Simon Crofts: Expectations.

Book review and artist interview by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

“The idea was to create a series of ‘visual poems’ about Ukraine,” says Simon Crofts discussing the photographic concept behind Expectations – visual poems “on themes of Fortune, Utopia, Fear, and Memory. The poems are a personal memoir, a diary, and speak about the place itself and the people I met, about aspirations and emotions and recollections. Part of this idea of making a poem from photographs came out of [Dmitri] Shostakovitch’s 13th symphony, where he sets poems by [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko to music, on not dissimilar themes to my images.” [1] A Scottish photographer who has lived and worked as a lawyer in Moscow, at the dusk of the Soviet Union breaking up, Crofts has always shown particular interest in Russian culture, taking part in a series of events that would later define his photographic work: from some of the first large privatizations in Russia to advisory work on oil and gas projects, or setting up cooperation with the West in the space industry. One cannot understand present-day Russia or Ukraine without first understanding the ‘90s, the geo-political divisions and idealised versions of the past to have revealed the convergence of different historical perspectives and the divergent forms of national consciousness. But rather than documenting matters of politics directly, Crofts looks at an individual level, in order to bring together one’s intimate experiences and personal relationships to have shaped any such understanding or (re-)negotiation of the past – “When thinking of the series of images as ‘visual poems,’ I was interested in this cross-over of genres; not only poems that become symphonies (Sibelius and Strauss too developed tone poems or symphonic poems, of course), but I thought of [Venedikt] Yerofeyev who called his Moscow-Petushki novel [2] a ‘poem in prose.’ I also remembered J.-K. Huysmans’s Against Nature [3] but most of all, this exchange between images and writing, particularly as the images were so closely connected to words and literature.”

The photographs in Expectations have mostly been taken in the last couple of years, as Crofts returned to Scotland and started to reflect upon and absorb his own experiences, away from the familiarity of those surroundings. Expectations is more than a mere photographic project: by making notes, interviewing people, or making audio recordings, Simon Crofts has transformed the body of works into a subjective narrative on people and time, an intimate reflection on the nature of his own experiences, events and their silent – often disregarded – affiliations, in an attempt to discover, reclaim and salvage the forgotten. Should one attempt to understand Ukraine, it requires an apprehension of the picturesque nostalgia with which people have been opposing power or the bureaucratic mind-set that has narrowed down aspirations. Much like in Chekov’s stories, the situations reveal no clear resolution just tangled emotions, motives and consequences, the clarity of their vision often escaping a Westerner’s perspective. Expectations is, to some extent, a narrative account of how one makes sense of the Gogolian bureaucracy, the psychological effects of the landscape on an exhausted psyche, the historical reasons why many Russians continue to aspire to “a strong Tsar,” or the profound sense of national identity. “One of the references in my book is absurdity or the extraordinary in everyday life,” says Crofts, “and absurdity is often connected to bureaucracy, especially in the writings of Gogol. In Ukraine and Russia, absurdity and bureaucracy are often there for a reason: bureaucracy is an instrument of power. Yevtushenko’s Humour, the second movement of Shostakovitch’s symphony, is closely connected to the Ukrainian / Soviet / Russian literary traditions of absurdist humour of [Nikolai] Gogol, [Mikhail] Bulgakov, Yerofeyev and, more recently, the likes of [Alexander] Terekhov and [Andrey Yuryevich] Kurkov.”

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Aleksey, Dnieper tributary © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Aleksey, Dnieper tributary © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Larissa © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Larissa © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Simon Crofts has acknowledged to have initially considered arranging the photographs typologically, as a means to simplify the subject for the viewer; but taking a wider approach to the subject has allowed him to observe the more intimate interconnections between the different photographic poems. Citing influences from other photographers who relate to similar subjects in their approach (such as Rafal Milach) and photographers from Poland, the Czech Republic, and other Eastern European countries (such as Witold Wieteska, Vladimir Birgus, Miro Švolik) – together with Western photographers like Hannah Starkey or Greg Crewdson –, Crofts requires more attention for ‘reading’ his photographs. ‘Readers’ will get a sense of time slowing down, an instant without clear temporal markers, margins, or definitive progression of viewing – or reading, for that matter. The separation of text and photographs allows for their parallel reading: as the text wanders away from the photographs, they in turn create a distance onto the texts, underlining a feeling of dislocation. The viewers become readers who see between both images and words. While the photographs require intuition and emotion, the text gives them a subjective and symbolic context, altering any set feeling, recollection, or thought. It is not always clear what the subject in an image says or would say; the photographs and text weave their story independently, with none a literal explanation of the other. It almost seems as if Crofts uses the camera to create the immediate space of a conversation and raise awareness of a situation. This can be observed in the sequencing of texts and images, which guide the viewer-reader onto a visual, literary, and psychological journey – they underline an endless expectation for something to change or one to have a change of fortune.

