Looking for an escape from the realities of life under Soviet rule, thousands of Estonians swapped Eastern Europe for Canada. The post-war world was remapped by these patterns of mass emigration, and the second half of the twentieth century is, in many ways, a story of cultural crossover.
That story is one close to anthropologist-cum-photographer Kristen Dobbin, an Estonian-Canadian with a keen interest in the interplay between culture, community, and identity. Her most recent project sees her documenting a children’s camp situated an hour north of Toronto where the grand and great-grandchildren of Canada’s Estonian settlers can reconvene with the language and culture of the nation their families fled.
Kristen’s grandmother was a cook at Jõekääru. “Like many who’ve lived through war, dislocation and trauma, my grandmother didn’t talk too much about her experiences or losses,” Kristen tells us. “But as a kid, I was fascinated by my grandmother’s life. For a high school project, I recorded an interview with her talking about her escape from Estonia, about their life in Sweden, and their first years in Canada.”
In these photos, the children of contemporary Canada are thrust into a reimagined mid-century Estonia. They ache with the kind of pre-teen sense of hope that often dissipates as yet more candles are added to the collective cake. Girls in traditional dress plait one another’s hair; creeks are explored; windows look out onto a wider world that doesn’t understand the Estonian language, that has no interest in Estonian culture.
“The camp does have a feeling of timelessness to it. It looks just the same as when I was a kid,” she says of Jõekääru. “I thought it was the most magical place, with wildflowers growing everywhere and secret paths to get down to the river.”
Intriguingly, for all its oft-longed for bucolic beauty, she identifies the camp as somewhere where as a child she sought solace in, “solitude and daydreaming.” In her images, the campers are often caught in the middle of what’s either a moment of contemplative reverie or sheer boredom. That isn’t to say, of course, that the photos themselves are boring. Far from it: these images hum with a sense of the isolation that comes from being around others, but feeling other.
Otherness and estrangement are at the heart of Kristen’s photographic and anthropological practice. She says that her work has “helped me to better understand the power imbalances that can exist between subject and photographer/researcher,” while also allowing her to consider the “often negative baggage” that both fields carry.
“It also led me to think deeply about my role and responsibilities as a storyteller: Why should I be the one to tell a particular story? Can I do justice to the story? Is my approach ethical? What are the potential consequences of telling a particular story? What voices are being heard or left out? Am I an invited or uninvited guest in this story/place?”
Kristen admits that she’s always felt like both an insider and an outsider to Estonian language and culture, and you feel that the photos of Jõekääru are an attempt to interrogate both her own sense of belonging, and the way that home, and its roots, are never really forgotten. They move, they modernise, but at heart, they are burrowed deep in some imagined idyll.