Exploring loss through photography

When a group of photography students embarked on a project exploring missing and loss, they did not expect to complete it during a pandemic — a period in which these notions have come to resonate particularly strongly. The projects, collated into an online publication Parts Unknown, which launches tonight via a performative Zoom event, were created by students studying the Photography and Society MA at The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague (KABK). The publication was originally meant to be physical, but, given the circumstances, the group have translated it into a virtual form. Themes of isolation, grief, longing, and the need to be playful, weave through the publication — approaching the subject of absence through myriad subjects and aesthetics, and from multiple perspectives.

Creative Court, a Hague-based organisation committed to developing art projects to engender a more peaceful world, prompted the topic, which was expanded through conversations with their partner, The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), the only international organisation committed to addressing people missing due to conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, and many other causes, and KABK.

© Federica Iozzo.

“We met the team of forensic scientists who work with DNA samples [at the International Commission on Missing Persons] to assist governments in locating and identifying missing persons,” explains Oliver Chanarin, a tutor on the MA, who guided the series alongside Henk Wildschut, Rabiaâ Benlahbib, Shailoh Phillips, Thomas Bragdon and Adam Broomberg. “Their work has evolved into a worldwide archive of forensic data on individuals who have gone missing.”

Taking this as their starting point, the 13 students on the first year of the MA developed projects interrogating themes of missing, loss and absence; subjects, which have taken on new significance given Covid-19 forced the students themselves to retreat inside, completing work from the confines of isolation.

“The idea of missing became so relevant because we were missing the lives we once lived — missing our loved ones,” reflects Jana Romanova, whose project, Building a Monument, explores the connection between violence and love in the context of her family. In the spring of 2018, Romanova’s grand-aunt Lucia stopped taking the medications that were preventing her liver from failing, causing her to die several days later. Furious, Romanova’s grandmother, also Lucia’s sister-in-law, tore up every single photograph of Lucia, and was poised to dispose of them until Romanova stopped her. The resulting project gently pieces together the broken archive, building a fractured portrait of someone now long gone.

© Jana Romanova.

Other projects include Atle Blakastad’s poignant reflection on the loss of his brother who withdrew from society and spent his remaining years in one room; both his brother and the room no longer exist, but this way of life, in parts, has now become the norm for many. And that of Thana Faroq, a photographer from Yemen, who explores her long-distance relationship with her mother sustained via phone and Whatsapp; something she has experienced for years, which, again has become a daily reality for many during this period. Meanwhile, Xaver Konneker interrogates forensic odontology, which sits at a peculiar intersection between the history of photography, death, and the smile; “when someone is missing the smile becomes a piece of forensic evidence aiding the process of identifying decomposed bodies”.

Also exhibiting are: Anders Birger from Denmark, presenting The Shadows; Jakob Ganslmeier from Germany, presenting Der falsche Herrenmensch // The fake master race; Kata Geibl from Hungary, presenting The Castle; Lena Holzer from Austria, presenting The Impossibility of Future; Federica Iozzo from Italy, presenting Every Feeling; Marta Iwanek, from Canada/ Ukraine/ Poland, presenting Falling / Flying; Batuhan Keskiner from Turkey, presenting Toros; Alexa Vachon from Canada, presenting It’s not him, mom; and Anastasia Mityukova from Switzerland, presenting Between the lines.

All the projects will be presented via the virtual publication and accompanying website in two parts: the work itself, and the context in which it was made. “We decided to this because the pandemic affected the work,” explains Romanova. “We wanted to show the actual work and the conditions in which it was created.”

You can attend the virtual preview of the publication tonight, 15 May 2020, at 6 pm (CET) by signing up here.

From the series Toros © Batuhan Keskiner.
From It’s not him, mom © Alexa Vachon.
From the series Goodbye Without Leaving © Atle Blekastad.
From the series, I don’t recognize me in the shadows © Thana Faroq.
From Between the lines © Anastasia Mityukova.
From the series Falling / Flying © Marta Iwanek.
From the series The Impossibility of Future © Lena Holzer.
From The Shadows © Anders Birger.
From the series The Castle © Kata Geibl.
From the series Der falsche Herrenmensch // The fake masterrace © Jakob Ganslmeier.