We bring you our annual tribute to the most remarkable photo book releases from Eastern Europe, looking afresh at manmade triumphs, migration, and the first years independence in the South Caucasus.
Five years after the outbreak of war, fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists still continues in eastern Ukraine. Some days in Marinka, one of the industrial cities located in the war-torn Donetsk region, seem last forever. These are the recollection of Jan Jurczak, the Polish photographer behind this newspaper-style zine, who travelled to the conflict zone as a medical volunteer. During his time as a paramedic, Jurczak had asked for permission to bring his camera and photograph his experience.
The threat of boredom is not something you’d associate with war; rarely do beauty salons, pageants, and Christmas trees come into iconic images of conflict photography. But Jurczak wanted to show what life was really like for those who have no other option but to wait for the war to end. Moments of banality and humour run through the publication — in this case it is a tribute to the local population who must maintain high spirits as a means of survival. All the proceeds from Life Goes On go towards the residents of Donetsk, helping families made homeless by the ongoing war.
“We had nothing to do. Nobody cared about art back then. And there was nothing to eat or drink, nor was their any warmth,” so writes Guram Tsibakhashvili about 90s Georgia in the intro for Wintering Over. The tome gathers photos taken by the prominent Georgian artist between 1987-1995: a period which saw the country gain independence before being shaken by civil war, seperatist conflicts (in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), overt corruption, and excessive poverty.
Tsibakhashvili began taking photos in the 1980s. In the beginning he learned from books, before joining Tbilisi’s Tvalsazrisi photo club. Photographing the Georgian capital (which he fondly called “a dirty, but precious city”), Tsibakhashvili occasionally drifted from documentary reportage to pursue conceptual series and art photography. His eye for the unexpected and the upbeat, even in the grimmest of circumstances, combined with appearances from famous musicians, artists, and actors, make this an eye-opening historical record of Georgia’s turbulent past.
This retrospective photo book also looks back at post-Soviet transition in the Caucasus, only this time in Armenia. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is a German photographer often grouped with the “Düsseldorf School” movement of the 1970s, (the same one that ushered in a craze for clean photos of monolithic industrial structures). But Schulz-Dornburg’s influence goes much further: if you’re a fan of Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops, you might want to have a look at Schulz-Dornburg’s photos from 1997 to see what these concrete shelters look like in use (the passengers’ striking outfits alone are worth a gander).
Her second book from MACK is devoted to her trips to Armenia in 1996 and 1997 and shows a whole abundance of precarious Soviet architecture that caught her attention. The publication was designed to look like the dusty Armenian exercise book Schulz-Dornburg brought with her during the trip, and includes annotations from her travels.
There are also traces of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg in Ryan Koopmans’ architectural photographs from the Caucasus. Where Schulz-Dornburg is drawn to laconic forms, Koopmans’ Vantage is bursting with dizzying shots of the 21st century’s sprawling megacities. This debut monograph is the culmination of ten years’ work and is a compelling index of the today’s architectural triumphs.
Alongside impressive, glimmering skyscrapers such as New York’s Jenga building and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, Vantage features spaces across the post-Soviet world — from Stalin’s forgotten spa town in Georgia to Kyiv’s Maidan Square — that have endured truly turbulent histories. Whether you find beauty in geometric order or chaos, Koopman’s painstaking execution will have you wondering at the scale of our modern world and our place in it.
In Belief is Power is Hristina Tasheva’s personal exploration of the immigration debate that continues to divide Europe. Tasheva is Bulgarian photographer living and working in the Netherlands, and her experience as an Eastern European migrant gave her the drive to pursue this topic. But instead of focusing on the Netherlands, Tasheva decided to confront the fear of foreigners in her native Bulgaria. The book centres on communities living on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey in order to show what is happening in Europe more broadly.
Migration is a complicated topic to tackle visually — not only because so much of the discourse is driven by emotion, but because photography plays its part in fuelling fear and decimating nationalist sentiment. That said, as a migrant herself, Tasheva has previously said that she finds photography empowering.
“It became a research tool for me to look at and observe my situation and environment,” she previously told Tique Art Paper. Alongside archive and documentary photography (both touching on religious themes), for this book she also included handwritten texts and drawings.
There is something quintessentially British about braving blustery winds and icy cold seawater to spend the day eating ice cream at the beach. These are the moments that have made the careers of iconic British photographers such as Martin Parr, Iain McKell, Raymond C Lawson.
Similarly, “breezy” is the word that comes to mind when you look at Czech-born photographer Marketa Luskacová’s photographs of the British seaside. After emigrating to Britain in 1975, she made frequent trips to north-east England to photograph its beaches between 1976 and 1980. The long-forgotten body of work was as much a passion project as it is a social history of working class families in the last quarter of the 20th century. The book was published to accompany Luskacová’s retrospective at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol earlier this year and is a joyous look into the past, when England’s coastline towns were less about politics and more about pleasure.
The sea lies in the background of Cruise — not just a physical landscape, but also as a metaphorical liminal space. The latest photo book from Ieva Raudsepa draws its inspiration from the photographer’s school memories of taking the overnight Riga-Stockholm ferry with friends. Even today, you’ll find karaoke, dance performances, arcades, and a disco hall onboard the boats, all at bargain prices. For young Latvians, this “party” ferry and the brief escape it offers has become a right of passage.
Juxtaposing photos of partying teens and frothing waves, the book reverberates with a frantic energy, mimicking the heady effect of cheap champagne and the sea. Raudsepa first had the idea for the project in 2014. Looking at this book in 2019, with the UK’s looming exit from European Union, you cannot help but think of the young people caught adrift in a divided Europe.
There are countless books, movies, and art works devoted to breakups. But how many of these are about the split between a person and their home? Polish photographer Karolina Gembara first moved to Delhi in 2005, when the Polish Embassy offered her an internship. After switching careers to pursue photography, she continued living in the Indian capital, until one day a sudden shift left her feeling bereft and disconnected from the city that had become her home.
She turned her broken heart into a photo series, which took seven years to complete. When we lie down, grasses grow from us is not exactly about Delhi: it’s about the emotional toll of outgrowing your surrounding or not catching up with their pace. According to the photographer, who is now teaching her camera skills to migrants and refugees in Warsaw, these feelings can surface in “everyday life, in every city, wherever we migrate, whenever we try to build comfort around us”. Conjuring a sense of quiet curiosity, this book cuts through the noise of immigration debate by inviting us to look within ourselves to explore the topic.