The Moving Portraits project is a collection of images that evoke the significance of memory to Holocaust and genocide survivors and the importance these memories hold for us all. The photographs, which launched our creative project Memory Makers, show each survivor holding an item which holds a powerful memory for them and helps them to tell their story. A moving element in the image brings the experience of being in survivors' homes alongside them. Our Arts Coordinator, Alex Murphy, reflects on the experience of working alongside survivors to share their stories in this powerful new way.
As Arts Coordinator for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, my role is to find ways to engage people with Holocaust Memorial Day through artistic commissions, and projects for people to respond creatively to stories of genocide. This year I began by looking at the theme of memory, through the art form of photography, and decided to commission a series of pictures of genocide survivors as Moving Portraits.
We decided to visit people in their homes to take the portraits, as the focus is on them as they are now, and the memories they carry with them. Photographer Will Head and I visited five homes in and around London, spending around half a day with each person.
We visited Sokphal Din at his home in Basingstoke, where he lives with his younger brother and their chickens. Through a gate off the street, we entered straight into a beautifully crafted garden. The small concrete patch has been transformed, with flowerbeds, pot plants, statues, a fountain, and small trees with bells in. We sat under a gazebo, and shared tea and doughnuts, while Sokphal talked to us about his experiences during the Genocide in Cambodia, losing his father and taking on responsibility for the family, and his extraordinary lifelong friendship with his mother, with whom he lived until she died in 2001.
‘I do miss her a lot, she was my best friend. We went through a lot of terrible life together during the genocide. She lost her husband, my father. We didn’t know if he was dead or alive. They took him, and told us he would be back in three months, but he never returned. My mother kept herself strong and alive, because she hoped to find her husband again, and also for her children. My duty as the oldest child was to look after my mother. Without me, she wouldn’t be here in England, and without her I wouldn’t be here either.’
Sokphal had a huge range of photographs from different stages of his journey – from his life in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand, where he became a monk for two years, to arriving in the UK with his family and starting to build a new life.
‘Sometimes I sit down quietly and look through the photographs. It makes me feel so grateful for my life now.’
We chose a photograph of his mother from the refugee camp, to commemorate her, and remember her strength, resilience, and their strong bond of friendship.
Next we met Safet and his family in their home in south London. Safet spoke to us about Bosnia, and how many people he meets in the UK don’t know or understand what happened over there. ‘It’s important to keep the memory alive, because some people are just not aware of what was happening in Bosnia, it’s a surprise to me. People were dying in concentration camps, torture took place, in Europe, in the ’90s.’
We heard about how divided the society in Bosnia still is, and Safet’s frustration that it needn’t be that way, but those in power will not create conditions for the rifts to heal.
Safet chose a photograph of his school class, to remember what life was like in Bosnia before the war. He grew up in a very mixed society, and people didn’t have problems living side by side with those of different religions. His daughter is about to start school herself. I couldn’t help but draw the comparison, that his life was as happy and peaceful as hers at the same age.
Meeting Avram and Vera – two Holocaust survivors who have been married for 62 years, was an absolute delight. Both now in their eighties, they welcomed us into the house they have lived and raised their family in for over half a century. Avram is always joking, with a constant twinkle in his eye and a witty retort always ready. Avram and Vera are very affectionate and flirty with each other, always laughing and teasing, which is just wonderful to be around. In between takes they shared the romantic story of how they met on a kibbutz in Israel – Vera: ‘He was so tall and handsome, much better looking than me!’ and the less romantic story of Avram getting sick on their honeymoon.
When I asked them questions about their stories, Vera, in a cut glass English accent, talks clearly and thoughtfully about her journey as a Kindertransportee. She shared that although she was nine when she left, she has now lost all of her Czech – her mother tongue. This was a powerful insight into how Vera has dealt with her childhood trauma.
Avram, when talking about the past, becomes briefly serious, and speaks in short sentences – so honest it takes your breath away. ‘You cannot forget. Forgive yes, but forget, it’s a different story. If they learn something from our stories, then I think that our families didn’t die entirely in vain.’ And then the clown returns, and offers us a glass of wine at 11.30am on a workday.
Joan Salter’s home gave us lots to look at while she fetched some drinks – art on all of the walls, plants and ornaments from around the world, and a beautiful view of London through the window. The photograph she chose is a key part of her story – of going back as an adult to reclaim her childhood identity, which had been lost to her when she was evacuated to America as a toddler. The photograph, which she now uses in many talks to adults and school groups, has an almost iconic status – it embodies the moment Joan ‘found’ her childhood self, in a box at the Red Cross offices in Portugal.
She says, ‘In a way looking at this photo is like looking at something that belongs to somebody else. But when I found it, in the early 1980s, it was the beginning of my journey to reclaim who I was.’
Eric, who is an ex-professional footballer and survivor from Rwanda, took us up onto the roof terrace of his block of flats, which is under a Heathrow flight path. We knew we wanted to capture Eric with a football, as it represents his story of survival so well, and spent some time initially playing with the ball as the moving object, but when the plane flew directly over our heads we knew we needed to try and capture that. The resulting image is very powerful – Eric gazing into the distance, and the plane symbolising his journey to the UK, and his trips back to Rwanda, where he now runs a charity – Football for Peace Hope and Unity.
When I approached Eric about the project he told me he would like to show a photograph of his younger brother who was killed in the genocide, aged just seven years old.
‘I would have wished to have a photograph of him to show today, but we don’t have any, all of the photographs we had back then were destroyed. We don’t have anything that you can hold and remember.’
However, he is happy to use the project to share the important role of football in his life.
‘I chose to hold a football, because it reminds me to look at life in a more positive way. It’s always important to remember and to commemorate people who have gone, but it’s equally important to think positively and look forwards.’
What began for me as an arts project became an incredibly powerful series of meetings, with a broad range of people – different ages, races and religions, all of whom have a remarkable story to tell, and a warm and generous heart. I’d like to thank Avram, Vera, Joan, Sokphal, Eric and Safet for welcoming us into their homes, sharing their memories, and working with us to create such a beautiful collection of images for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015.
If you're interested in seeing our series of Moving Portaits then visit our Moving Portraits Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck school of arts where they will be on show from 28 October - 8 November.