The human face is the best record of time. As a native Estonian, I explore Estonian faces with the aim to illustrate my little Eastern European nation. Estonia’s existence hasn’t always been a given—only 20 years have passed since the Soviet Army left the country. In that time, Estonians have searched for a new personal and national identity.

During the ongoing visual study of my compatriots, I photographed different people that I met on the street—in supermarkets, sushi bars, museums, monasteries, villages, etc.—against a grey backdrop. The grey backdrop is as important as the people in the images. It is a symbol, a metaphor of the past.

The backdrop turns the notion of a traditional ethnological portrait upside down because I separated the models from their everyday environments. Without the cozy elements of a home or a home town, and separate from supporting details and their usual stronghold, the models enter a new psychological space where private feelings are silently made public.

In that silence, personal stories emerge. Thus, the photograph becomes an ode to individual existence in the context of nationality.

Through these portraits of known and unknown Estonians, I aim to treasure the psychological state of one post-Soviet country in the 21st century.

The project is ongoing.

—Birgit Püve


Editor’s Note: The exhibition “Estonian Documents” will open on November 22nd from 6:30 - 8:30 at the 12 Star Gallery, Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London. It will run until December 2nd. The gallery is open Monday to Friday 10 am - 6 pm.

In conjunction with the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017 (accepting submissions until December 20), we are highlighting our previous winners’ and finalists’ brilliant work. Püve’s project ”By the Lake” was selected as a finalist during the 2014 LensCulture Exposure Awards.