I’m happy to have won 2nd place in FotoweekDC’s 2013 International Awards Competition, Contemporary Life category, for my recent work from Tallinn, Estonia.
The work itself was a long time coming - but a very short time in the making!
I’ve been shooting in Eastern Europe since 1998 for my project East, and I’d been considering how to put a bow on things. I thought about various countries’ transitions over the long term, and realized - where does it end? Does it end? When can a country finally stop being referred to as post-Soviet, post-communist, former Yugoslavia? What happens when Country 2.0 ‘arrives’? Ding, transition complete, please remove from microwave.
I decided Tallinn might be an example of what post-post-Soviet looked and felt like. Estonia moved early, quickly, and aggressively to get out from under the shadow of the Soviet era. Over the summer I was in Finland for a month-long residency, so at the very end of my stay I hopped on the short ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn.
I only had two days, which is absurdly short if your goal is even limited insight into a place. So I kept things as simple as possible, barely set foot in the beautiful old town, and worked only in the bustling new business districts. That seemed to be where I could at least capture an impressionistic sense of the new landscape, and explore the question of whether the past is actually fully past.
The first view at the ferry port was a bit ominous. In front of you looms the massive, moldering Linnahall event center from the Soviet days. The city has no idea how to get rid of it. You climb long steps to get up and over the squat mass of concrete and proceed across a vast weedy plaza, Tallinn’s modern office buildings on the horizon.
These pictures are simply fragmented impressions, which is all I really set out to capture. I wouldn’t try to pass too much judgment from such a short visit. Walking and biking around, I did find the city vibrant and interesting, even in the areas with some pleasantly ragged edges. It feels more dynamic than sleepy Vilnius and more self-confident than I remember Riga in the 90s. In a strange way it reminded me of a mini-Berlin, in the sense that you can feel how yes, the pieces somehow feel all in place, but perhaps only recently, and you’re aware of the gaps.
I’d love to spend more time there. I learned a lot from my kind and urbane hosts Aleksei and Katrin about not just the history but the current mentality of Estonians. Locals may have psychologically moved on since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and may even scoff at the question of whether they are still 'post-Soviet’. And young people have no memory of that time. But to me a bit of vapor lingers in the crevices. Not necessarily Soviet vapor. Just a sense of the long arc of history still playing out. Just across the Baltic, Helsinki is a Nordic urban wonder but feels a bit staid at times, like fully settled business. Tallinn is a more tumultuous organism, still mutating. Definitely post-post-Soviet, but not quite done yet.