A Look At Latvia's Suiti People Through Marta Berens' Lens

Polish photographer Marta Berens’ stark, dreamy images capture the natural world and those who inhabit it, exploring personal and societal histories from her own daughter to niche cultural groups. Since 2014, Berens has been documenting the Suiti people, a small Catholic community in the largely Protestant region of western Latvia. She speaks to us about her current project, her love for all things Moomin, and the “Polish Photo Mafia” that is taking the photography world by storm.

What’s your story?

I was born and raised in Warsaw during the fairly interesting time of martial law. From a young age, I was preoccupied with the need to remember, to freeze the moments that were important to me. Going through my grandmother’s photo albums was always a magical experience and I took every opportunity to do it. I thought of photography as the perfect medium for keeping memories. I couldn’t say the exact moment when this need first arose; it seems to me that it was always present. I started to take more photos when my daughter Tosia was born. For Tosia’s first nine months, I found myself documenting every single day of her life. Very few pictures of my parents’ childhood remain—perhaps that’s where my insatiable need to document came from?

What do you care about the most when taking photographs?

Photography is a ritual for me in a way. My approach to taking pictures has always been very intuitive. The pure, honest, almost childlike joy that comes with this act of creating pictures is the thing I care about the most when photographing.

Tell us about the Suiti series.

Suiti came to be during a photography workshop in Latvia conducted by Simon Norfolk. The theme of the workshop was ‚photographing the past’. Our task was to find an interesting topic that related to the Kurzeme region’s history. At first my research revolved around the topic of choirs and traditional Latvian chants – dains. This lead me to Suiti, for whom singing is a significant part of their identity.

The history of the Suiti people goes back almost 400 years to a romantic story from 1623 when the ruler of the Alsunga region (Kurzeme, Latvia), Johan Ulrich von Schwerin, in order to marry a Polish court lady Barbara Konarska, agreed to re-convert to the Catholic faith. To distinguish residents of Alsunga from Protestants Johan ordered them to wear specific costumes. These have become an important element of identity for the Suiti. Nowadays, protecting their identity, brought by their ancestors through centuries is still important and makes this religious minority very special. Visiting Alsunga is a trip to a place where time passes slowly, people have a strong relation with nature and a romantic story from the past is still present. Suiti Cultural Space is a unique example of European intangible cultural heritage, which since 2009 has been inscribed on UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The Suiti people are very proud of their distinct identity and character.

How would you describe the current photography landscape in Poland?

I think the photographic scene in Poland is quite strong, especially when it comes to documentary photography. An amusing reflection of this occurred at the 2015 Format Festival in Derby, UK. Due to the size and activity of Poles present at the exhibitions, we were dubbed the Polish Photo Mafia. There are a lot of Polish photographers who have a lot to say, and there are a lot of styles and approaches to depicting reality, all at a very high level. I don’t think I can define precisely the trends in Polish photography, I do however think that they all have a common denominator: a strong personal filter.

Tell us your favorite book (and it doesn’t have to be about photography!)

Moomin – or anything written by Tove Jansson that concerns a family of trolls whom, as described by one of the protagonists, suffer from the lack of contact with reality. It’s a book for children but one can clearly sense it has a second, therapeutic layer, which the author uses to cope with loneliness her deepest fears. One of my favourite fragments is a conversation between Moomintroll and Snufkin:

“Loneliness gets boring quickly.”

“You’d be surprised how many enjoy it.”

When it comes to photography books, I cannot recall anything that moved me recently as much as Phil Toledano’s‚ When I Was Six. The book tells a story of his sister who died aged nine when Phil was six. I went to a meet the author session during the Format festival in Derby, UK. I don’t know what happened, but I broke down in tears and I couldn’t stop crying. It’s a tender, moving, empathetic and powerful book. Chapeau bas.

Is there a city, country or place that inspires you every time you’re there?

That’s quite a difficult question and I don’t know if I have a definite answer. I have traveled a lot since my early childhood. I think just setting of for a journey can be a catalyst and an inspiration. The destination isn’t all that important, but the process that occurs while traveling is. The mind gets rewired, becomes sensitive to different stimuli than usual. The blinkers fall off. All in all a place that has been the most significant in my journey through photography is a little village at the proverbial end of the world. Located between the Knyszyn and Białowieża forests, just by the Belarusian border. It’s almost empty, with no shops and a cobble stone road. My neighbor is an orthodox anchorite. This is where my Fairy Tale takes place.

What’s the single most valuable piece of advice you ever got?

I’m not able to determine if it’s something that I heard or defined myself basing on my experiences. One thing’s for sure: If a story doesn’t concern me personally in some way, nothing valuable will become of it. Form on its own is not enough. Everything needs to go through ones own personal filter.

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