London-based Estonian photographer has new exhibition open in Tallinn

One of Sirli Raitma's
One of Sirli Raitma's "Eha" photo portraits, part of en exhibition open at the Linnamuuseum in Tallinn. Source: Sirli Raitma

Award-winning London-based Estonian photographer Sirli Raitma has an exhibition opening today, Thursday, at Tallinn's Linnamuuseum, Estonia's embassy in the United Kingdom has announced.

The exhibition, entitled "Eha", consits of a photo narrative of the artist's mother, which, the museum says, carry a general human background familiar to all viewers.

Raitma's works are joined together by a humorous approach to a sensitive subject, and show the photographer's skill in capturing her mother's struggle and pride, which in turn illustrates the ability of portraits to express loss and induce memories.

For Raitma, taking photos of her mother Eha is both a photographic game and a subconscious healing medicine, in bringing a beloved person out of depression.

"Experiment" is a key word in Raitma's portrait work, the museum says.

She said: "Our associations, looking at one picture or another, are different anyway. For example, Eha's portrait with dianthus flowers brings out completely different imaginative associations in people with different backgrounds. As we took pictures around the date of May 9, I tried desperately to find dianthus flowers in London that day, even though it seemed impossible at the time. Finally, after a long search, I found them. A person who has no connection with the Soviet era cannot see the symbolism of these flowers, which refer to the model's historical background. One of her mother's friends, on viewing a portrait in which Eha was wearing a headscarf, felt it created an emotion which made Eha appear like a Russian widow, but an international audience often doesn't see it in that context. So, viewing depends on our own background, the viewer's own history."

In her photographic endeavors with her mother, Raitma says she wanted to get back to Eha's home, Suure-Jaani, Viljandi County, to portray her in those places that make up the story of her life.

The portraits depict Eha in unusual situations, poses and clothing.

Eha was born in Viljandi County in 1950, but at the age of 43, had her first stroke and in a few years, another. Her mental acuity and sense of humor, however, remained, even as left side of her body became weak, leaving her with a limp and partial sight.

The artist's success has skyrocketed in recent years: winning the Portrait of Britain 2019 competition, being shortlisted for the American Photography Open 2019 and the Life Framer Open Call 2019 competitions, and also for the world's most famous portrait competition, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019.

Sirli Raitma moved to England in 2004, joining her sister and mother, who already lived there.

Eha was now a widow, suffered from epilepsy and did not speak much English. With no acquaintances in her new home, depression crept in, meaning her view on life became dim.

The mother and daughter pairing experimented with different looks, wardrobes and other areas, all of which seemed to bring a new lease of life to Eha, the artist says.

"Eha is a natural model who cheerfully plays along with my visual fantasies. This project has affected both of us, and it is encouraging to see that the results are also having an impact on viewers. The feedback has been fantastic and consistent. It has prompted many to think about the state of their family and how the family members treat each other," Raitma says.

Other sources of inspiration included an exhibition from fellow photographer Tim Walker at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Raitma sees her greatest achievement is the human and spiritual satisfaction and appreciation that was restored in the photographic game of mother and daughter, and see it as significant that a personal family saga has in some ways superseded the regular subjects of modern photography – transgender, non-binary people, racial topics, the sufferers of wars, etc. – which she says demonstrates that sensitive stories do exist all around us.

The exhibition, curaed by Annika Haas, is already open at the Linnamuuseum's museum of photography, and sees a formal opening ceremony on February 4, including with a video-link to Eha herself.

Sirli Raitma's website is here.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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