It is, in fact, the photographer’s ex-mother-in-law Larissa who suggested to Crofts the idea of a “land of endless expectations” to describe the state of life in Ukraine. At first look, nothing much seems to be happening in many of the photographs; but both the idea behind and the technique in Expectations rely on the idea of preserving a quiet and intimate link to the poetic character of ordinary visual experiences. Issues of memory, humour, power, women, identity, or integrity are articulated by a Chekov-inspired sense of fortune and the photographer’s own experience of being a foreigner wandering across foreign lands. What makes the narrative line particularly appealing is the recurring idea of fortune and the connotations it holds in this cultural context: waiting, possibility, and – most importantly – enduring. There is a constant tension between expectations, aspirations, and the context; between uncurbed hope and the harshness of life and survival. “The name of the book itself, Expectations, is of course about fortune, the expectation of a change of fortune, preferably for the better,” says Crofts. “The design of the cover of the book too, with a gold cross on top of an image of a Scythian burial mound is inspired by Chekov’s short story called Fortune. Fortune is a thread that runs through all the sections [of the book – Utopia, Fears, Memory, and Fortune]. It is aspirations and hope, whether disappointed or still extant, that drive the other bits. For example, memory is very important, but what we remember and how we remember it is driven by our aspirations. Memories of the Great Patriotic War and the Hunger are of course incredibly important, but the way they are remembered has to do with what we want for the future – whether we look back on the sacrifice of those times as a kind of gold standard that gives us pride in our country and isolationism for the future, or whether we remember the horrors of collectivization with its forced starvation, deportation and Stalinism, and want to move away  from Soviet memories: all of this is driven by aspiration. The scope for reinterpretation is huge and not necessarily very connected to anything that actually happened. So the past, how we see it and what is left of it, is more about what we want to happen today – what matters is what we remember, why, and how we use those memories now.”

The capacity of memory, both collective and individual, to gloss over, improve on, or distort the facts is particularly evident at periods when the foundations of a society are collapsing. […] while distorting our recollections and thus hindering a proper appreciation of individual or historical experience, memory is yet the one feature that distinguishes us as human beings. – Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned

“Utopia is, of course, also all about aspiration,” continues Crofts. “The failed utopia of socialism was a failed experiment to create a bright future. The miracle of undisturbed nature and wide open spaces of the steppe, these are there thanks to the failure of industry and tourism as a result of Ukraine’s terrible and repetitive bad luck throughout the last century, and this one too so far. There are different kinds of utopia. There is the failed utopia of the past; there is the yearning despite everything for some kind of relative utopia in the future – which everyone realizes is never going to happen. And there is the self-indulgence of my own personal mini-utopia, a Ukraine which is my fascination and playground and which I feel this connection to. One seeks one’s own utopia wherever one can find it, even in small doses. Partly, this is a reaction to the fact that so many people think of Ukraine as a failure: it is the last place that most western Europe would expect to find some kind of model, but actually it has an awful lot going for it, including a lot that western Europe has lost.”

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Birthday of John Paul Jones, founder of the US Navy, Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Birthday of John Paul Jones, founder of the US Navy, Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Slava, Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Slava, Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Expectations is a photographic document that Simon Crofts has turned to his personal ends; neither documentary, nor exactly a diary, it is a visual testimony for the way in which photography can express an emphatic, albeit silent acceptance and resistance. Taken shortly before the crisis in Crimea and Donbas began, the photographs present the viewer with an ambivalent invitation: to gaze past the indeterminate expanse and look closely at the vital spirit that lends the melancholy of the scenes; to embark on a journey that may ultimately lead one to self-discovery. As a photographic poem, its narrative and memorial enterprise reveals the discordant nature of situations, as well as the erratic and perhaps implausible itinerary one must take to find oneself. Crofts did not seek to directly confront or undermine dominant psychological and ideological structures. The photographer looks closely at the forgotten and discarded by zooming out of the realm of reference; his photographic metaphors of discontinuity and the immediate piece together minor histories and totemic memorials to understand the intimate circumstances of an enduring. There is often a remote, elegiac, or impenetrable feel to the photographs, as the viewer takes on personal memory traces, fragmentary and momentary thoughts. In many of the photographs in Expectations, one can find expressions of marginalization, often accompanied by reminiscences of the communist ethos, as a way of trying to cope with the homogenising effects of current conditions, life in the wake of industries that have ravaged the landscapes, strategies of psychological survival, or the mythologies of the industrial secularism. The nostalgic recollections in Expectations reveal how people resist the legacy of the past, how they live with hoping or thinking beyond the past, their struggle to adapt to and cope with the difficulties and disparities wrought by the periods of transition. The communist legacy is not always a question of irredeemably oppressive experiences – the past can also enter the present as a novel adaptation, not only as a legacy. [4] Expectations echoes views that nostalgia is not necessarily a reflection of the past or a feeling of wistfulness, but rather a personal strategy that serves the present and a pragmatic practice of remembering.

