Back in 2020, prompted by an open call by the charity organization Hundred Heroines, a group of different women across the world pondered the question: “What is a 21st century photograph? What does it look like?”
Seated in their respective homes, each of them submitted a personal and unique response. In this peculiar time of isolation, when the world had quite suddenly changed beyond recognition, these women found themselves in good—albeit online—company, their work brought together for a digital exhibition Struck by Light. From cyanotypes to polaroids, sun-contact printing and risographs (and much more in-between), the exhibition celebrated their shared experimental approach to photography, the work on view brimming with touch and physicality, luminous with different colors and shapes. En masse, the images seemed to act as a conceptual rebuttal to the restrictions of the pandemic; a communal love letter to the possibilities of photography, a caring embrace of its elemental components.
Two years later and this same group of artists—once strangers to one another and now a self-organized collective—have connected again in an act of support in response to a different crisis. Initiated by one of its members, Kateryna Snizhko, a Ukrainian artist based in Amsterdam, Svitlo is an exhibition organized to raise funds for those affected by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Since the outbreak of war in February, Snizhko has individually been busy seeking ways to help from abroad. For this exhibition, she reached out to find power in the collective and forge a statement of solidarity.
“I believe that being an artist also means to carry a certain responsibility and reflect on your cultural heritage and origin; a cultural code, as I call it,” Snizhko explains. “This time I could articulate it in both socially proactive and more conceptual ways. Svitlo allows us to engage with the audience and talk about the situation from the perspective of non-Ukrainian artists through our artistic unity and mutual support in this difficult time.”
In addition to her fellow artists, Snizhko was joined by curator Mira Matić. Though born in Rotterdam, Matić’s roots are in the Balkans—so the decision to work on this project was a personal one. The war broke out when she was just 15, and from one day to the next, Matić found herself no longer a Yugoslav, faced with the complex task of renegotiating her identity. “The sorrow of war reverberates for generations, and I have inherited it. And that’s how it now seems to happen in Ukraine,” she says. “When I received the invitation from Kateryna to participate in Svitlo, I didn’t have to think twice about it. If Kateryna and I can alleviate the suffering of innocent civilians a little, I’m happy to do it. My name probably translates to ‘peace’ for a reason!”
In the face of this crisis—one of immeasurable violence and rupture—the photographic processes and works that make up Svitlo take on a kind of alchemical, reparative quality. The Ukrainian word for ‘light,’ Svitlo encompasses the original interest that brought these artists together: the expansive potential of light as a medium. But it also represents, in Snizhko’s words, “a nod toward the artists’ collective hope and desire for peace within times of darkness and uncertainty.”
What this looks like is a communal grappling with the medium; a patchwork of intimate relationships with the light, time and materiality—experiments that privilege a hands-on approach that often bypasses the interface of the man-made camera all together. The much-discussed chasm between analog and digital seem unimportant in these experiments, shifting the focus instead towards the “semantic root” of photography to revisit its status in the 21st century.
What lies at the heart of these gestures? Vilem Flusser, who participating artist Megan Ringrose quotes in her artist statement, might provide a clue: “Freedom is playing against the camera.” In searching for different ways to tend to images, these works pose important questions about how various physical realities can be captured, processed and remembered.
Memory courses through the work of several of the artists. Daughter of partially sighted and blind parents and self-described “forager,” Nettie Edwards investigates light as an agent of memory in her fragile, plant-based prints. The impetus for the exhibition and its themes collide painfully in Snizhko’s own contribution, M.burried, which searches for the peace and quiet of her mother’s house in her archive—a place and feeling which no longer exists, bombed and burned by Russian forces this past February whose violence is deeply charred into the archival image.
This sensitivity to place and its erasure takes an ecological turn in the work of Liz Harrington whose camera-less work seeks ways to document Shingle Street beach in Suffolk, an area at risk of disappearing due to coastal erosion and rising sea-levels. Immersing cyanotype paper in the sea during high and low tide, her prints register the traces of the sea, creating new, unfixed landscapes that will subtly change and evolve over time.
Ky Lewis uses homemade pinhole cameras and slow, analog processes to connect with the environment, in her search for the essence of a specific place and its cycles of life, death and decay, while Sonia Mangiapane’s series Ambient, Aberrant investigates our mediated relationship to the natural world through the lens of leisure tourism. Intervening into prints in the darkroom, she reinserts physical gestures into the act of photographing to raise questions about our chase for the sublime and the artifice of sightseeing.
A curiosity about materiality and restlessness to cook up new photographic processes can be deeply felt across all of the work in this exhibition. Analog and digital collide in Poppy Lekner’s vibrant abstractions which melt photographs of liquid paint together with camera-less images of light, while Erika Gabriela Santos distresses her developed negatives to rebuild “chemical paintings that remind us that from fragments we can recreate and resemble ourselves.” Eschewing machines and devices, Megan Ringrose creates photographic emulsions from scratch in her studio in search of untested territories that she can use to make her images. Channeling the inventive spirit of early photographic practitioners, her approach is disruptive and questioning.
In Svitlo, photography is stripped down to its bare elements—and when grouped together, the prints/objects/things that these artists have produced somehow seem to reflect the chaos and concerns of our present moment. Deftly flitting between dark and light, it seems the “photograph of the 21st century” that these women collectively put forward evades definition, imploring us to keep on asking the question.
Editor’s note: Svitlo is on view at Looiersgracht 60 in Amsterdam from the June 8 until June 19. All prints are for sale and the collected funds will be used by the partner organization Zeilen van Vrijheid Foundation to buy ambulances and medication that will be sent to Ukraine.