Photographer Birgit Püve – capturing identity and memory

Birgit Püve is an Estonian photographer whose work has been shown around the world. A former journalist and editor, Püve’s work focuses on memory and identity. In 2014 she received the third prize at The Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2014 at London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Estonian World spoke to Püve about her work and what it’s like to be a photographer in Estonia.

How did you first get into photography and how did you realise it was the right medium for you?

Birgit Püve - 09_Headshot_Birgit_PuveI was dreaming of becoming an artist, a painter, during my childhood. So visual thinking and drawing were always part of me. Later, as well as working as an editor and journalist I continued reading different books and magazines and I also started taking photos myself.

At one point it became clear that it’s easier for me to express myself in photos than in words. Easier isn’t perhaps the best word to describe it, but I enjoyed taking images more, it draws me completely in. The whole world suddenly emerged…

Can you tell me about the themes that run through your work?

It seems the biggest themes I have worked with so far – and am still working with – are identity and memory, but it’s difficult to say what the exact triggers are.

I started with almost anthropological work while I did the project, ‘By the Lake’, in the Eastern part of Estonia, near the Russian border, about Russian Orthodox Old Believers’ community.

Birgit Püve - 04_Enafa_from_the_series_By_the_Lake

But I wasn’t completely satisfied with traditional documentary images – I felt I needed to look for something else.

So the most interesting medium for me have been the mixed projects, where the traditional and real narrative is combined with elements of staging and fine art. It’s not bending the truth, but trying to express the same idea in a different way.

Birgit Püve - 01_Fyodor_from_the_series_By_the_Lake

Identity has such a wide meaning; it can mean personal identity or identity of a community or whole nation. It can be approached in endless ways.

What inspires you?

I can be inspired by a simple sentence or a page in a book, an appearance of a person, a postcard, a photo in a magazine, a found photo, a film, somebody else’s image, a story I have randomly heard from a friend… As the ideas and ongoing projects are ticking in my head all the time, every little thing can relate to them and make an impulse. I can become inspired very easily.

Do you work in digital or analogue? 

I use both. I’m perhaps more drawn to analogue when I do my personal long-term projects, but it’s almost impossible and expensive to use only analogue when you are doing assignments, for example. Some assignments require really quick reaction. So I use and enjoy both.

You have exhibited all over Europe. Where is the best place your work has been shown? 

The biggest personal show I have been invited to do has been in Fellbach, Germany, in 2014, where I was able to show my two biggest projects at the same time, ‘Estonian Documents’ and ‘By the Lake’.

Birgit Püve - 02_Maria_from_the_series_By_the_Lake

It was really well-organised and well-prepared exhibition in a two-storey gallery where guests could see different projects on different floors. It was enjoyable in every sense and the exhibition was really well accepted by the German public.

Birgit Püve - 07_Juri_from_the_series_Estonian_Documents  Birgit Püve - 06_Anna_from_the_series_Estonian_Documents

But if I think in terms of international group exhibitions, the great places to show my work has been undoubtedly National Portrait Gallery in London and Photo London 2015.

What is your proudest achievement so far?

It’s hard to say what is my proudest achievement so far, as it all has been one interesting process for me and it’s still in progress. It’s more connected with my personal development than with clear and visible achievements.

Braian and Ryan by Birgit Püve I

But if I have to pick something then maybe it’s the third prize at The Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2014, organised by the National Portrait Gallery in London. That was a really great surprise.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m not too keen on speaking about upcoming projects – I will do it when they are ready. I will continue with the same themes that still capture my interest.

What is the photography scene like in Estonia? Is it well supported?

The Estonian photography scene is much more interesting and alive than it was, for example, several years ago. There is the Estonian Union of Photography Artists, which organises the Tallinn Photo Fair every October; and the Estonian Association of Press Photographers. The organisations converge photography artists and press photographers and they are both quite active. The Association of Press Photographers, on the other hand, puts together the press photo exhibition and introduces a proud catalogue each year.

Birgit Püve - 08_Virve_from_the_series_Estonian_Documents  Birgit Püve - 05_Hugo_from_the_series_Estonian_Documents

But as a small country, there is never enough support for the photographers and we have to be active ourselves to get supported.

Are there any photographers that inspire you or whose work you look to?

I admire the work of Alessandra Sanguinetti, Graciela Iturbide, Jim Goldberg, Diane Arbus, August Sander… I can go on.

Are you based in Estonia? Is it easy to work there if so?

I live in Estonia, but I need to travel a lot, otherwise I would be restless and perhaps wouldn’t value life in Estonia that much. The biggest advantage lies in its littleness. And I really enjoy working for various local and international magazines and on short-term assignment besides my long-term personal projects.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

There will be one personal exhibition in Poland in May and the second at the 12 Star Gallery in London in November.

I

Cover: Birgit Püve. All photos courtesy of Birgit Püve

About the author: Helen Wright

Helen Wright is a freelance journalist, currently based in Tartu, Estonia. She has written for Estonian World, ERR News, The Baltic Times, and Deep Baltic. Previously she worked at local newspapers in the UK.