Nostalgic memories should not be reduced to negotiations in and of the present only, critics argue. [5] People are not mere nostalgic narrators who re-shape the past that best suits their hopes and expectations, they also manifest their discontent regarding the injustices of current situations, the distortions and manipulations in the historical records and collective memory. Expectations is less observant of nostalgic fetishes for the communist past and instead looks at everyday lives to reflect on the unspoken fears of dispossession, loss of identity, and feelings of being stranger at home or powerless in the face of events. The book is a visual poem on longing and the deepening angst of deracination, as the spoliation of the environments mirrors the spiritual and psychological realms. In its visual, narrative, or metaphoric form – poetry is the covenant between words and the world; it aims to restore human and spiritual values, to heal memories and reclaim a broken sense of confidence. Simon Crofts photographs landscapes and people who have not lost their memories; people for whom the struggle of memory against forgetting does not resume to the pain of remembering, but also calls forth the fantasies of the future. When Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed,” the very term nostalgia casts doubt on the past as an actual referent. “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy,” argues Boym. [6] It reclaims not only a romanticized homeland, but a specific and ephemeral quality of time itself [7] – less a question of communism or post-communism, but rather a quest to seize back the lost and damaged youth that was and might be.

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Larissa © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Larissa © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Whether subtle, poetic, or intimate – imaginative in the sense of a certain wistfulness and coming to oneself that they portray –, Crofts’ photographs are a testimony of his own understanding, the retrospective perception of his own personal journey, which has brought about a ‘change of fortune’ for him personally. “I do, as you say, have a sense of both being a stranger, a wanderer, and of a coming to myself,” he says. “I think that being a wanderer is quite different from being a traveller – I don’t think of this as a journey at all. The wandering happened over more than twenty years, twelve of which I was living either side of Ukraine, in Russia or Poland, and moving around a lot. So it was not a journey, it was many hundreds of journeys – or, to put it another way, my life. No matter how long you live in the region, you will always be a stranger, a foreigner; but I am used to being a stranger wherever I am. These wanderings have, of course, brought a change of fortune for me. I always just followed what seemed most interesting and made most logic to me at any given moment, whether or not it was really sensible in a normal sense. Which is why I moved to Moscow in the first place – it made sense. Here were writers and composers and other people who thought in a way that I empathized with. So I did everything I could to move there and didn’t regret it. The ‘90s in Moscow were an extraordinary time. It took me out of the career mainstream and I started taking pictures; then I met my wife – Polish photographer Sylwia Kowalczyk – in Bratislava and I moved to Krakow. Having been immersed in Russian culture, and regularly visiting the family dacha in Ukraine, I started to see more of a Polish view on history, language, and so on; and to understand a bit more about the Ukrainian view of history, which was not something that was taken seriously in Moscow. It was interesting to see what seemed to be the same historical events interpreted completely differently, and I started to see undercurrents that I had not seen before.”

The sense of loss over the wild, misguided yet systematic destruction of pastoral and patriarchal countryside can be observed in the photographs that reflect the degradation brought by processes of industrialization, secularization, and urbanization. It expresses the seemingly definitive passing of ancient ways of life and, with it, an awareness that the times of innocence, authenticity, and abundance as they were, have once again been lost. This is less an idealization of lost states or objects of desire, but rather an awareness of the nature and consequences of transitions. The transformation of social customs, together with an altered sense of history and meaning of language, meets new political concerns, a sense of psychically unearned history, altered visual and mental landscapes. Ambivalent feelings and attitudes, from wistfulness to the soothing sense of affiliation, are involved in everything nostalgic and produce temporal fractures of the psyche.

