O autorze
Indeksowane metadane

Tomasz Szerszeń

Selfie with my Wife

translated by Sara Rodowicz-Ślusarczyk

To Kharkiv

The Soviet civilization… I’m rushing to make impressions of its traces, its familiar faces. I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story.… History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest.

Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time. The Last of the Soviets1

There is work that I adore: creating a relation between text and image. ... What I like the most is the relationship between image and writing – a very difficult relationship – which gives the real joy of creating, a bit like in the case of poets who love to tackle problems related to versification.

Roland Barthes, Entretien avec Guy Mandery2

A photo is a time carrier, a time vessel. That means – a vessel of memory… But whose memory?... Of the Face or the Thing or the Landscape which are still on the photo?... Of the photographer?... Having chosen photos as the material of the film and memory as thetheme, we inevitably find ourselves in a labyrinth of our own and others’ memories, of our own and others’ time. And in seeking for the escape, we become a part of this labyrinth and the material of our own film.

Life Span of the Object in Frame (A Film About the Film not yet Shot)3


From beneath colourful blotches, the imprinted traces of leaves laid directly onto the photo emulsion, two faces emerge looking into the lens: those of a woman and a man. What attracts our attention and explodes this frame from within isn't so much the white blotch at the bottom of the photograph (a trace suggesting the gesture of hastily erasing the image). It is rather that instant in which a man's face gets cut by a vertical line – as if this self-portrait (selfie) was made from two photographs glued together. Selfie with my Wife, a 1988 photograph which forms part of the Total Photography series (1994)4, is a double self-portrait – an “expanded self-portrait” – wherein next to the author, Yevgeniy Pavlov, we see his wife, critic and historian of photography, Tatiana Pavlova. The visual power of this photo, evocative of many other works created within the Kharkiv School5 milieu, is augmented by its historic context. Selfie is created in the USSR of the Perestroika period, an era which Svetlana Alexievich monikered the beginning of “the end of the red man.” Much like a sensitive seismograph of history, Pavlov's photographs record the process of a downfall – the disintegration of the imperialistic Soviet order. The destruction of a history is accompanied by the disintegration of a way of seeing, the collapse of principles that govern the photographic image. A woman and a man – husband and wife – look at us, as if from afar, from beneath a layer of colour imposed onto the emulsion. This strange impression of a different dimension of time – one can wonder if it was equally poignant back in 1988, as it is now – seems to be congruous with the ascertainment that the ruins of an image, a time, a history, or an empire exist only thanks to the gaze we focus on them6. Without this gaze they would crumble definitively.

Yevgeniy Pavlov, Selfie with my Wife, 1988 (from Total Photography)


While Selfie with my Wife remains an image of time's seismography, a live attempt at inscribing the existence of a particular woman and a particular man into the crumbling frameworkof representation and a (double) “self-portrait in ruin,” the book дом быта (Home Life Book) is a completely different way of looking at a shared life, at the Perestroika era, and the time of political transformation. The difference is underscored by colour (as well as its lack). Like all the works in Total Photography series which rebelliously annihilate the greyness of both Soviet reality and black and white photography, Selfie is striking in its use of lively colours (it is as if colour is directly linked to disintegration), while all of the photos used by Pavlov in the Home Life Book are black and white. Lacking strong contrast, dazzling with their perfect greyness – in this case, less of a synonym for what is “Soviet” or life within a “monochromatic” totalitarian reality, but rather the sign of temporal distance, and the work of memory whose distance obliterates the most radical of extremes, effaces contours and cools the emotions down. Simultaneously, the two kinds of inscription also complement each other, creating a narrative with the use of those very two series – the Total Photography and Home Life Book – about the (long) end of a certain era, and the fleeting beginning of a new one, about the strange time and space "in between". Indeed, taken over a period of three decades – from 1975 to 2002 – Pavlov's photographs bear few direct traces of the political transformation: the personal perspective, also visible in the book, makes us think of a continuity, rather than sudden rupture and total metamorphosis. In this way, Pavlov's double parallel stories are an attempt at placing oneself within history, but also outside of its mainstream narratives. This can be seen clearly if we evoke Hayden White's essay in this context, in which he highlights the fundamental difficulty faced by historians whenever they are to grasp what can be called the “formlessness” (a formless moment) of historic experience.

