The history of the Suiti people goes back almost 400 years: it begins with a romantic story from 1623, when the ruler of the Alsunga region, Johan Ulrich von Schwerin, made a fateful decision. In order to marry a Polish court lady—Barbara Konarska—he agreed to re-convert to the Catholic faith.
To distinguish residents of Alsunga from the dominant Protestants, Johan ordered these newly minted Catholics to wear specific costumes. Eventually, these became a key element of identity for the Suiti people.
Nowadays, the Suiti remain very proud of the distinct identity and character passed down by their ancestors. Their beliefs and traditions are incredibly unique.
Visiting Alsunga is a trip to a place where time passes slowly; people have a strong relationship with nature, and a deeply romantic story from the past is still very present.
Since 2009, the Suiti cultural space has been a part of the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. This religious minority is special and worth protecting.
While there are many, many great pictures, few photographers really “get” authorship—that is to say, building an overall body of work and its potential visual literacy. Everybody has technique down and a “look.” Separating the super graphic from the substantial, however, remains a curator’s work…That is why Marta Berens excels. She is an author first. Her topic of the Suiti is made important by the WAY in which she tells the story. The method of storytelling is always as important as the story itself. Whomever tells a story with flare and style and visual literacy is the one we “read.” Berens has no fear: she is willing to go to the edge. Her work is content-oriented enough to be viewed as substantial, but it doesn’t over-explain and it isn’t crushingly didactic. Berens achieves a very nice balance in her photography.
—David Alan Harvey, Magnum Photographer, Founder of Burn Magazine
New York, USA
Even at first glance, Berens’ work is different: uniquely strange and poetic. Her work was also named a winner in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards in 2014, so we decided it was time to sit down and learn more about the roots of her singular vision.
LC: What are your reasons for pursuing photography? What are your goals?
MB: Photography is not my first profession: it is my passion and a kind of escape. I use it to catch a breath, to slow down and gain some distance. It acts as therapy for my personal experiences.
I don’t do reportages; I don’t grab a camera to cover a distant conflict. Instead, I look for things on the border of fiction and reality that could vanish without anyone caring. The Sami and the Suiti people are connected to the old things, the slow way of living, traditions and nature. They root themselves in the past. In my photographs, I try to grab those things and bring them to our attention so they won’t be forgotten.
LC: How do you define your photography? Is it art or documentary?
MB: I took my first steps in this field as a documentary photographer. I was attending documentary workshops held by Sputnik Photos. In my opinion—maybe this will sound controversial—my projects are firmly in the realm of documentary photography.
LC: Your photographs are different; even though they are about other people, they still feel personal. Many photographers aim to produce unconventional work. Do you?
MB: I’m not looking for a way to stand out by doing something “strange.” The style or the literacy of my work is not composed—it is my natural style. As a result, it is personal.
LC: How did you discover the Suiti people?
MB: I attended Simon Norfolk’s workshop “Photographing the Past” at the International Summer School Of Photography in Latvia. We were supposed to find a story to pursue that involved Latvia, and most of my group decided to work on the theme of the Holocaust and how it affected the country.
But I wanted to do something different: I decided to pursue a story about the old and rich tradition of Latvian choir singing. I learned about a Suiti women’s choir and started to get more and more interested in the Suiti as a social group. This subject came with a beautiful story: 400 years ago, the ruler of the Alsunga region in Latvia agreed to re-convert to the Catholic faith in order to marry a Polish court lady. To distinguish the residents of Alsunga from the Protestants, he ordered them to wear specific costumes. This tradition, born from the love of two people, has become an important element of Suiti identity, even today.
LC: What are the Suiti like? Were they open to your project?
MB: Maybe I was lucky, but everyone that I met had a great sense of humor. Women seemed to carry leading roles in their small society; they acted as masters of ceremonies quite often. The women are very socially active and open. They meet to sing and sew. As a group of people, they are very special—modest yet simultaneously proud of their unique heritage.
LC: You also mentioned photographing the Sami, another fascinating and highly specific group…
MB: Yes, my work on the Sami is actually part of a bigger project. It all started when I found an old book called “The Northern People Tales,” filled with stories from the Inuits, the Sami, and other small cultures from the far North. As the Sami were the closest geographically (to me), they became the first part of this long-term project.
LC: Have you had any trouble photographing these far-flung people?
MB: With the Suiti, I experienced a domino effect: one person agreed and then started introducing me to other subjects, and from there it was easy.
With the Sami, however, it was very stressful. First, I went very far north in Norway, almost to the end of the world, without having a particular person to photograph beforehand. Additionally, some of the Sami preferred not to reveal their identity because of political issues from the past: the Sami people were oppressed in modern Norway and had to fight for their rights.
During the negotiation phase, there was one word that I was always hearing from the Sami—”Maybe.” “Can I take your picture?” “Maybe.” But maybe when? Maybe tomorrow? Maybe the day after tomorrow? They were distant and reserved. Now that I’ve already met a few of the Sami, maybe I’ll get luckier on my return journey and the domino effect will happen again.
LC: Norway is a country steeped in myths and legends. Did you encounter anything unusual on these trips to the north? At this point, do you believe in old magic (maybe just a little bit)?
MB: Although I’m a very rational person, I don’t think we understand everything. If you ask me whether or not I believe in magic, I’m more likely to answer “yes” than “no.”
Something attracts me to subjects that are beyond the realm of reality. In my ordinary life, I am a film producer and I work with very serious people, but when I leave my office and go north, my perspective totally changes.
There were many times when I felt like magic or something extraordinary was very close to me. During my work with the Sami, many things happened that were unlikely or hard to explain.
Even my very rational boyfriend said, “You must be a witch; I don’t see any other explanation.” If I lived 300 years ago, during the time when witches were hunted, I’m sure I would have been burned.
—Marta Berens, interviewed by Anna Akage
Anna Akage is freelance writer from Kiev, Ukraine. More of her work can be found on her writing portfolio website.
This project was singled out for distinction among the submissions to the Magnum Photography Awards 2016 by juror David Alan Harvey. Each juror selected one photographer—discover why Berens stood out.