Photos tell story of 1991 resistance

One of the gems of the 52nd congress of the American Latvian Association, held May 2-4 in St. Paul, Minn., is the exhibition of 40 photographs by Pēteris Jaunzems.

The exhibit, titled “Gaisma pret tumsu” (Light Against the Darkness) and consisting of black-and-white images from the days of the January 1991 “barricades” in Latvia, was first put on display two years ago to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Latvia’s civil disobedience against the Soviet regime. Although the symbolism of the exhibit has worn off a bit since the anniversary, Jaunzems’ work still communicates the passion of those who stood up to tyranny.

Jaunzems, according to the brochure that describes the exhibit, was born in 1938 and has had success both as a fine art photographer and photojournalist. His pictures have been exhibited widely and have earned him more than 200 awards. Jaunzems is on the staff of Kurzemes Vārds, a regional daily newspaper in Liepāja.

The pictures in the exhibit often are grainy and contrasty, thus showcasing their journalistic quality and accentuating the theme of the exhibit. They are photographs taken from a Latvian viewpoint and reveal the strength of both individuals and the masses.

I was particularly taken by two images. One reminded me of a portrait of the American writer Ernest Hemingway. It turned out to be a portrait of the Latvian poet Olāfs Gūtmanis, titled, in Latvian, “Dzejnieks un Tautas frontes Liepājas nodaļas līderis Olāfs Gutmanis,” but in English simply “The Poet.” Gūtmanis appears to be looking into the wind, as if hoping for new times to sweep over Latvia.

In contrast to the singular poet was a picture titled “Daugavmalā” (On the Bank of the Daugava). Unfortunately, the title only describes where the image was taken. The Daugava River splits the frame. In the distance is the suspension bridge—Vanšu tilts—that carries traffic from Rīga’s Old City across to the Pārdaugava district. But in the foreground is a river of protestors carrying Latvian flags. It’s a powerful picture, showing both the unity of the Latvians in 1991, as well as a nod to how the nation has often turned to the Daugava for strength.

A closer look at some of the photographs reveals a subtle humor. “Protesta balss” (Protestor) shows a man in a dark hat and coat. Around his next he carries a selfmade sign with the word “Latvian” written not in Latvian, but in Russian, the language of the oppressors. That this was a snub of the Soviet regime’s attempts at Russification cannot be missed.

In another picture, Jaunzems turned his camera’s lens skyward to capture one of the Soviet helicopters that flew low over Rīga during the protests of January 1991. The picture is titled “Maskava! Nesūti mums slepkavas!” (Moscow! Don’t Send Us Murderers!, but unfortunately translated in the brochure to a watered-down Moscow! Keep Out!), which is taken from a Russian-language protest sign that appears in the foreground. The image made me smile when I noticed the straw Christmas decorations hanging from wires. The lines made by the straw mimic the lines made by the blades of the helicopter, both seemingly fragile objects that could be easily crushed.

The exhibit, unfortunately, appeared well-traveled. Photographs were bent and boards on which they were mounted were bruised. Yet, I have to admit, that added to the character and emotion of the pictures.

If the exhibit comes to your community, go take a look. The pictures tell a story of which we need to be reminded.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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