After the long interviews that in some cases went over hours and hours I usually tell my interlocutors, that I want to take a picture of them, that I need a portrait for my work. The first reaction is in most of the cases shyness.
Some take refuge to the excuse that they are not well dressed or coiffured or just don’t like to be photographed. The reaction is very similar to that before the interview. The first reaction then is usually also refusal: „I don’t know anything interesting.“ „My life has nothing to do with history.“ But I don’t need much insistence and the elders start to tell their stories and sometimes cannot find an end.
Sometimes I have the impression that the initial refusal is more a kind of cultural convention to avoid the impression of self-praise. The appropriate form of giving information about oneself is the personal song for the Nenets, and people tell me that a person usually sings that song about oneself only if she or he is drunk. Afterwards these songs has to be performed by others.
The dialogue about ones personal life and experiences is therefore relatively new among the Nenets.
And I am just a beginner in learning the appropriate way of communicating in the Nenets society. Of course my former experiences with the Khanty and Forest Nenets reindeer herders, and probably my family background helps me to develop intuitively the art of dialogue that consists of swinging between close contact and letting loose. Contact is established with questions, eye contact and giving feedback with voice and head movements. At time it is appropriate to avoid eye contact, looking together out of the window and letting thoughts develop their own way. People can dive deep into their memories that way.
But one has also to let room for silence, for the thoughts to get formulated. And one has to allow for changing the topic, for silencing certain themes, avoiding certain answers, and veiling the wounds that live left on the soul.
Of course it seems sometimes as if one gets lost in nostalgia or in kitschy ethnographic self-presentations. It helps nothing than as to be patient and wait until the interlocutor opens up again and share more individual and personal experiences.
The same sensitivity mixed with persistence is needed to make the portrait after the interview. I don’t like the flash and I don’t like the artificial light so I prefer to make a close picture with eye contact just on the kitchen table where the interview usually happens.
Strangely as a rule either the first or the last picture in the series of photographs I make comes out to be the best portrait. There are people that are relaxed at the beginning and start to tense up after some time. The other kind of people give up their ready made photo-face only some time after, when they get tired to keep it all the time. I would not say that they take of the mask. I don’t believe, that their is anything else than the different social faces that are enacted all the time. But I try to create a more dialogical, a more open and telling portrait of these old people.
Their faces seem to tell already through their physical appearance about the history of communication and interaction that is life. All the mimics, the movements, the enacted roles and told stories left traces in their muscles and on their skin. If the portrait succeeded it expresses openness and closeness at the same time. The face is a mask to hide behind and to speak through.