Laura Pannack’s “Youth Without Age, Life Without Death: Chapter 1” is a photographic exploration of the fragility of life. This new body of work is concerned with themes of journeys, time and the endless cycle of life and death.

Set in the Romanian landscape and created over the past four years, the series is inspired by a local folktale about a young prince on a quest for eternal life. “Youth Without Age” sensitively responds to the strong role that folklore plays within Romanian culture.

In Pannack’s own words, “I needed to escape, to begin an adventure in my search for meaningful answers. The country’s hazy purple evening light and untouched land allowed me to gather my thoughts. I began to think about how I could visually explore the idea of life and death. That is when I stumbled across the classic folktale “Youth Without Age and Life Without Death.” I took my inspiration from that story.”

Using this tale to guide her, Pannack has created a body of work that is a poetic collision of reality and fantasy. Symbols and cues are playfully introduced and encourage the viewer to embark on their own journey. The series presents a combination of still life, landscapes and portraits shot on expired film.

“Youth Without Age, Life Without Death: Chapter 1” is the first chapter of a larger body of work that will explore other regions of the Balkans. Pannack plans to select a local folktale as inspiration for each site-specific series.

—Francesca Maffeo

Interview

LC: I remember reading a previous interview where you mentioned that you tend to work on stories about things you don’t understand. I found this concept fascinating—can you say more?

LP: Photography is a fun way for me to learn about the world around me. The subjects that catch my attention are always things I am questioning or fascinated by. I aim to visually respond with sensitive and respectful curiosity. It’s not just the subject matter I focus on, but also the psychology of image-making and the relationship between myself and what I capture. My photography allows me to explore below the surface of very broad concepts. Researching and listening to those I shoot allows me to learn why people feel and behave the way they do. I am constantly studying human behavior—it continues to fascinate me.

Human beings are wonderfully weird things.

LC: How do you create the very particular atmosphere in your photographs? Is it a conscious effort?

LP: It sounds cliché, but magic or mystery can’t be created or defined. I hope that the connection I have with what I am photographing translates to emotional potency in my images. When I shoot personal work, I wait until I engage with something intensely to press the shutter. If that moment doesn’t arise, I keep walking.

LC: “Youth Without Age, Life Without Death: Chapter 1” explores the concept of life and death. What brought you to this theme?

LP: The project continues to evolve, but fundamentally it is a result of the fear I have that time is running out and that I am not present or brave enough. My memory is also terrible, so I fear I won’t recall events unless they are unique. I am drawn to danger and adventure, and I seem to have an insatiable desire to be entertained. I get bored very easily.

I needed the freedom to embark on a poetic journey; I wanted an idea that wasn’t anchored to literal subject matter. At the same time, I wanted to focus on a theme that everyone can relate to. In the Western world, it seems that time is speeding up: our obsession with being productive is infectious. I wanted to slow down and be in the present while giving myself the space to explore the theme of time.

I needed to stop trying to beat time and instead start respecting it.

Romania was quiet and refreshing, and not speaking the language created a frustrating distance—but this distance also encouraged me to try harder to engage with people. The tale gave me a narrative I could relate to, draw ideas from, and attempt to explain.

LC: The series is shot on expired film—an interesting choice. What drew you to this medium?

LP: The aim of the character’s journey in the tale is to discover eternal life and freeze time. I wanted the film to mirror the reality of the material world that continues to decay around us. I tried a few rolls of black and white from the year I was born—1985—but none of them came out. Instead, the film I used to shoot this series varies in age.

Using analogue is something that is important to my process: it allows me to slow down and consider my approach. In this case, I wanted it to echo the theme of time. I recall reading a piece about how analogue cassette tapes eventually turn to dust, and this resonated with my understanding of film as a delicate medium. Some of the images are very grainy or the leaks of light are visible on the film. I wanted to show the fragility of the medium and the significant impact that time has on it. The grain can appear brittle or aged, and the results are inconsistent from the variation in years. I didn’t want the process to define the work: I only wanted it to complement the spirit of the project and add some fun to the process.

LC: The project is part of an ongoing work that will be developed through chapters. Each chapter will be based on local Balkan folktales. Can you tell us a bit more about what’s next?

LP: Francesca [of Francesca Maffeo Gallery] approached me and proposed a solo show. I was flattered, and so I shared my work in progress with her. We both thought it could be exciting to exhibit this project for our first show together. She has worked hard to help me define what it is I am exploring. Her passion and support have brought clarity to the first chapter.

In regards to the future, I haven’t decided yet. I may expand it further than the Balkans, but folklore is a key aspect of tradition, and storytelling remains a huge part of the culture in the regions I am visiting. I am still speaking to people about new folktales and continuing my research with the help of locals and translators. For me, it is an inspiring and different way to approach new projects. All of the tales touch upon important themes—it is just a matter of deciding which stories speak to me most strongly.

—Laura Pannack, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia