Moldova is the focus of a new exhibition at Fotografiska (Stockholm), which presents the work of Swedish award-winning photo-journalist Åsa Sjöström (b.1976). Its title, Silent Land, is taken from her experiences of visiting in 2005 and again in 2014. In the intervening period, she noticed, an eerie quiet had fallen over the streets. A third of the population had moved abroad, which she describes as a “demographic disaster.” As her work shows, this has irrevocably changed the country. She found buildings left unfinished and families struggling to survive in an atmosphere that seemed “like time had been reversed.” The broader geo-political and economic context is a tale of a burgeoning democracy experiencing – amongst other issues – serious fraud and bankruptcy. As an article in The Guardian notes: “Law enforcement officers in Moldova and Latvia have tracked down at least $20bn in dirty money.” (Luke Harding, The Global Laundromat: how did it work and who benefited? March 2017)
The photographs on show, however, operate on a closer and more personal scale. They offer a view into the lives of the Gradinari family, who Sjöström became close to, visiting them repeatedly. Reliant on the land, this family of nine children made a permanent impact on her perceptions of the country. Although she had already noted its vulnerability, they offered her an insight not only into “existential struggle,” but also “their warmth and their love.” She was struck by the strength and resilience they displayed, and her resulting output echoes this. Children and young adults facing enormous difficulties are shown openly and honestly, with their aspirations given equal prominence to their struggles.
Natasa Gradinari, 19, was told by doctors she could never work again after a childhood accident, for example, but she nonetheless hopes to move to Italy to find employment. The personal element is absolutely key. “We share the same dreams, the same hopes for the future,” Sjöström says, “it’s just the conditions that separate us. I see myself in the people I photograph and often wonder what my life would have been like if I had lived there.” This affecting collection offers a powerful insight into the micro – but no less significant for it – effects of global change.
Silent Land is at Fotografiska until 4 February. Find out more here.
1. From Åsa Sjöström’s Silent Land. Courtesy of Fotografiska.