achieves, her images of the young girl on a rooftop smoking, and the young soldiers in ill fitting uniforms lounging disinterestedly against a car show the common traits of youthful rebellion that betray national and cultural differences. Consequently she allows the viewer to empathise and relate to her subjects on a human level without prejudice or judgement.
Autz belongs to a new generation of photographers who have directed the documentary approach towards a more personal end. Her aim has not been to reform life, but to know it. The images reveal understanding, almost affection for the imperfections and frailties of her subjects. She exposes the real world, as a source of wonder, fascination and value, while believing that the commonplace is worth looking at, and to have the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing. These engaging photographs are the result of her immersion into the experiences of others, achieving her desire to heighten a sense of social consciousness with her audience, while highlighting issues largely ignored by the mass media.