This week on the blog, we follow the fantastic personal projects of documentary photographer Irina Unruh.
Irina was born in the small German community of Kyrgyzstan before moving to Germany at the age of 9. It is now with the eyes of an adult that Irina went back to her origins to document her personal view of the country.
Between old and modern traditions, let's discover Irinia's interview and 16 photos in full resolution!
A few words about you, how did you start photography?
I am originally from Kyrgyzstan, born in 1979 in a German family in a little German village called Telman not too far from the capital Frunze (nowadays Bishkek). But at the age of 9 years in 1988, my family immigrated to Germany where I finished my school and university education. Photography fascinated me since my childhood. One of my aunts had a simple analog Soviet camera and was the only person in my huge family (my mother had 10 siblings, my father 6 and I have 5) who documented a bit our simple daily life. I remember when she regularly brought to my parents some pictures she took of us. It was magic to see all these frozen moments.
Later in Germany, I attended my first photography workshops at hight school. But I never considered becoming a photographer at that time. So I studied Math, German, and Theology to become a teacher. After my university education, I worked as a teacher for many years in different countries (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Italy and Germany). During this time I traveled a lot, always with my camera in the bag. While I lived and worked for five years in Rome until August 2018, I discovered the camera as my instrument to tell stories. In 2015 I began to expand my big passion for photography, decided to work only part-time as a teacher and developed seriously in the field of documentary photography. I participated as an autodidact in different workshops with Italian photojournalists, including Michele Cerillo, Monika Bulaj and Karl Mancini.
You have two projects covering life in Kyrgystan, what attracts you to this country?
Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, but living in Europe, I´m used to different situations and conversations in which people ask me simple questions, like “Where are you originally from?”. But this question is not a simple question to me and mostly ends up with a long conversation about a widely unknown little country in Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan. But I am not from today’s Kyrgyzstan, at that time during my childhood, it was part of the Soviet Union. And so memories of my early childhood are mostly memories of the time of a "Soviet child" and of a country that no longer exists in this way. Today's Kyrgyzstan is an independent and democratic country.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent independence of the country in 1991, there was a time of significant political and social changes for the country and the region. The transition from the Soviet system to independence was not an easy one. The Kyrgyz nation went through difficult times of many years of socio-economic hardship that still continues today, especially in the rural parts of Kyrgyzstan.
My project “Kyrgyzstan diary” is my personal view of a post-Soviet country. I see the dichotomy between the modern and the old. The different images of traveling and documentaries of daily life situations and special moments are my personal experiences and my encounters in a country which I still feel to be part of. Each time I am visiting the land of my childhood, I discover new unseen daily life moments. Sometimes just short moments which maybe seem to be unimportant. But all together they complete a little bit more my understanding of this country.
Your series "I am Jamilia" is particularly emotionally charged, what is your goal when reporting these stories?
The French poet Louis Aragon described the novel “Jamilia” as “The most beautiful love story in the world.” It is a classic from the award-winning Kyrgyz novelist Chingiz Aitmatov which I love and read several times. At one of my first travels in Kyrgyzstan, I met one woman and she presented herself with a beautiful smile “I am Jamilia”. But then her smile disappeared and she added: “But my story is not a story of love.”
I have been growing up with the awareness of the issue “Alu Kachuu” (in Kyrgyz “to take and run away”) which means bride kidnapping. I am feeling a personal responsibility to work on this underreported issue. My parents kept explaining to me and my five siblings: “We immigrated to Germany especially to give our three daughters a better future.” My mother's best Kyrgyz friends were also kidnapped to get married already during Soviet time. She remembers very well how her friends suffered after this fate. My origins and these narratives have led me to make my journey and to face this issue.
I visited Kyrgyzstan exactly 20 years after our immigration to Germany for the first time again. I felt immediately connected with the Kyrgyz community (also because I still speak Russian) and felt especially high solidarity with the women of Kyrgyzstan. During my travels, whenever possible, I always stay with Kyrgyz families to better understand women's lives and to listen to their stories. I was able to have many conversations and interviews, especially with women about this issue.
