A matter of life and death

Searching for the truth in Andrej Krementschouk’s new book is hard work but the process makes us question what we want from photography

I find it amazing that one can look at 40 photographs and form an opinion on what is going on in them, only to have it all shattered by an accompanying essay that explains what is actually being depicted. What’s even more amazing is to then realise that what one took for the truth in those photographs is actually a red herring.

But how does one even know that what is being narrated in the text is in fact true? Maybe that’s all just made up too? Or perhaps there is a bit of truth to everything. But how do we find out? Can we find out? This isn’t a theoretical exercise. This is the experience of reading photographer Andrej Krementschouk’s new book, Come Bury Me.

The book opens on an image. There’s no title in the front, no name, nothing. A group of people in a dilapidated house in a small Russian town are standing around, smoking. The stage is set. We then get to see more of those people and more of the interior of the house: there are animals, there are oddly cheerful party decorations that belie the otherwise ruinous state of the building.

And then there is the partying itself – the smoking and drinking – and the drama as well. We are put in the middle of all of that. These people are clearly having a good time, if just for that very short moment that makes them forget the not-so-good time that might be their lives.

“For a long time my friends have begged me to write about what happened,” begins the photographer’s essay, which delves into more and more layers of story; some absurd, or maybe just harder to believe.

There’s the story of one of the women having been an Olympic athlete; three times, apparently. One of the men talks about his experiences in Afghanistan. Then there’s another story about the Russian military outfitting the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. And, of course, these stories all exist among the drinking and the partying of these homeless people, who Krementschouk chanced upon in 2006, he tells us. Attempting to bed him, one woman whispers into his ear: “Don’t believe everything people tell you.”

And then they’re all dead – literally, dead. The photographer returns to the house two year’s later to find a burnt out shell – there are pictures of it at the end of the book. There was a fire – an arson attack – and apart from one woman, everybody perished in it.

“I still have no idea what was true in their stories and what wasn’t. Certainly not everything,” he writes. We, the readers, have the photographs and the narrative, so it’s left to us to figure it out. Unlike the subjects, we’re still able to question whether there’s any act of exploitation in taking these photographs. Or wonder if we are just as complicit because we’re looking?

What is the truth? What do we ‘want’ to be true here? What is too good to be true? How much truth is there in photography anyway? Maybe there’s just as much – or as little – as we want to believe there is.

See also: No Direction Home, Krementschouk’s portrayal of his Russian homeland, which includes a foreword by Boris Mikhailov and is also published by Kehrer. More of Krementschouk’s work can be seen on his site, krementschouk.com

Jörg M Colberg writes about art photography at jmcolberg.com/weblog. Come Bury Me by Andrej Krementschouk is published by Kehrer Verlag; €36. kehrerverlag.com

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