Historians always have problems with transitional moments in the histories of their subjects. … It is also because a “transition” is precisely what cannot be represented in any medium (even cinema), because it is what happens “between” two states considered to be (relatively) stable …. And this moment cannot be represented because it has the same status as the blank space that divides two frames of a movie film. The moment in which something becomes something else or something other than what it had earlier been cannot be re represented through verbal or visual images because this moment is precisely a moment of the absence of presence, the moment at which one presence is drained of its substance and filled with another. And on any scientific account of this phenomenon, it must be said that such a moment is over-determined, – too full of causal forces – too fraught with “miracle” to be the subject of an explanation.7

The empty space that divides two frames of a film: if there is a metaphor capable of rendering the relationship these photographs have with history, with the order of historic experience, then this one seems most adequate. Against historians, whose means often prove incapable of grasping the temporary character of experience, with the evasiveness of its endings and the unclarity of its beginnings. A paradox, an impossible place, a touch of the utopian – these are the spaces (and figures of experience) wherein Pavlov's historic narratives are located. They mark his artwork, and they are also marked by the “absence of presence,” which remains so problematic for a researcher constructing his narrative, and yet so fascinating for a photographer. And here, unbeknownst to ourselves, aren't we touching upon the essence of the photographic medium itself?

The photographs which make up дом быта were taken, let us reiterate, between the years 1975-2002, but they only gained their final book-form many years later, in 2013. Here, the retardation is significant: in contrast to the Total Photography series, but also in opposition to the way personal photographic archives from the 70s and 80s are used by artists like Boris Mikhailov or Roman Pyatkovka. Those artists take on a fundamentally brutal and critical stance towards the given material and towards that reality, although they also manifest some perverse tenderness in approaching the Soviet life and all that remains of it as a kind of phantasmagoria8. Pavlov's choice is different. He selects works that are tender towards the visual traces of "that life", while preserving their inner cool. He photographs very intimate situations in a way that lets us sense his emotional engagement. Simultaneously, the return to these photos years later makes for a displacement of those emotions – this dialectic is, as we shall see later, essential to the дом быта.

What is thus significant is the notion of temporal distancing which accompanies the photographs' renewed composition, as they used to bear a slightly different meaning to the one they do today. Photographs taken during the Perestroika period constituted a critical record, and the mere action of taking a photograph was a gesture of resistance. Damaged negatives, as well as brutal interventions into the Soviet and post-Soviet iconography (so typical of the Kharkiv School) were a way of exorcizing reality, of destroying the rules that governed that world or that governed the "visual neutralisation of experience"9. A way of creating breaks and pauses within reality, within the flow of time10, in order to – it must be a paradox – reclaim and liberate that world and that time. This subversive dimension of activities conducted within the Kharkiv milieu can be clearly seen in the use that Mikhailov, Pavlov, Pyatkovka (and others) make of nudity and of the body as such – it is an act of resistance, of rebellion11 (which could lead to serious consequences), a political gesture which not only unravels the deception of Soviet propaganda but later, in the 90s, also the ideal fundaments of wild capitalism, which was only just emerging. A similar meaning can be attributed to the trashy aesthetics which not only countered the visual character of the late USSR, but which also constituted its complement, if not a necessary consequence. As Tatiana Pavlova notes, “long before trash discourse became a fashionable trend, Kharkiv photographers explored the Soviet regime with its repressed visuality – poverty, ingrained into the world of things and penury of space”12. But in Yevgeniy Pavlov's book, trashiness is poorly visible, and even partially neutralised, temporal distance dilutes such a mission of photography, it deforms its critical message and displaces the problem onto completely different areas – the areas where the transformation of "turning dust into silver, and silver into the dust of time"13 becomes possible.