There are numerous narrative layers in Expectations that intersect ceaselessly and are inseparable – the personal narrative, the photographic narrative, the narrative of people and places, the historical and literary narratives. “I see these ideas and emotions and symbols and memories as complex clusters of threads that intertwine as they develop, surfacing and disappearing, emerging sometimes in pictures and sometimes in words. Sometimes, they are referred to in the texts and sometimes they are allusive. This is a series of pictures and I don’t pretend to be a writer. The images are designed to be self-standing, you don’t need to read the texts – but the texts exist, and if the reader does dip into them, I hope he or she starts to see the pictures in a completely different way. The pictures don’t need to be displayed alongside the texts; the important thing is that the texts exist, somewhere. There was a whole host of ideas, connections, references, recollections that were behind the pictures that a viewer would have little or no hope of knowing about without some gentle nudge. At the same time, I don’t want to force the viewer to think one thing or another about the images – the viewer needs to experience and react to images in their own way, hopefully see things that I didn’t either, or maybe disagree with me about others. I wanted to use the texts as a kind of background, a reference which is non-didactic. It narrates a wealth of incidents and references in literature and other ideas, that help to get the mind ticking over, to start looking for connections and to begin to understand, to get under the skin of the subject. I thought that I would try to write something that I hoped might be entertaining and less prescriptive, that contained anecdotes and interesting quotes that were part of the frame of reference, or otherwise were just interesting and helped as far as possible to understand the whole situation. I decided to let the book be as complicated as it seemed to need to be, and hope some people would make it through. Life is complex, emotions are complex, and the interactions between ideas, people, and events is complex. Again, I was drawn back to Chekov, where there is no clear good or bad, where you are left reading one of his stories having understood something intuitively about human passions and where nothing was quite resolved – because it never is. Sometimes the ideas in the images and texts are closer to the surface, sometimes I can barely touch them, and in any case there are so many different ways of perceiving or interpreting them…”

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Odessa © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Odessa © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Many of Chekhov’s characters have a peculiar relation with time and the future. Whether they fantasize over alternative futures or portray the future as an image of how they wish to be remembered, it is a matter of looking forward to the past rather than simply reminiscing. It is easy to look at Simon Crofts’ photographs and then read into the nostalgic and conflicting realm of how Chekhov’s characters perceive the past, the present, or the future. In The Three Sisters, an incurable dreamer – Vershinin – contemplates on how people will look back in two or three hundred years and observe the awkwardness, clumsiness, inconvenience and strangeness of the past; in The Fidget, Ryabovsky tells Olga Ivanovna on the deck of a Volga steamer to see a dream instead of the black shadows on the water, and on this wondrous, short and unique night of their lives, look at the fantastic gleam of the magical water, the fathomless sky and melancholy – and as the pensive banks speak of the existential vanities, think of falling into oblivion and becoming a memory, for the past is banal and uninteresting, while the future insignificant; a mocking Ivan Dmitrich in Stories foresees the better times and the dawn of a new life to shine forth, even for those who don’t mind about the future at all; and Uncle Vanya’s doctor, Astov, believes people in the future will despise those in the past for having lived their lives so tastelessly – there is only one hope for those who live in the present, a blind hope that visions may come to those who entered their graves. Whether moaning or mournful, these nostalgic expressions long away from the present, to a different space and a different time, undetermined by the insubstantial conditions of the present.

In Expectations, the subjects may not have fully accepted change, still burdened by having to find a sense of things that have been lost and may never return, things that have lost their meaning, and things that may never come. But they do not fully identify with representations of what has been lost either. A struggle persists in the photographs, to refuse and resit an identification with any of the set conditions, to discriminate and accept the past, the present and the perspective of a future. Time and memories are plastic; they need to be shaped and reshaped, for in the end it is the stories people tell each other that stand the test of time, rather than the factual proof of what has happened. In this respect, Expectations and its subjects tell their stories as an act of construction, rather than reconstruction, restitution or reconstitution. The photographer weaves the photographic and narrative document into a story about individuals and communities that gives one a shared image of the past, which the inevitably involves a shared vision of what the present and what the future may be. The nostalgic recollection of history is a means to make the past usable, malleable – a shared yesterday to give sense to the ‘uncommon’ now. It is not a question of homogenising the past, but of constructing the future in light of the perceived past, where nostalgic memories create social cohesion. People, places and landscapes also share an indivisible, if ungraspable relation. “Maybe the portraits tend to be more associated directly with an emotion, with the spark of personal connection, whereas landscapes or places are more meditative,” says Simon Crofts. “There are a lot of references and symbolism in the landscapes, and I think the images work in a different way – they contain zones and planes, and the compositions and negative spaces are very important. Somehow they are connected in my head to Ben Nicholson’s paintings (as are a series of pictures of armchair tourism in hotel rooms that I have been taking). The landscapes are calmer and help to give a sense of air.”