One young woman was even kidnapped two times and she wrote: “I am against bride kidnapping. The first time I was also kidnapped and had to stay there because I was afraid of our old generation. The second time I was kidnapped to a very far area. However, I refused to stay there and returned. I did not know him at all, even I did not see him before. How could I stay there, so I returned back. Bride kidnapping destroys the life of many young girls. Many girls suffer from bride kidnapping. I suffered from the kidnapping. I became disillusioned with the second kidnapped marriage. I wished this Kyrgyz tradition of kidnapped marriages will be abolished very soon.”
Many Kyrgyz women have no chance to tell their personal story. I am feeling a personal responsibility to give them a voice to tell their story. “Alu Kachuu” appears particularly in rural parts of the country although Kyrgyzstan outlawed it in 2013. Nowadays still 13.8 percent of women aged under 24 married through some forms of coercion according to the latest available data in Kyrgyzstan. There is an increasing reflection also on the psychological implications of those affected. Especially women who suffered lifelong under their traumatic experience being kidnapped want a different start into a marriage for their own children, both for their daughters and for their sons.
This work shall not only give voice to those women who became victims of bride kidnapping. Furthermore, it shall include an emphasis on the glimmer of hope for a change in Kyrgyzstan. Despite the stories of tragedy, all these women continued life after being kidnapped. Nonetheless, all of them did not lose hope that bride kidnapping will one day belong to the past of Kyrgyzstan.
Are you inspired by the work of other photographers or artists?
Definitely! There are a lot of well known and less known great photographers whose work touches me. I want to name just a few selected photographers here: The work of Anja Niedringhaus fascinates me in particular because her photographs embrace tragic, humanity, and beauty. The journalist KM Asad from Bangladesh has been working for many years on a humanitarian issue (the problematic situation of Rohingya refugees) at Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh. In his work, I see how close he is to the issue for many years.
Since I am working also on personal series I want to mention also Sally Mann. I am impressed by her work, how she managed to be a mother and a great photographer at the same time. Last but not least, I find it very inspiring to see how Nadir Bucan captures simple rural life in incredible beauty.
About your photography gears, what are your favorite tools?
I work with a Nikon D750 camera and mainly with a 35mm and 50mm prime lens.
Do you have projects for the future like workshops, personal series or travels?
My projects covering life in Kyrgystan are ongoing. “I am Jamilia” until now mainly focuses on portraits of kidnapped women of different ages and from different parts of Kyrgyzstan. But I want to approach this substantial cultural issue of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan from different sides and want to include some other aspects. So I will return to Kyrgyzstan as often as possible, next again in October to continue with “I am Jamilia.”
I am grateful that my work received first recognitions and was exhibited twice in Rome in 2018 and in April 2019 at the Centre for Fine Arts “BOZAR” in Brussels. “I am Jamilia” was shortlisted for the KOLGA Tbilisi Photo Award and is exhibited until now in Tbilisi. It was also shown in Jakarta at the JIPFest 2019 and I am a finalist with this project at the Lugano Photo Days in Switzerland.
But I am also working on some personal series. My most personal is about the growing relationship of my two children who were born on the same day with a difference of exactly six years. Since my nine-year-old daughter is very curious about the origins of her parents, I am about to start a new project about my own historical origins: the Russian Germans (German immigrants from former Soviet countries). At the moment, I am still in the research process about the long history of Russian Germans that goes back to Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. She was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, the country's longest-ruling female leader.
It was not until I grew up that I realized that my family history belongs to the interesting history of the Russian Germans from the 18th century to the present day. I want to create a kind of family tree for my children. Through my grandparents, my family history leads to the First World War, the October Revolution, the Stalinist dictatorship and the connection to collectivization, deportation, and forced labor during Soviet time. But this project needs deep historical research and a lot of creativity.
To see more from Irina:
All photographs copyright Irina Unruh and used with her permission.
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