дом быта is first and foremost a story about the everyday life of the photographer and his family in the reality of the late USSR, and later, in that of the newly founded Ukraine. It is a story of the shared life of people and things in the Soviet and post-Soviet landscape. The sociological character of the photos may be significant in its dimension of testimony, “this is how we lived” (or: “how they lived”), but it is pushed to the background, while what comes to the fore is what can be called the existential dimension – so characteristic of works created within the Kharkiv milieu. The problem is already signalled in the equivocal title: дом быта is "The House of Being" or "place of residency", but it is also somehow the day-care centre – a place of isolation that the whole of the Soviet Union would metaphorically turn into (and later also the entire post-Soviet space). Simultaneously, it is also worth remembering that there is a reverse side to this image – the topos of the house as the motherland, so important within this cultural area. One can also find the echoes of philosophical references in the дом быта which direct us towards Heideggerian categories of “being” and “dwelling”14 – this clue becomes all the more intriguing when we realise how important of a theme time is within Pavlov's book, next to that of being. (In this context it is worth mentioning that in Boris Mikhailov's Unfinished Dissertation, probably the most famous photographic project of the Kharkiv milieu, Heidegger remains a significant reference, and he is also quoted next to Wittgenstein in the text accompanying the photos). Photography would then certainly become a way of tracing the marks of this “dwelling,” and in a way, a celebration of the world's visibility as such: in the photos from Home Life Book we see the things that make up the most trivial and fundamental parts of our experience, the set design of our everyday activities – the space of a patio, an apartment, a bedroom. A kitchen. Dead fish, a naked body, flowers, kitchen utensils, a bed, the flash of light upon the window glass… It is hard to resist the temptation of reading these photographs in a way that makes us ascribe a certain fundamental character, that of being an “origin” and a source to the depicted objects, making them serve merely as an excuse for more fundamental questions about the “first” things. And yet…

Perhaps happily, Home Life Book is not just a photographic footnote to Being and Time. When one flips through its pages attentively, it is hard to avoid the impression that sociological and existential interpretations only uncover one of the signifying fields of the artistic endeavour. Pavlov's work is fascinating, because it intertwines autobiography with meta-thought on photography itself in a way that is extraordinary. Because, what remains crucial for the дом быта and what is inscribed within the double logic that governs the book, is the figure of the “photographer's wife.” The author of texts accompanying the photos is not Yevgeniy, but Tatiana – it isn't the photographer, but his wife, the second person from Selfie with my Wife. While the subjective, associative composition of photos seems to evoke memory's ways of working – with its whims, gaps and repetitions – in spite of being irregular, Tatiana Pavlova's commentaries give the book a structure, an order which becomes a barrier and something to lean against in the face of the passing flow of time (and images). It is an arrest, a pausing always executed from the position of a temporal and critical distance, from the position of a historian and critic who shows these photographs their place within the history of photography, and within critical order. Finally – and this is perhaps especially interesting – she does so from the position of a woman, the artist's wife, who is simultaneously inside the project (Tatiana Pavlova is surely the most important among Yevgeniy Pavlov's models, a part of his life, and an element of many of his photographs), and outside of it, in a place where images become part of a discourse, where they gain weight. This weight, much like a stone laid upon a wind-torn sheet of paper, pins them down to “the base.” This moment can also be compared to the gesture of pointing with the finger, a gesture which, by dressing the photographs with a commentary, somehow saves them from the flow of images and from the incontrollable flow of time. And it saves them from history, as well. “The photographer's wife” is thus a distancing figure, a medium for alienating these very personal photographs from a “personal history” for the sake of a history which can be “ours.” A history which transforms the “I” into the “we,” and which transforms affect into a temporally distanced narrative. It places the subjective series of photos within a network of references created by the model and the companion, but also by someone who operates with a somewhat different set of linguistic references, rather than visual ones. “The photographer's wife” would thus take on an in-between position, she would belong to the “transitory” phase of history15: lost somewhere between the personal and the historic, the affective and the narrative…