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Holiday Street, Kiev © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Holiday Street, Kiev © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Children's home, Bila Tserkva © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Children's home, Bila Tserkva © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

There is also an informative character to the interrelationship between portraits and landscapes, Crofts explains: it tells that a person lives in a landscape and how the landscape affects one’s psychological states. “The landscape – especially the steppe – helps to define the Ukrainian character, like in Chekhov’s novella The Steppe, where a boy is brought to manhood by a journey on a wagon traveling across the vast steppe of south-eastern Ukraine. The landscape may represent alienation. (…) So much of Russian and Ukrainian literature involves someone sitting isolated in a large landscape. The disconnection allows local absurdities to take place (see, for example, [Nikolai Gogol’s] The Government Inspector or [Andrey] Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan). And then there is an alienation between people and the landscape brought about by urbanization; stepping out into that landscape is a big thing, there is a kind of psychological barrier to doing it. This disconnect gives people a certain attitude towards nature – it is treated as something alien and exotic and, at the same time, sacred. From a documentary point of view, I think showing people without places would not make sense – one can start to draw connections between people and their surroundings. As far as memories as concerned, a lot of those are in the soil. The landscape, the soil – they are important for other reasons. In the late 19th century, the idea that Russian culture is connected to the soil was a way to reject European values and return to the idealized national ideas of an idealized past. [8] Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring starts with Adoration of the Earth. This same tug of war seems to be going on today – I think it is a pull between Mandelstam’s Crimea as a window onto Europe and Dostoyevsky’s search for a national idea of Russia.”

Landscapes evoke national dramas, provide a sense of continuity and hint at shared spiritual beliefs. They can also mirror the tension between individual distinctions and egalitarian social orders. The greatness of the stillness in many of the photographs in Expectations, with their rawness, dustiness, and thickness, does make one wonder about whatever may lie ‘beyond the steppe.’ The different viewpoints reveal the artlessness and simplicity; their ubiquitous perspective gives expression to a unifying sense of political meaning and value. What is given to see in these photographs, from symbols and beliefs, to customs and the everyday, evokes both a spatial and a temporal dimension. While the past signifies the patina of familiarity and naturalness that people have acquired or grown accustomed to with age, context and conditions, landscape is the metaphorical embodiment of a psychological space. Their relation is literary and almost ‘musical.’ There is a minor key and a slow tempo in Expectations that accompanies the dirt paths and the fields; there are repetitive cadences in most of the scenes that function as silent rhetorical devices and figures of repetition. This may be perceived as an illustration of how rural landscapes have lost their distinctiveness as social environments. Urbanization and industrialization have transformed the land to the point of provoking existential disaffections and diffuse feelings of not belonging. Such feelings represent the confluence of affect and environment, and they in turn reclaim the landscape of nostalgia as a sense of durability in the face of pervasive urbanization and transformation of the lands.

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Tanya © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Tanya © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Medzhibizh, former jewish shtetl © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Medzhibizh, former jewish shtetl © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

In his weaving of photographs, interviews, notes, and literary fragments, Simon Crofts also shows the viewer the capacity of language to create and bring together a community. The photographs build a particular sense of solidarity that writing reinforces around affective and symbolic social values. Whether through irony or compassion, Crofts takes the viewer ‘to read’ the traces in this mental and cultural terrain, as a means to reflect on a much deeper meaning of nostalgia. More than an effigy of the past, nostalgia refers to a different way of imagining and practicing life. People here not so much reject an imposed identity, as they seek to restore a historical and symbolic to their physical and mental landscapes. Amid experiences of discontinuity, fragmentation, suspension, or division, nostalgic revivals of ‘traditional’ social relations aim to reclaim personal integrity, counter present and future insecurities, and control change. Nostalgia restores a sense of cultural continuity through the collective remembering of an imagined community, and creates a mythopoeia around reified traditions opposing the consequences of urbanization and industrialization.

