“Memory and photography have always had a strange relationship,” states photographer Jack Latham. “Photographs are so often used as the anchor points of our history but at the same time, due to their silence and isolation from context they can only truly offer reflections of history.” Based in Bristol, when we last spoke to Jack, it was his series Parliament of Owls documenting the San Francisco gentlemen’s club Bohemian Grove which we focussed on. This time, however, it’s his fascinating work Sugar Paper Theories, recently released as a second-edition book to coincide with the opening of his exhibition of the same name, which took centre stage.
Jack originally started the project in 2014. “I had just finished making a previous body of work which focused on America and was looking to make a project that focused more on narratives,” he recalls. While researching an entirely different subject, Jack stumbled upon the story of a murder investigation which took place in Iceland, and which remains infamous to this day.
In 1974, two men went missing in separate incidents in southwest Iceland, several months apart from each other. One was an 18-year-old, heading home from a drunken night out, and the other a family man who failed to return home from a meeting with a stranger. The Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case became national news, with a story focussed on smuggling, drugs and alcohol and Iceland’s anxieties over the corrupting influence of the outside world. Ultimately, a group of young people all confessed to the murders and were convicted, despite the fact that none of them had memories of the nights in question.
Through a public inquiry and a subsequent appeal, it was uncovered that hundreds of days and nights of interrogation and pressure from an inadequate criminal justice system had damaged the suspects’ link between their real lives and their memories and so all but one were acquitted of their crimes. Today, the fight to free the remaining suspect continues and the real murderer has never been found.
Instantly drawn to the case upon discovering it, Jack “felt that memory, or more specifically distrusting memories, which is central to the case, was an interesting theme to tackle and felt that photography was the correct medium to explore it further.” He photographed the places and people central to the narrative, spending time with surviving suspects, whistleblowers, conspiracy theorists and expert witnesses. The result is a series which challenges the very idea of memory, using documentary photography and archival material to do so.
“The work draws upon sources from lots of different aspects of the case – police evidence files, diary entries and court documents,” Jack explains. “The book itself was designed to reflect a sort of conspiracy theorist’s manifesto. I feel there is an interesting power dynamic when combining photographs that were used with evidence and then photographs made in response to the case. It creates a tension and authority that perhaps shouldn’t be there.” The series’ name also references conspiracies, coming from an image of one theorist’s desk. “This gentleman, who became very well-read about the case, would draw out timeline events in hopes of trying to solve it,” Jack tells us. “He drew these timelines on sugar paper.”
Jack tells us about one image from the series, in particular, which shows a solitary building camouflaged among a snowy landscape and grey sky: “Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, upon serving his time, went on to become a priest. When making this work I felt it was important not to photograph the people central to the case, but instead to reference them. Because of this we went to a remote part of Iceland and photographed the churches which he used to manage. Churches themselves come built-in with the symbolism of purity, sin and confession and I felt it was a much more interesting motif than a portrait ever could have been.”
Much of the series follows this aesthetic and conceptual sensibility, finding subtle ways to tell the story rather than just throwing out facts and statistics. It’s a clever method of storytelling, one that keeps readers guessing and digging for more. This is then combined with testimonies and the real words of those involved, reflecting a sensitive and authentic understanding of the impacts the case had on Iceland and its people. Erla Bolladottir, the only person to not have her charges overturned by the government in 2018, has written a foreword to the book about her experiences with the case. “When revisiting the book we felt it important to include her voice at the start of it,” Jack adds. “Gísli Guðjónsson, who I worked with previously on the first edition, has also written an additional chapter which explains the developments of the case since 2016. He was a policeman in Reykjavik at the time of the murders and went on to become a forensic psychologist, whose expert testimony and pioneering theory of ‘memory distrust syndrome’ helped free the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four and was pivotal to this case.”
Sugar Paper Theories is open from 12 October – 22 December at The Royal Photographic Society in Bristol and marks the first UK exhibition of the work.
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