Jana Romanova discovered her family through her Grandma’s letters

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When Jana Romanova travels to photography festivals to share her series Waiting, she carries business cards with a quote from anonymous critics who have commented on her work online.

Each line of spoken word relates to her portrait series of young Russians who were expecting their first child, captured from overhead as they were sleeping. Most are rather uncomplimentary. “I find these pictures to be depressing, voyeuristic and vulgar,” reads one. “They make me never want to get married.”

About 18 months after she first posted Waiting to her website, Romanova saw the pictures go viral. Slate magazine published several images on its blog, and from that came dozens of other articles or reposts, including a piece on the Daily Mail‘s website.

The comments below, in their hundreds, were where the quotes came from, selected from the 453 comments that followed. Most of the comments, as is the nature of the internet, were negative. But it taught Romanova a lesson, she says – that much of what we see in the photography world is seen by other people in photography world and, outside of that niche, even the most straightforward projects are likely to be misunderstood.

So, while much of Romanova’s work to date has considered questions of identity, the critics writing the comments on those online debates made her think more deeply about photography as a medium, and “what it can do and what it can’t”.

Waiting started with the idea of defining the last generation that was born before the fall of the Soviet Union: how it looks and what it hopes for,” she says. “But, more likely, it gives a viewer a possibility to simply look from above at the whole room and become a bit like Sherlock Holmes and think: ‘What can I understand about these people if I see how they sleep and what is in their bedroom?’”

Another project, W, in which she places herself in the picture, standing behind and mimicking the pose of a more modelesque subject in front, began by exploring how it is to feel the confidence of a beautiful, young woman, but ended up with the idea that she herself could become the camera, asking the question: “Can you make an exact copy of somebody with your own body?”

Then came Shvilishvili, which translates as grandchild, the series, she says, that brought all the elements of her practice together. Reconstructing lost family ties in Russia and Georgia, and using her grandmother’s many letters and photos to her extended family in cities and villages near and far, Romanova questions the use of photography to connect people together and record their shared history. And, in the process, she uncovered a skeleton in the family closet.

The book she created for Shvilishvili is an amazing piece of handmade paper architecture, but it’s not there for decoration – ingeniously, it aids the story.

“I approached the book like an installation or any other multi-media format,so the shape of the book is a part of a narrative,” she explains.

“The object itself looks like a wrong-shaped harmonica. The front side is a chain of portraits of blood relatives where each person comes from one photograph to the next one. These are my relatives that I discovered last year, and the chain starts in Georgia and goes to Russia, but you don’t know where is the border.

“For me it was an attempt at building a family with photography, because I included myself in it. The back side of the book is an another attempt of building – this time a lifeline of my grandmother, who’s old photographs I found in Georgia, where she was sending them since the moment she moved from Tbilisi to Saint-Petersburg.

“But of course I failed to understand anything from those images, seeing an idealised life told in pictures that would seem to be far from the reality.

“From the last text in the book you find out that both my grandparents were killed by their grandson, my cousin [who then committed suicide in prison]. Then you close the book, see the ‘Shvilishvili’ title, and can start looking again from the chain of portraits – with an absolutely different feeling, not of connection, but of disconnection.”

See more of Jana’s work here.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.