What is interesting is that on two occasions, Pavlov created art projects together with another artist, Vladimir Shaposhnikov, and they later signed the works together. When discussing the work, they would employ the metaphor of “the third author,” which is “the place where we find ourselves beyond mutual boundaries.”16 But in дом быта, it isn't a question of co-creating but rather a complex juxtaposition of two orders – the visual and the textual order, the affective and the critical one, the masculine and the feminine, and finally the order linked to the “I” and the order of the “we” – these orders constantly intertwine and diverge. Two seemingly incompatible languages, the affective (or expressive) one and the critical one loop within the Home Life Book – but, is it ever possible to definitely separate them? Or, is the story of life and images – of life among images and with images – rather a work based on levelling these orders, of becoming aware that their complete delimitation is impossible? In his book devoted to Camera Lucida, Jean Narboni underscores that Barthes “always confesses of a discomfort whenever he is forced to separate two languages: one that would be critical and the other that would be expressive.”17 This discomfort appears when we turn towards the past, trying to understand the bonds between History (“with a capital H”) and “our history.” When we start to speak about what once was, and discover that, as Deleuze put it, emotions do not speak the “I.”18 The extraordinary character of дом быта resides in the fact that it is situated in the very middle of these cuts and tensions that are difficult to reconcile, somewhere between the “I” and the “we,” between emotion and distance, between History and trying to escape it. Within an empty space that separates two frames of a film.


“Photography is a letter, a telegram which suddenly falls between two histories, into the dead moment of movement or a story, a description,”19 wrote Régis Durand. This dead moment – a pause in movement, in the narrative, in the flow of time – is also an instant (or a place) in which the complex relation between photography and film, two intimately close and yet foreign relatives, becomes inscribed in sharpest of ways. This similarity is deformed into difference (and the other way around), two different languages whose essence resides in being in a relation – like Barthes depicted it in Camera Lucida, when he declared that he likes photography in opposition to cinema, adding that he nonetheless fails to separate them20. To like photography in opposition to cinema… But photography – any photography – is a “photogram of ‘some other film’”21: it redirects us somewhere further, towards the promise of movement, towards something that transgresses the limits of the frame, and which is thus always “somewhere further, somewhere else.”

Alexander Balagura's Life Span of the Object in Frame(A Film About the Film not yet Shot)22 from 2012 (the co-author is also Svetlana Zinovyeva), a film about a yet unmade film, is a work which not only uses some of Pavlov's photographs, casting them – telegrams suddenly falling into the dead moment of the story – in the very centre of the film's narrative (and telling us what we see on them). It also constitutes an attempt at a cinematic response to some of the questions sketched out in дом быта. This multi-plot, multi-layered image is a nostalgic story about experiencing life in Ukraine of the Perestroika period and the time of political transformation, but also about life in completely contemporary times. It is a film which speaks about the impossibility of telling the story of this experience (in a linear way), about searching for a home (a poetic and a symbolic home), about homelessness, about memory and photography, and finally, about the relations between memory, history and myth. First and foremost, it is a collective autobiography, an autobiography that says “we,” and not “I.”

Life Span of the Object in Frame (A Film About the Film not yet Shot) - still from the film

The framework of the events depicted there, from the early 80s through to today, takes on an eschatological perspective of the end: it is a time “after the end of the world” described by Dante in the Divine Comedy. The world “after the end” is depicted here as a labyrinth of images and memories, a knotting of different times and spaces that is impossible to untangle. Here, the looping of history, memory and photography which is such an important motif for Barthes, Resnais, Marker and Godard, is transferred onto yet another level: within the rhizome time and space of the cinema, we become witnesses of a symbolic staging, made up from the photos of a labyrinth (“What is it? It's a film. And this? It's a pavilion. They are building a labyrinth inside, made with photographs”). These photographs, which initially make up a dead set design, come to life in a way, and become animated as a part of the story, becoming frames within a film. Meanwhile, we lose our orientation.

Life Span of the Object in Frame (A Film About the Film not yet Shot) - still from the film

