The Memory of History: Looking Back

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Vandalised Hoarding. Lisbon, Portugal
From The Memory of History

In two days I will be opening an exhibition of The Memory of History at Europe House in London, and launching a new edition of the photo-book of the project. The book and exhibition explore the role of memory and history in the recent Euro crisis and recession. For the two weeks that the show is on I’ll be temporarily switching focus on Disphotic and publishing two posts which look back at the project and circumstances that gave rise to it. This is the first which looks at the economic, political and cultural background to making the work, while the second will look at some of the ideas that were key to it taking on the form it did.

It seems hard to remember now but in the summer of 2012 things in Europe were unbelievably tense. Unemployment was rising, economies were shrinking, protesters were on the march everywhere and the future of the Euro single currency seemed to be in doubt. In this context I decided to set out and travel around as much of the continent as I could afford to, visiting ten countries out of the European Union’s thirty-two member states. I had at first planned to look at the crisis through the eyes of Europe’s youth, examining how the problems they faced in the form of fewer opportunities and an uncertain future were affecting their view of the European Union.

When I began to travel that idea very quickly dissolved into something quite different. Everywhere I went I began to notice how prominent memories of the past were in the crisis. I saw comparisons made in Greece between bailout loans and the war reparations imposed on the country by Nazi Germany. In Hungary I saw the demolition of the graves of communists, killed during the uprising of 1956. In Germany I saw the destruction of the East German parliament building, and the construction of a vast replica palace on the site, a trading of an authentic history for a more palatable facsimile. Above all I saw that in the context of economic and political crisis the past was ever present.

In the 1993 photo book New Europe, the photographer Paul Graham had similarly travelled around the continent and had looked at the way the difficulties of the past were at the time being buried under a new narrative of European unity and prosperity. Graham’s final question, left very open at the end of his book, was what happens when that prosperity disappears and the forgotten narratives of the past begin to return? I decided that this would be the question I would try to answer, to in effect offer a form of visual closure to Graham’s book.

I photographed sites of national memory, museum artefacts, political posters, graffiti, protest marches, and more. I sought to uncover and show how the past was being variously appropriated or hidden in different places, to support different political agendas, and different visions of the future. At the same time I also sought to show how at times the past was wresting itself free from those who sought to control it, and was taking on a life of its own which could be every bit as unpredictable and dangerous.

The final collection of images and texts is part meditation on the present state of the continent, and part meditation on the nature of history, its role in defining how we understand ourselves and others, and it’s great power for good or ill. This work is not intended as a criticism of the idea of a united Europe, rather it is an attempt to argue that unity can only stem from reconciliation, an acceptance and understanding of the past, not from it’s selection and editing for political ends, and most of all, not from it’s forgetting.

The exhibition opens 17th September 2014 at Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3EU (nearest underground station is Westminster). The exhibition is open Monday – Friday, 10am – 6pm until 26 September.

Download the exhibition press release.

View more images from the project.

Visit the 12 Star Gallery site.