In her intimate project, Babushka Svetlana and Me, Maria Quigley captures life inside the four walls of her grandmother’s small apartment in St Petersburg – the same apartment Quigley spent much time in as a young child, before she moved to England. The project, composed of portraits and candid shots, revolves around her grandmother (Babushka) and her mother (Svetlana), but is also a deeply personal exploration of Quigley’s own identity and legacy. Babushka Svetlana and Me is concerned with ideas such as postmemory and projection, as Quigley’s family have historically experienced much trauma at the hands of violent masculine forces, both on a national and personal level. It also expresses powerful bonds, resilience and character present in her female lineage, captured in a distinctively Russian and personal style, but in a way that is designed to translate and relate to women universally. The following questions traverse the themes, theories and future of the work, as Quigley divulges her thoughts on her deeply personal project.
What was the driving force compelling you to create Babushka, Svetlana and me?
Initially, it was a way to reconnect with my grandmother, my heritage and ultimately my Russian identity. As the project evolved I became aware I was using this process as a way to take control of my personal narrative.
As a teenager, I came to reject my Russian heritage. I felt that the story I was presented with from an early age was a lie. I felt betrayed so this project allowed me to ask difficult questions. Taking the role of the external and internal photographer allowed me a certain degree of separation and emotional access I didn’t have before.
Creating this work has allowed me to take ownership of the story and give it my visual narrative, one that shows strength in the faces of three women.
Please tell us more about the dichotomy between ‘bleakness and comfort’ in relation to this series. Those feelings really radiate from the pictures and also creates a sense of familiarity in the viewer as often in difficult family situations bleakness can feel comforting.
I agree that these images depict both a sense of bleakness in my grandmother’s isolation and in the relative poverty of her flat. It appears claustrophobic on one hand but on the other it’s a space I know so well and a place of early fond memories. So I believe it also celebrates the comfort of my grandmother’s embrace. In personality she is warm and bubbly and would not see herself as isolated. This is a chosen existence for her and I think she values practicality over things looking nice. If it functions, it’s fine. She does what she enjoys; sewing, cooking and watching crime dramas. She is not keen on doing things that she does not enjoy, such as dusting her apartment.
I do feel this is an emotional body of work. As a child this apartment was always a place of safety for me but now I have a sense of panic that this space is changing and may not be there much longer.
Right now I am really upset and concerned for her because she is in a situation where the covid pandemic is rife in her community. I feel a visceral urge to spend more time with her before it’s too late but I don’t know when that’s going to be feasible.
Please tell us more about ‘postmemory’ – why is it important to explore this concept?
Postmemory is a term derived for a memory we have not experienced directly but experience through our family. It’s most often used when referring to trauma.
Marianne Hirsch, professor of English and Women, Gender and Sexual Studies at Columbia University, coined this term to describe the impact of trauma’s afterlife. Hirsch writes about postmemory’s connection to the past as, “not mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation”. I was also struck by her ideas about how private memories of suffering are transmitted. Although she writes about her personal experience of being a child of Holocaust survivors, I feel this approach helps my understanding of my own family experience of some of the violence of Russian history.
Beyond this within the study of epigenetics, which is the study of how stress and environment can create changes in a DNA sequence, we learn the alterations caused by stress and trauma can be transferred down the generations. The changes in DNA have been found in the cellular makeup of the survivors’ offspring and their offspring as well. Psychologists Stanley Krippner and Deirdre Barrett define epigenetic as “a very specific sort of memory: one that is mediated not by the brain but rather at the level of the body”.
So I’m questioning what it means to transmit and inherit trauma. At the same time, the idea of the inheritability of trauma also forces us to think about the possible legacies our generation may imprint on generations to come. And whether personal work on yourself, regardless of what avenue this may be, helps a person biologically heal from trauma.
Please also go into a bit more detail on the idea of ‘how we create and project onto our own pasts’?
We create our past with the stories we’re told. What have I remembered, what I have fabricated, what memories have been influenced?
Until I was 13 I wasn’t aware that the father I grew up with wasn’t my real father. I was distressed to accidentally learn that my mother had to flee from a violent situation with my biological father. There’s no memory to access but I know as a baby I was a witness to the domestic violence my mother experienced. I am sure the darkness of this story has influenced my projection onto my past. From a photograph I’ve seen as an adult of my mothers flat she occupied with my biological father in Murmansk, I picture it in my mind as if it’s a memory. I feel fear and bleakness, all emanating from a photograph and a story.
The women represented in this series each own their own particular cluster of traumatic experiences and memories which have manifested at different levels of conscious and unconscious experience.
This project is interwoven with an exploration of my family history. As I continue to project and create a past for myself it leaves me questioning whether my memories will continue to evolve as I come to learn and understand more… Will the imagery I remember be what I picture now or will it be a projection of what I have created with this body of work? Where is the border between images and memory? These are some of the questions that continue to occupy me.
Decay is a recurring motif in the series -what were your intentions with this?
That’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about that before. I guess decay is often in the eye of the beholder.
The décor of my grandmother’s flat is of course old and run down but it’s also very familiar and comforting to me. I’m photographing a life and the passing of time; a space well-lived in which has seen generations pass through it. Practicality over perfection. The cabbage was eaten the next day!