This labyrinth functions on a couple of levels, and the most important one seems to relate to homelessness. It is a metaphor for the state that the figures of the film find themselves in, and it also depicts the state of the presented space. It describes the journey among the images, places and memories. The journey which is a search for the Soviet and post-Soviet “lost time,” an attempt at speaking about a world which is irrevocably changing, and which leaves us “homeless.” “All photographs of the world make up a labyrinth, at its centre, the ‘man of the labyrinth’ finds the unique photograph – that of the mother, of his Ariadne,”23 Jean Narboni wrote in the context of Camera Lucida. He looked at the labyrinth structure of Barthes' book and the photograph of the Mother as that which is simultaneously a point of destination, a picture that loops the story and condemns the narrator to further wanderings, and a picture that “liberates” and allows one to find a way to exit. In Life Span of the Object in Frame(A Film About the Film not yet Shot) the story also keeps on returning a couple of times to the photograph of a homeless girl, sleeping under a bench in a marketplace – a photograph by Alexander Chekmenov. The paths of the labyrinth spring from this image and converge upon it. (“We would like to begin the film, or rather our attempt at thinking it up, from this shot”): the homelessness of the girl is also a metaphor (“A strange photo. A human being asleep in the middle of the marketplace, as if it was the centre of the universe. A metaphor”), and a very concrete human experience. This dialectic, wherein empathy is intertwined with distance, becomes the central image of the collective autobiography that Balagura's film constitutes. This tension also contains the meaning of the labyrinth as such, which is both a “home made with photos” that gives shelter, and a trap that destroys all memories (and thus renders any autobiography impossible). Two images, that of the photographic labyrinth under construction and the labyrinth on fire, coexist and indicate two levels that are not contradictory, and on which this narrative functions. The images of homelessness become homeless images – images that find their own place (their “home”) within the order of a “film not yet shot,” and thus within “the empty space between two frames of a film.”

Life Span of the Object in Frame (A Film About the Film not yet Shot) - still from the film

In a way that is impossible to unknot, the autobiography thus touches upon the strange relation which binds photography and film together from the outset. We can read Balagura's use of Eadweard Muybridge's repetitive sequences of movement in this context, images capturing the moment when photography comes to life, moves, and which mark the birth of the cinema, as they are reiterated in the film like a chorus line. Muybridge’s “seismography of time” simultaneously becomes an attempt at grasping the Soviet and post-Soviet “lost time,” an archaeology of that era and memory, and a way of pointing to that evasive moment wherein photography becomes cinema. It is evasive, like any attempt at grasping a moment of transition in history and a transformation between two of its stages, described by Hayden White. So, perhaps Life Span of the Object in Frame… adds something very important to that photographic and literary tale by incorporating Pavlov's photographs from the Home Life Book. Much like in the case of Jacques Derrida and Safaa Fathy, where the transition from Fathy's documentary film D'ailleurs, Derrida to a book they co-authored – the transition from shooting a film to “shooting” words – makes the two projects melt into something monikered autobiocinématographies24. Here, in the strange tension between the Pavlovs' project and Balagura's film, an "auto(photo)(cinemato)biography" is born.

Yevgeniy Pavlov, self-portrait (Home Life Book)


I cannot stop thinking about these photos outside of the context of conflict, of war which freezes time, and once again immobilises these photos without allowing the story woven therein to unfold. The conflict which, once again, raises the central issue of homelessness – including the homelessness of images. A "Home made with photography" would once again become a form of shelter – the ultimate, albeit such an unstable kind.

I am looking at these two photos: Selfie with my Wife, and another one which closes off the Home Life Book – Pavlov's self-portrait. In contrast with Selfie… Tatiana is not on it. It is precisely lack that sets this single photograph from the Total Photography series apart from the one which is part of the book, from that two-handed story. The "photographer's wife" is missing. Someone has to disappear for images to be set in movement, for this “auto(photo)(cinemato)biography” of “all of us”, of “all of them” to be told. The people from Kharkiv.


1 Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time. The Last of the Soviets, trans. B. Schayevich (New York: Random House, 2016), ebook edition, 30.

2 Roland Barthes, Entretien avec Guy Mandery, „Le Photographe”, December 1979.

3 Press materials related to the film.

4 “Totality” remains a significant key-word describing not only the photographic practice of members of the Kharkiv School, but also a certain vision of photography as something that transgresses the limits of a medium, as the space of total expression. Helen Petrovsky also wrote about the “totality” of Boris Mikhailov's work Materia i pamięć w fotografii (Matter and memory in photography), in: Archiwum jako projekt (The Archive as a Project) ed. Krzysztof Pijarski (Warsaw: Fundacja Archeologii Fotografii, 2011), 106-113.