“I suppose that any book is by definition some kind of escape,” says Crofts when asked to ponder whether his photographs depict a romanticized or idealized escape. “However, I don’t think there is anything romantic about the book. I am doing my best to get as close as I can to the essence of things as I see them – which includes the wonderful, the terrible, and everything in between. I think that Ukraine, or Russia, or Poland, are a bit like the sea – once you have it in your veins, you are always drawn back to it. There is a lot of emotion tied up in here, but I don’t think the emotion is romanticized or idealized. I have some powerful memories and, in some sense, there is a kind of melancholy or ennui – toska. The 1990s were in many ways a miserable time but every person I met was a new adventure and I was very often the first westerner they had come across; because I could speak Russian, it was possible to dive into the most intense conversations. That is not just about the past, it affects the present too – current friendships are stronger because of a sense of having lived through the 1990s together. You might say that friendship is also a kind of nostalgia.”

Expectations concentrates on the relationship the individuals carry with their collective past, contemplating the singular experience of individuals and places. Simon Crofts asks the viewer to look at the photographs with more than mere artistic sensitivity and search beyond ignorance. His subjects find themselves at the margins, in a liminal position between places and times, conditions and circumstances; they live in the temporal rifts of the present, wedged between past and future, trapped in contexts that do not harmonize with the recalled past. The idea of expectation is not a matter of fortune alone – it also reflects the subjective connections and disconnections in relation to one’s historical genealogy and sense of self. Nostalgia is a memorial endeavour, a reminiscence and daydreaming even, that is deeply implicated in our sense of who we are and who we construct ourselves to be. And so the story in Expectations is a visual poem about the common man, his disrupted and shaken convictions about history, habits, culture, society, God, and himself; about a shared and collective identity crisis that the common man faces in a time of radical discontinuity in the people’s sense of who they are. The photographs reveal not so much a question of age or class, but a much deeper and wide-ranging experience that has come to define post-industrial societies.

Simon Crofts, Expectations: River Dnieper © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: River Dnieper © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Feodosiya © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Feodosiya © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Nostalgia is about the need to belong; it is about longing and displacement. Instead of looking forwards, people look backwards to get a sense of familiarity and certainty. Nostalgia is not even oriented toward either the past or the future, claims Svetlana Boym, [9] but a way of looking sideways, breaking with the conventions of space-time confinement. Reading side stories and seeing side images, this is a detour from the narratives of the present rather than the ethical or aesthetic failure of a subjective vision that tends to seize the realm of history, politics, and the everyday. Nostalgia may play as an apprehension of loss and a rediscovery of personal and national identity, community, and the homeland. Or, on the contrary, for traditions that are labelled as marginal or provincial with respect to the cultural mainstream, the rethinking and reimagining of nostalgia may be a strategy to survive, “a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming,” as Svetlana Boym has suggested. [10]

“I think there are (at least) two different things here,” explains Simon Crofts. “One is possibly my own sense of nostalgia for friends and times that are past; and, possibly, also a need to belong in some way. The other is nostalgia in terms of the subject itself that I am photographing, looking back on the past and reinterpreting it. I think they both exist in the book. The first may be hard for me to analyse beyond what I already mentioned; the latter is very important. For example, there is a portrait of a man holding a fishing net on the beach at Koblevo, wearing a hat that resembles a white Captain’s hat, as if echoing the heroes of Soviet films, such as White Sun of the Desert or Twelve Chairs. [11] When he goes on a beach holiday, he may well be yearning for a perceived innocent time or memories of other times at home, entering an idealized Soviet vision of heroes, innocence, and humour – though I don’t believe Soviet reality was anything like that, certainly not from the left-over misery that I saw when I first arrived in 1992. Or there is the portrait of a boy, Ruslan, standing in front of the fake Greek columns of a nightclub called Arcadia. There is both a kind of aspiration and nostalgia in it, the memory of a time when Feodosiya was part of the Greek empire. People are very conscious of the past, whether it is Greek, Scythian, Cossack, Tatar, or Jewish. Near the end of the book, there is a landscape showing the remains of square columns which supported a Soviet sanatorium in Koktebel – the remnants of a failed civilization. For me, from the moment I saw them, they echoed the remains of a Greek temple, another collapsed civilization, only the comparison between the Greek and Soviet empires is an ironic one. In the pictures of the homes from the shtetl of Medzhibizh, the cottages look quite like archetypal idyllic village life from a fairy tale, except that it is winter and there is a dark memory behind them. While the houses seem to preserve Ukrainian peasant idylls, the inhabitants of the shtetl were rounded up and shot during the war; and, of course, many had died before that during the Great Famine.”

