Photography by Chris Suspect
Text by Melanie Meggs
A whimsical take on street photography, Chris Suspect’s new book “Old Customs” combines visual references to Romanian fairy tales, turn of the century embroidery patterns and scenes from a remote fishing village.
Chris is a street and documentary photographer from the Washington DC area in the United States. His street work specialises in capturing absurd and profound moments in the quotidian and his documentary work deep dives into various subcultures. His exploration of sub-cultures have resulted in images that are raw and intimate, making us think or evoke a reaction. They contain something unexpected.
Chris’s latest book “Old Customs” gathers images that were photographed over a period of three years in Vama Veche, a seaside town in Romania. Originally visiting as a guest of a photography and visual arts festival called VSLO in 2017, he was curious about the first generation of Romanians who did not have the personal experience of what it was like to live under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorial state. His curiosity stemmed from his own personal experience growing up in Moscow in the seventies during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev. He recalls how dark, bleak and miserable it was for him as a young person during that time. To be separated from this political ideology by the sliver of one generation was interesting to Chris, and he wanted to explore these ideas photographically. He returned to Vama Veche in August 2018 and 2019 to work on his project.
"The image with the man with the white ball on the beach happened on one of the days when the surf was really picking up, and this doesn’t happen that often in the Black Sea. I really like the idea of obfuscation in photographs because it can lend a certain mystery to an image. This is a pure street photography style photograph."
Vama Veche became known as a bastion of freedom from the prying eyes of Ceausescu in the late 1960s through the 1980s, which really intrigued Chris. To him it seemed the polar opposite of what he had experienced. The challenge for Chris was to express the experience of his youth in Communist Russia and juxtapose that with what he was seeing in the young people he met in Vama Veche in photographs. “The goal for me photographically was how to express not having known this type of oppression in my imagery. To be free from it in a sense, while acknowledging its presence without showing it’s presence, if that makes any sense,” he explains.
Vama Veche is a remote village off the shore of the Black Sea in Romania´s far southeast, on the border of Romania and Bulgaria. The literal translation of “Vama Veche” to English is “old customs”. The perfect title for this project and book. The settlement of Vama Veche was founded in 1811 by Turkic people. With the rise of Ceausescu in 1965, it became known as an oasis of freedom, a rebel town where poets and writers commingled with the local fishermen. The village grew into a colony of intellectuals living in tents or renting rooms from the locals.
Since those times, Vama Veche has become known as a nontraditional tourist destination. According to Chris, it has “this Woodstock hippie vibe” to it that retains the original spirit of the village, although over the course of the three years working on his project, Chris did start to notice Vama Veche changing. His main goal was to capture the sense of freedom he was experiencing through the people he met. He focused on the ideas of freedom and youth tethered to history by referencing Romanian mythology and Soviet-era propaganda, capturing the evidence of Western culture and commercialisation through his street photography, conceptual ideas, and some nude portraiture.
Instead of taking a literal or documentarian approach to the layout of the book, Chris sequenced all the images together in the style of a modern fairy tale filled with beauty, magic, myth and mystery.
A lot of the photographs in the book are straight street photography observations that Chris shot spontaneously, mixed with a few traditional portraits and nudes. He also shot several conceptual photographs using a mirror as a prop. This was an interesting development to his process and was something completely new for Chris.
"This photograph of two people on the beach was part of a photoshoot where we decorated the subjects with mud from a nearby lake that supposedly has special healing properties. Part of the inspiration for this came from Ryan McGinley’s beautiful work in the 2000s when he photographed the hedonistic adventures of youth culture across America. I loved the sense of freedom in his images and it was an influence on some of my work in Old Customs.”
After hearing the song “I’ll Be Your Mirror” by The Velvet Underground on the radio whilst in his kitchen, he pondered the popular idea of a photograph being the mirror of the photographer and he wondered how he could turn that idea around by placing a mirror on people’s heads. In Romania, Chris created a mirror mask consisting of a round mirror mounted on a pair of protective goggles, to incorporate this idea into his project.
Mirrors can connote many different interpretations and they have historically been used in art and literature to symbolise ideas of truth, discovery, wisdom, awareness, the conscious and the unconscious. When Chris discovered that he could create a sunburst with the mirror, he became enthralled with the idea that he could conceptually elevate the people he photographed into gods or goddesses. The resulting photographs reminded him of some of the iconography in old Communist propaganda posters.
LEFT: "This is one of the conceptual works in the book where I put the mirror mask on a news reporter. I like the idea of questioning what we see in the media and in this case the suggestion is that we are the media, or the media is a reflection of us. Within the context of the book it adds to the visual sense of weirdness and mystery, and since there is nothing actually reflected in the mirror it also suggests the future is unknown or unwritten." RIGHT: "I love photos that cause the viewer to ask questions as opposed to ones that provide answers. Why is this man reflected on this woman’s head? Is there a connection between the two? What is their relationship? It is definitely weird and strange, plus the light is beautiful and her hair in the wind is like Medusa's."
When showing his work to one of his Romanian friends, she told Chris that they reminded her of the legend of the Sanzienale, beautiful mythological nymphs often seen with bright yellow flowers on the crowns of their heads. During the editing process this new information opened Chris’s eyes to a potentially deeper connection with the framework of the book. The idea of incorporating this mythological interpretation of the story of the Sanzienale tied in nicely to his photographs' theme of youth and freedom tethered to the history of Romania.
"This is one of my favorite photographs and it is also featured on the cover of the book. To me this really spoke to the idea of Soviet-era iconography. It was also the first time I realized I could do this with the mirror mask. I felt as if I had turned this woman into a goddess."
As Chris was creating the book he came up with the ideas of using old Romanian embroidery patterns to delineate the sequences of different segments instead of the customary blank page that is commonly used in photographic narratives. After researching such patterns on the internet, Chris found some from around the turn of the 20th century and recreated them using Adobe Illustrator. What he learned by doing this is that many of the patterns formed a secret code or language that was synonymous to that specific region in Romania. They reinforced the idea of history throughout his book.
LEFT: "This was another discovery I made with my mirror mask. In this case I used the mirror with the help of an assistant to reflect the light of the sun back on to the woman. Shooting into the sun also led to the circles of confusion or lens flare that helps make this image somewhat other worldly. It adds to the beauty and mystery themes in Old Customs.” RIGHT: Romanian embroidery pattern
In essence, “Old Customs” is a mix of different approaches that work well together within the context of Chris’s body of work. Reflective and whimsical, this book opens up other possibilities for street photography, taking us on a journey to discover traditions, customs, folk stories and mythology, and revealing the incredible richness of ordinary human life experiences in Vama Veche.