5 The particularity of the Kharkiv School as well as its historic and contemporary reincarnations have been described by Tatiana Pavlova numerous times: http://www.vasa-project.com/gallery/ukraine-1/tatiana-essay.php, accessed November 27, 2016; http://www.vasa-project.com/gallery/ukraine-3-2/tatina-essay.php, accessed November 27, 2016; http://www.vasa-project.com/gallery/ukraine-2/tatiana-2-essay.php, accessed November 27, 2016. In this context, one should also evoke her text about the Kharkiv-based Shilo group published in Widok magazine 2014, no 7: http://pismowidok.org/index.php/one/article/view/236/422. In his essay entitled Kharkiv, City of Vagabonds and Poets and published in ”Politico”, Peter Pomerantsev writes about Kharkiv as an important cultural center first of the USSR, and then as a center within Ukraine which had an impact on the entire post-Soviet cultural space: http://www.politico.eu/article/print-kharkiv-city-of-vagabonds-and-poets-ukraine-russian-border-conflict-revolution/, accessed November 27, 2016.

6 Marc Augé, Temps en ruines (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2003), 50.

7 Hayden White, “Postmodernism and Textual Anxietes”, in: The Postmodern Challenge: Perspectives East and West, eds. N. Witoszek, B. Strath (London: Sage Publications, 1999), 28.

8 Nicolas Bourriaud, Notes sur Boris Mikhailov, in David Teboul, J'ai déjà été ici un jour: entretiens avec Boris Mikhailov (Dijon: Presses du réel, 2011), 11.

9 Tatiana Pavlova, Diary of a Photographer’s Wife, in Yevgeniy Pavlov, Home Life Book (Kharkiv: Grafprom, 2013), 3.

10 W.G. Sebald spoke about the role of photography as an interruption, and as holes within the flow of time and narrative in his conversation with Eleonor Wachtel: “Ghost Hunter” in L.S. Schwartz ed., The Emergence of Memory; Conversations with W.G. Sebald (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 37–62.

11 Compare with the Act of Defiance; the Body as Protest in Kharkiv Photography 1970-2010 exhibition at the Lumière Brothers Centre for Photography, Moscow 2013. In this context, it is important to remember that in the USSR of the 70s and 80s, pornography was a crime and was thus subject to punishment. Tatiana Pavlova draws our attention to the fact that the category was vague enough for any nude or "artistic" photograph that used fragments of a naked body could be judged as pornographic. See Tatiana Pavlova's postface to Yevgeniy Pavlov's Total Photography catalogue (Kiev: ArtHuss UPHA, 2016) [no pagination].

12 Yevgeniy Pavlov, Home Life Book, 47.

13 Ibidem, 3.

14 “Dwelling, however, is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist,” Martin Heidegger, Building, Dwelling, Thinking, in idem Basic Writings, ed. David Farell Krell (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), 362.

15 Paweł Mościcki drew my attention to the latter thought, for which I thank him.

16 From Tatiana Pavlova's postface to Yevgeniy Pavlov's Total Photography.

17 Jean Narboni, La nuit sera noire et blanche. Barthes, La chambre claire, le cinema (Nantes – Paris: Capricci – Les Prairies ordinaires, 2015), 61.

18 Gilles Deleuze, La peinture enflamme l’écriture in idem, Deux régimes de fous (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 2003), 172. See Georges Didi-Huberman, Peuples en larmes, peuples en armes (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 2016).

19 Régis Durand, Le regard pensif: Lieux et objets de la photographie (Paris: La Différence, 2002), 24-25.

20 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 7.

21 Durand, 26.

22 Produced by: Svetlana Zinovyeva, Inspiration Films Company / Ukraine, Jolly Roger Filmmaking / Italy.

23 Narboni, 67. The following fragment in Barthes' is as follows: “All the world's photographs formed a Labyrinth. I knew that at the center of this Labyrinth I would find nothing but this sole picture, fulfilling Nietzsche's prophecy: ‘A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne.’ The Winter Garden Photograph was my Ariadne, … because it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward Photography.” (Barthes, 73).

24 Jacques Derrida, Safaa Fathy, Tourner les mots. Au bord d’un film (Paris: Éditions Galilée/Arte Éditions, 2000).