No identity is a private matter only. Identities are governed and informed by community scrutiny as much as by social conventions or extensive principles of obligation or injunction, whether religious, familial, ethical, or symbolic. Communities will always have and cherish particular narratives about themselves, separated from or alongside ideological representations. Individual and subjective expressions of resistance, accommodation, acceptance or contestation are to be found in this tension and popular counter-histories come to life. “Popular re-presentations of the past are as capable of reproducing and legitimating the terms of dominant memory as they are of contesting and demystifying them,” has once explained Ana María Alonso. [12] People negotiate dominant memory in their struggle to defend, reform or abide by social values; their everyday practices rearticulate discourses and often reveal the contradictions inherent to the idealization that a hegemonic ideology represents. Popular counter-histories come to life in what Alonso has called “a potential disjunction between the representations of official rhetoric and the meanings embedded in lived life.” [13] Counter-histories are the expression of those marginalized, who identify with particular groups, values, or narratives rather than with society as a whole. “Only hegemonic discourses can claim to speak in the voice of ‘the nation.’ Counter-histories articulate the voices of peasants, women, workers, ethnic groups, but never the voice of an all encompassing imagined community.” [14] Expectations illustrates how collective nostalgia is such articulation of shared emotions, memories, imagery, and imagination; often more metaphorical than real, they enable a sense of solidarity and reveal the centrality minor histories and narratives to national imaginings. Such national imaginings go hand in hand in the religious imagination as well – while one vision is sacred and the other secular, Benedict Anderson has explained how they both transform fatality into continuity, linking what is gone with what is about to come. Nations, Anderson says, “loom out of an immemorial past and […] glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” [15]

Simon Crofts, Expectations: New district in Sevastopol, Crimea © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: New district in Sevastopol, Crimea © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Bosporan burial mound, Kerch, Crimea © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Bosporan burial mound, Kerch, Crimea © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

In his photographs, Simon Crofts pictures the many different personal pasts, presents and futures whereby individuals collectively remember and imagine themselves as a community against the passage of time. Their affective identification, their feelings of affiliation, pride or enthusiasm, their sentimental bricolage – are a means to appropriate the time of their lives. Nostalgia is their subjective manner of dealing with social and personal deracination, the breaking of family or symbolic bonds, the troubled transitions and continued state of suspension – their sentimental bridge onto hope and a meaning that is intimately interwoven with a vivid sense of social memory and adhesion. In their portrayal of time and memory, the photographs reflect on the interrelation of representations and their transformation over time. Whether descriptive, confessional or anecdotal, they provide a visual commentary on the intimate nature of recollection and memorization as waiting and anticipation.

“The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia,” argued Svetlana Boym. As a sentiment of loss and displacement, nostalgia is both “an historical emotion” and a romance with one’s own fantasy. It “appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.” [16] This slower time – or, as Boym says, “time out of time” – and this refusal to surrender lie at the core of the photographs in Expectations. They too regard nostalgia as retrospective and prospective at the same time. “The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. The consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about a relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory.” [17] Boym has suggestively described the nostalgic as “looking for a spiritual addressee” and “for memorable signs, desperately misreading them,” [18] – which the photographs in Expectations capture with clear poetic sensibility. The signs bear witness to the changing rhythms of life; the everyday gestures confront the irreversibility of time.

Nostalgics of this kind are often, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, ‘amateurs of Time, epicures of duration.’

Svetlana Boym

Simon Crofts has photographed the minor and the fragmented; in doing so, his photographs tell the story with the distant compassion and poetic creation of he who confronts the cultural histories. Svetlana Boym differentiates between restorative and reflective nostalgia – one thinks of itself as truth and tradition, the other dwells on the ambivalences of human longing; one protects the absolute truth, the other calls it into doubt. [19] “Reflection means new flexibility, not the re-establishment of stasis,” argues Boym. “The focus here is not on the recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth, but on the meditation on history and the passage of time. Nostalgics of this kind are often, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, ‘amateurs of Time, epicures of duration,’ who resist the pressure of external efficiency and take sensual delight in the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars. (…) If restorative nostalgia ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialize time, reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and temporalizes space. Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, can be ironic and humorous. It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgement, or critical reflection. (…) Reflective nostalgia is an ironic, inconclusive, and fragmentary type of nostalgic narrative – nostalgics of this type are aware of the gap between identity and resemblance.” [20]

