Suiti (2014 – present) by a Polish photographer Marta Berens is a documentary project about the Suiti people – a small Catholic community inhabiting the Protestant western part of Latvia.
When researching Latvian folk songs in the summer 2014 prior to the ISSP ‘Photographing the Past’ workshop with Simon Norfolk, Marta stumbled upon the Suiti community. The more she learnt about them, the more fascinated she became. Their romantic beginnings, pagan elements intertwined with the Catholic faith, and figures of Andris, a young priest who’s re-introduced traditional musical instruments or Dace, a local woman who created an encyclopedia of the Suiti textile patterns in her spare time – all of this and even more inspired the photographer to embark on this photographic ‘journey’ and to return to the Alsunga region again in the spring 2015 to continue telling the story.
The history of the Suiti dates back to a romantic story from 1623, when a local land owner Johan Ulrich von Schwerin decided to convert to Catholicism to be able to marry a Polish aristocrat Barbara Konarska. Inhabitants of his lands had to convert to Johan’s new faith too and in order to distinguish themselves from their Protestant neighbours, they had to wear specific costumes. Even though Johan’s decision to convert entire towns and villages to Catholicism was met with a strong opposition from Protestant land owners and eventually led to his poisoning, the Alsunga region remained a Catholic stronghold to this day. Thus what one historical figure did for love helped establish a fascinating religious minority unlike any other. The Suiti community – now counting just over 2000 members – has so many distinctive features that UNESCO decided to include them in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Nowadays you might not be able to spot a Suiti on the streets unless you’re lucky enough to be visiting their lands on a Sunday or during big Catholic holidays. Then Suiti are easily recognisable thanks to their beautifully decorated, hand-woven, traditional costumes as well as their internationally acclaimed vocal drone signing. Their history, costumes, and customs form crucial elements of the distinctive Suiti identity that that has remained largely unchanged for almost 400 years.
Marta’s Suiti is not a straightforward reportage-style documentary one would expect when imagining a project about an Eastern-European minority. Her Suiti women pose for the pictures and in fact dress up just for the photographer. Some of the portraits appear theatrical and highly stylized. The moody landscapes set the scene and the interior images reveal little bit more about the everyday lives of the Suiti people. Who knows Marta’s previous projects can immediately recognise her style of documentary work, which really makes Suiti (and in fact all her other work) stand out. In addition to the fascinating topic, the form matters here too and has been used in a thoughtful way. The colour palette, use of light, and composition help the author to convey a sense of mysticism and romanticism and thus help to transform this series into a great piece of visual story-telling.
To see more of Marta Berens’ work, please visit her website.
To learn more about the Suiti, please click here and here.
Note no. 1) from the editor: Many thanks to Marta Berens for her time & patience!
Note no. 2) from the editor: Massive apologies for such a long silence on the blogging front – our editor quit her office job in London and relocated to another corner of the globe but now will really be able to focus on documentEAST so watch this space 🙂
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