Street – Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union 1987-2003

The English/Russian version of the book is nearly sold out. Last copies in store.

Street – Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union 1987-2003, recounts the turbulent period in Eastern Europe and Russia in the period after the fall of the Iron Curtain as seen from the vision of a Dutch photojournalist. Улица-Street-Straße arose after several presentations of dummies during the Book Fair in Leipzig in recent years. There an audience appeared of (Young) Eastern Europeans, Russians, Ukrainians and others from countries of the former Soviet Union with a special interest in this form of visual history story telling. The book does not only show the historic events but especially day to day life in that timeframe. The bilingualism of the book, English-Russian and Russian-German, helps the different generations to discuss and share their histories.

You are an outsider, that’s why these pictures exist. We, the people who were caught in the middle, were not in the position to make the kind of observations you did. We were too much involved.

Some time ago designer and publisher Svea Gustavs, living in Amsterdam but born as a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, spoke these magical words that lead to this book. Together we sat and opened my boxes of pictures, went through my archive and examined it with the eye of a historian. For more than twelve years I had travelled the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reporting on all kinds of developments. I used my camera in my attempt to understand what was unfolding.

I first travelled to Belgrade in 1987 to visit a friend, I was a student at an art academy and the big outside world was tempting. I made plans to see it all. At the time, my only experience with the Eastern Block was a school trip to Berlin in 1983, so what did I know? I simply travelled further on and the history was there to witness. Once the closed borders opened, the developments and revolutions attracted more curious people like me. I became part of a community of journalists and photographers who together made new plans after every trip. There was always a reason to do so. Working with local interpreters and “fixers” (patience was indeed a virtue) I spent much time and effort to gain access into places and to observe the people involved.

I once heard wise words from a famous violinist who said that you should never show how much you practice while giving a performance. The most difficult piece of music should sound like it’s the easiest thing in the world. I kept these words in mind whenever I made pictures in difficult or hard to get in situations. My mantra: “be the observer, ask questions but let the scene do the work, do not interfere but look, listen and respond”.

At that time there was also a revolution going on in the media. In my profession digital techniques and the internet changed everything. The craftsmanship of a professional photographer was no longer exclusive. Everyone had the possibility to communicate with photography and to publish on the internet. That’s a great thing. Photojournalists are front liners. We go ahead. We were among the first to build websites and distribute our work via new media all over the world. But there was a kickback as well: when things got bad in the printed media because of decreased ad revenues, the first budget cuts were on photography.

Even in the early 1990s, when I published hundreds of pictures a year, it was difficult to make a living from the kind of work I did. These days it is virtually impossible. Newspapers and magazines hardly publish time consuming observing photojournalism anymore. Photojournalists like myself found support in the art world and in private funding.

I received grants that made it possible for me to continue working for a while until I decided to go in other directions. I started working on non- journalistic photography projects, documentary films and became a teacher at an art academy.

Everything in this book is history, it has been ten years since I made my last pictures in Russia. I took some time to find out what would be the use of a book like this. For three years drafts of this book were shown at the Bookfair in Leipzig where we listened to visitors reactions. It was there that we found out who would be our audience. This book is for the people it is about, for those who lived through it or whose parents or friends were involved. They represent the histories on which many divergent opinions are expressed. And myself ? I was and will remain an outsider; I was there and I looked around.

Leo Erken, Amsterdam 2013.


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