Visual research of the Elusive nature of memory
The Art of (Not) Forgetting
"Being stripped of your memories is an act of violence that is perhaps akin to having one's life taken" is a phrase of Yoko Ogawa's, a Japanese writer, the author of "Memory Police" novel that inspired me to make a project about recollections. In my photobook "The Art of (Not) Forgetting" I explore the most painful and the most resourceful memories of the Belarussians collected and photographed in winter/spring 2021. I would like to feel the potential of memory as a space that belogns to us only, a space that we can and need to take of in the times of memory censorship.
Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa, the author of "The Memory Police", which was published in her homeland in 1994 and translated into English in 2019, considers memories as a determining factor in people's personality.

"Being stripped of your memories is an act of violence that is perhaps akin to having your very life taken", she concludes in a recent interview.
The action of the dystopian novel takes place on an unnamed island, whose inhabitants, in conditions of a harsh dictatorship, from time to time are made to forget both certain objects and the words denoting them – their memories get erased. Simply put, when waking up early in the morning, people suddenly realize that ribbons, roses or birds have disappeared from their mental and linguistic picture of the world. Control over the enforced disappearance of anything that could remind of a censored object and concept behind it is exercised by the so-called "memory police". Breaking into houses and conducting checks and searches, they confiscate photographs, books, drawings, and diaries – should a new forbidden word be found there.

An accidental encounter with Ogawa's book, intuitively purchased from an airport bookstore, reminded me of the current situation in Belarus where I come from – the Japanese writer's storyline turned out to have much in common with repressions, arrests, and trials of people whose possessions began to be considered as prohibited. At first, dresses, scarves, bracelets, and curtains were claimed to be of the "wrong" color (the official authorities have recently begun to link a combination of red and white with extremism, despite their indisputable historical significance and presence in the official state symbols of the Republic of Belarus during the period from 1918-1919 and 1991-1995) and thus people who owned them were imprisoned or fined.

Moreover, soon penalties were imposed on thoughts and intentions – as in the episode of the activist Ulyana Nevzorova's poster that read, "This poster may be a reason for my detention". The girl held it for a few minutes in the subway car indirectly dropping hints about the lawlessness of the judicial system. There have also been cases of people being sentenced to more than 10 days of imprisonment for "expressing tacit consent" with peaceful protesters.

In the country with a speaking name "the last dictatorship of Europe", people are repressed because of their "intentions", "condemning silence" and "mental solidarity". And all these episodes are not scenes from a dystopian novel but the reality with 10 million civilians trapped in the nightmare which "logic" cannot be explained in terms of critical thinking and human vocabulary.

Ogawa describes recollections as a reliable compass that helps to "wander through the sparse forest of memory" – the Belarusian authorities, judging by their actions, are actively trying to isolate "modern history keepers" and stop the very fact of formation of evidence. To lay the only, asphalted, road through the forest, tamping into the cold silent concrete everyone who was able and was ready to share what they saw and experienced. For Ogawa, books are "repositories of human memories", but I suggest adding to this list of comparisons any media able to store the memory of a person, a family, and a nation: photographs, art, oral stories, even posts on social networks – the fastest and simplest way of recording one's own experience nowadays…

Memory is what makes us who we are, it outlines and fills our "self" in, draws the contours of our personal perception of "here and now" and shapes a retrospective analysis of past decisions and actions – regardless of the fact whether those really took place or were only conceived. In case of serious memory impairment, "self" crumbles, turning a person into a set of reactions – a mechanism that needs only water, food and sleep.
Photo by Jacob
Photo by Leio
Photo by Jacob
Photo by Marion
Photo by Jacob
Photo by Shifaaz
Photo by Mike
Photo by Jason
Photo by Sven
Photo by Ed
Photo by David
Photo by Hal
Remembering who you were yesterday and who you are today shapes the history of your future tomorrow. Realizing the extreme importance of memories transmitted both in oral stories and cultural artifacts, in any historical period the authorities tried to gain control over people's recollections – to impose "the right way" of remembering. Censored, or "wrong", works of art and literature were destroyed: in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, books that went against the official ideology were publicly burned; the same happened to the books during "Cultural Revolution" in China in 1960-1970 or Kurdish literature in 1946 Iran. However, again, as history shows, the desire to remember appears to be stronger than repressions – the verses by Osip Mandelstam – a poet, repressed by the Stalinist regime, are with us today: his wife Nadezhda learned them by heart.

The project "The Art of (Not) Forgetting", conceived in February 2021, reflects my desire to capture the memories of people who are now surviving through the harsh traumatic historical period and witnessing with their own eyes things that, due to their exceptional emotional intensity, risk getting quickly distorted. The talks I had with around 30 participants were captured in the texts of the memories they shared and the photographs I took of them while they were in the processes of forgetting and remembering.

The visual aspect has become part of the essentially text-centered project for one obvious reason. Having been engaged in photography and photo criticism for more than 10 years, a long time ago did I realize that any conversation about this medium would be impossible without referring to the phenomenon of memory, to the endless paradoxes inherent in the coupling of the camera and the world: the oppositions of an elusive moment and our desire to preserve it; the purely personal opinion and constant claims for objectivity; the processes of remembering and forgetting. That is exactly why photography, as a tool and practice (of a photographer as a collector and a keeper of subjective imprints of reality) will always be critically important.
"The Art of (Not) Forgetting" – both as an exhibition and a photobook – is a collection of revelations that 28 people from Belarus, at the beginning of 2021, personally defined as the most painful (1) and the most resourceful ones (2).

56 stories about humiliation and happiness, death and love, shame and meaningful revelation. In these images one can see the faces of people who laugh or cry, shine with happiness or feel blocked by personal traumas, strive to forget or desperately try to remember. They are of different ages and professions, statuses and occupations. Their emotions would be preserved in the images I took, but the search for a way to present the material, in which memories could gain a greater resonance and power – at the level of the spoken word – remained relevant.
If shared, any individual act of remembering can become collective and have a long-term impact. The mutual exchange of one's intimate thoughts with the Other is worthy of attention as a symbolic practice in the "space of power" we are able to create ourselves. Under cruel and inhuman conditions we are forced to live today, I would like us to turn to our past more often and not to devaluate the wonderful moments we were lucky to experience. I offer to perceive them as personal, immensely significant and precious treasures – still no less important for other people, either.

We need to learn to share, to listen, to learn to be grateful and accept our, in fact very obvious, similarities.
Publications related to "The Art of (Not) Forgetting" photobook:

1 - "The Place that Belongs to Us Only" Olga Bubich about her new photobook, the right to memory and personal responsibility - interview (in Russian)

2 - "From Memory - to Oneself" - analytical essay on the role of personal and collective memories (in Russian)

3 - Olga Bubich: "My Photobook Is an Attempt to Remain Myself Through Art" - interview (in Belarusian)

4 - "The Art of (Not) Forgetting - Photographing Memories As a Way to Resist Censorship" (in English)

5 - "Memory is Nothing Like a Dragonfly Frozen in Amber». Оlga Bubich – on her new photobook «The Art of (Not) Forgetting" - interview (in Russian)

6 - "The Art of Remembering: Memories as a Way to Resist Censorship" - analytical essay (in English)

7 - "Memory Ownership: No-one and 9.4 Million" - review on the group exhibition organized as a part of the International Week of Belarusian Culture (in Georgian)

8 - "Overcoming Public Amnesia – Counter-Memory as a Tool to Challenge Official Narratives" - analytical essay (in English)