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Koblevo © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Koblevo © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Kherson © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Expectations could also be seen a journal taken before the disruptions that have pushed Ukraine deeper into the realm of oblivion or ignorance, destabilization, and socio-political turmoil. Recovering the past is laden with significance. “The Crimea has tremendous significance for a number of reasons,” says Crofts. “But I wanted to avoid getting my book embroiled in the current conflict in Ukraine, partly because it is impossible to remain objective – and I am not –, partly because the situation is changing quickly, partly because there are plenty of others who have headed over to document the mess, but most of all because it would have overshadowed what I really wanted to say in the book. Crimea’s significance is symbolic apart from everything else. The poet Osip Mandelstam regarded Crimea as a kind of window onto the Western world. He found himself drawn to connecting with European culture through the Crimea. (…) Crimea becomes the symbol of a draw towards west European culture, which pulls in the opposite direction to nationalism or pride in the sacrifices of the past.”

Nationalism, like the ideas of Lev Tolstoy, is an attempt to stop the course of history. Everything leading to separation is the result of license: it smashes what is whole, breaks and pulverizes it into tiny fragments that can never be joined together again. The truth of this has become completely apparent in our century. We have been witness to the process of disintegration. What has it brought us, apart from material and spiritual impoverishment? Even Dostoyevsky, the great seer, the highest point of nineteenth century, could not ward off the devils that prompted him to abandon the ecumenical idea in favour of national exclusiveness. – Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned

“But Crimea has other associations,” continues Crofts. “There is the draw of the sea – which Mandelstam felt so keenly too – but it is also a multi-national space. Crimea is a melting pot of Tartars, Jews, Greeks, Ukrainians, and many others; it is a landscape of memory – the ‘hero city’ of Sevastopol, the Kerch-Feodosiya landing, the underground warfare of Adjimushkai. [21] But it has also been a source of conflict between the Russian empire and western Europe, such as the repeated sieges of Sevastopol. Crimea is a window onto the west and a source of pride and memory; a cultural window, but also a window where the Russian military can show off the military might of its fleet. Most recently, of course, Crimea is now a symbol of the collapsing relations between Ukraine and Russia. In the film Koktebel, [22] a young boy makes his way across Ukraine to reach the village of Koktebel, which becomes a kind of mythical and seemingly unattainable promised land. So, for example, there are [three] landscapes in the book taken at Koktebel. Each of those images themselves contain symbolism that is visible in the picture, but the place itself – like Crimea in general – is a symbolic locus of memory. Then there is the River Dnieper, which is a blue thread that winds its way throughout and punctuates the book, like an artery connecting Ukraine (and Russia) to the Mediterranean – but Dnieper is also the scene of one of the largest battles in the history of warfare, or the route that merchant ships take to recruit crews from Kherson to voyage all over the world.” [23]

Simon Crofts, Expectations: Dacha © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Simon Crofts, Expectations: Dacha © Simon Crofts and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2015. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Nostalgia comes to the surface during this period of shattering socio-political and economic changes as an act of resistance against the likely occurrence of spiritual and material loss or decay. Having lost their sense of importance and confidence, people will always look up to a perceived or constructed Golden Age in order to counter the current territorial, economic, and intellectual isolation. Expectations returns to a symbolic past in order to salvage a moment of recognition; it looks at everyday images, words, gestures, and postures with the ethics of a view that does not seek to reproduce reality for the viewer, but to write a story that ultimately has no end. The book itself is unfinished – it remains a ‘building yard’ or ‘open field’ for unwritten narratives. For all their composition, the photographs in Expectations reveal a certain spontaneity of the ordinary visual experience, an almost performative visual writing of the ordinary that avoids the aestheticization of everyday realities. Yet the ending photograph is itself a most personal look into the future. “I physically isolated it from the other images, like a full stop,” says Simon Crofts – “it shows the dacha that has a special place in the upbringing of my children, and it is the only place in the book that shows any of my immediate family, my wife and my daughter.”

For many Easterners, the current political context requires the systematic erasure of their identity, renewing their loss of the past. Nostalgia is the people’s form of resistance against the social contradictions brought by geopolitical and economic fractures. In the political, economic, and cultural aftermath of continuous isolation, experiences of second-class citizenship and humanity stand against the denigration of the home culture or the lack of cultural reciprocity or political equivalents. “In the end, the only antidote for the dictatorship of nostalgia might be nostalgic dissidence,” concludes Svetlana Boym. “Nostalgia can be a poetic creation, an individual mechanism of survival, a countercultural practice, a poison, or a cure.” [24]

 

October 20, 2016

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