Please tell us more about your mother’s role in the series. Clearly much of the project focussed on your grandmother and her life, but it would be interesting to know more about your mother, as it sounds as though she has experienced some real difficulty also.
In a way, we are three markers in a geographical timeline. My grandmother has never left Russia, my mother left halfway into her life and identifies as Russian, I was born in Russia to Russian parents and left Russia as a child but I don’t feel very Russian. I find the steps of migrating and the evolution of culture within a family bloodline interesting. As I mentioned earlier, I am looking at this project really as a reflection of myself and the story which made me. Therefore I need to look at my mother as well as my grandmother otherwise there would be a missing link.
My mother had the difficult experience of fleeing an abusive husband, she’s an artist and has played some role in the making of this body of work. She’s halfway between me and my grandmother and is both part of the story but on some level a supportive and creative voice in the project.
What were your grandmother and mother’s reactions to the project? Do they have similar feelings to you about the violence and masculinity they have endured on a personal and national level?
Why us? What’s interesting about us? Would you not like to photograph something more interesting? These were the reactions I received at the beginning.
Their attitude is: this happened, be happy you’re still alive so keep going. Typical Russian stoicism.
I think they have very different ways of processing their life experiences and feel less able to challenge the rights and wrongs of their personal histories.
They were proud to see my work published, and now understand much better what I was trying to do.
What emotions did you experience whilst shooting this project?
It was a journey of highs and lows. Melancholy, fear, anxiety, trepidation yet also comfort, joy and relief.
As I continue to think and write about the work I feel the connection between photography and emotion is very subtle and complex. The camera allows me to explore some difficult emotional places. While I was in the flat with my mother and grandmother, I persuaded my mother to show me a photo of my biological father. This was a deeply painful experience for me, but because at that point I was experiencing so much through my camera it helped me to deal with it. There were moments of laughter but also moments of deep sadness. Neither my mother nor grandmother are able to articulate emotions. The reasons for this are probably somewhere between trauma and culture.
Did you feel like you had explored your legacy to the depths you desired – or are there still layers of your personal history that you want to peel back? In a sense, has this project raised more questions than it has answered?
I fully agree that there are more questions than answers at this stage. It’s the beginning of a long road and this journey can only be partly photographic. On some level it is a personal confrontation with multiple layers of my history intertwined with my visual, creative response
Was it surreal to see the world go into lockdown shortly after you had experienced such similar conditions the winter before the pandemic?
It was ironic after documenting the isolation of my grandmother’s life, to find the whole world going into a similar isolation. It brought a whole new array of emotions, mainly of fear and anxiety as I worried about her safety.
Is the project finished or a work in progress? What are your plans for the future either with this project or another?
I see this as part of a series of essays exploring notions of family, home and gender. I am a young photographer and I do feel this is the first time I’ve made a body of work I’m proud of. This may be chapter one in the book I hope to make in the coming years.
The last point you mentioned in your artist’s statement was that there is ‘something universal about the bonds of love and history that connect generations of women around the world.’ This is such a positive and powerful message, how did you come to this conclusion from creating Babushka Svetlana and Me?
I did feel that through my depictions of three generations of my family, I was touching on something universal. I don’t feel our story is particularly unique, especially when it comes to suffering male violence. Unfortunately millions of women have had similar experiences. I guess the challenge for me is to translate something that’s very personal and very intimate to me into something that can represent the general experience of women around the world and be understood by everyone.
With the intention of exploring my Russian legacy, I made two trips to Russia, in September and December 2019. Working within the constraints of her small apartment I made portraits of my grandmother (Babushka), my mother (Svetlana) and myself, in various configurations and documented the daily routines and minutiae of my grandmother’s life – the furnishings, her food and pickles, her decor and the television screen that is her main connection to the outside world.
Since my grandfathers passing 10 years ago, her life has become increasingly isolated. My grandmother took care of me for the first four years of my life so for me the apartment is like a time capsule. When I go back I am treated like I’m still a child, it doesn’t feel like very much changes, though at times I have not returned for years. The routine and familiarity of life in this apartment can be both bleak and comforting and I set myself the challenge of building a visual narrative with photographs taken only within he confines of this small apartment.
The traumas of state violence, war and male gender violence weigh heavily on my family’s emotional legacy. My great-grandfather, a victim of Stalin’s purges, was executed in the 1930s. I was born in Russia, but came to Britain at the age of four, after my mother fled my abusive and violent father. My grandmother was born at the start of the Second World War, which brought starvation and many other privations. She suffered temporary blindness as a child, and has permanent partial deafness as a result of the war.
With this project I wanted to engage with my family history and investigate my grandmother’s life and the relationships between her, my mother and me. I felt that through exploring this one small confined space I could find something typically Russian but universally human. I am particularly interested in the idea of ‘postmemory’, and in understanding the ways family trauma may be passed down through the generations. I am also interested in how we create and project onto our own pasts.
My intention is to place female narratives, so often neglected, are at the centre of this project. I hope that this depiction of the lives of three ordinary women will represent something universal about the bonds of love and history that connect generations of women around the world.