"Kent Klich A Tree Called Home"

By Christine Antaya


Published in Sydsvenska Dagbladet 9/10 2021

Kent Klich A Tree Called Home

The wall paint is peeling, floor tiles are missing, and upholstery is escaping from the sofa. Kent Klich’s photographs of daily life at Russian psychiatric institutions include empty rooms, portraits and details of interiors. That which is worn and tatty appears as a recurring refrain throughout this body of work, testifying to Klich’s eye for surfaces and materiality. Crucially, people are never portrayed as damaged, but the places, and by extension the system.

Kent Klich is trained as a psychologist and worked as a social worker and pedagogue prior to becoming a photographer. His interest in social and political issues continues to inform his work. After studying photography in New York, Klich moved to Copenhagen, where he is still based. His first project there followed a woman, Beth, a sex worker and addict. Other long-term documentary works include work on children with HIV in Ceausescu’s Romania, Mexican street children and several projects on the Gaza strip.

His latest project which is now exhibited at Landskrona Foto and published as a book, has borrowed its title from a quote from a patient who was told as a child that his mother had disappeared into the woods after he was born. In Russia it is common for parents of children with disabilities to be advised to put them in institutions. When the child turns 18, they are often simply transferred from the orphanage to a different facility and are never provided the chance to socialize and learn to live in society.

The country has some 500 PNI:s, psychoneurological asylums, which house over 160,000 patients and some 100,000 employees. They are often located in remote areas and difficult to access. When Klich’s project was discussed during an international symposium in Landskrona in the days leading up to the exhibition opening, this isolation was emphasized as a pervasive problem. It is also a prominent theme in the exhibition.

In one of the first photographs, a man is sitting leaning forward at a table, the other people in the room are blurred, fixed in motion. The man’s posture makes it look like he’s holding a cell phone, even though he isn’t. Perhaps this is because the atmosphere of the image captures precisely what we most often use our phones for: passing the time.

The photographs are untitled and the institutions are anonymised, they are only designated as PNI A and B. Klich’s project is a detailed account, but at the same time specific stories or names are not linked to the individual images. In other words, there is a feeling that this is a meticulously conducted investigation of a catastrophic system, but the viewer’s thirst for details and neatly packaged story lines is ignored in favour of a more complex and inclusive narrative.

The photography scholar Mette Sandbye has described Klich’s approach as “new mixtures”, a socially and politically engaged documentary form that mixes different image genres: portraiture, landscape, cell phone images and found images (such as family photos of Palestinians living on the Gaza strip) in a new way.

This broad register referred to by Sandbye is exemplified in the exhibition, which in addition to Klich’s work includes found photographs found at a closed down PNI – black and white family photos, tourist images, snapshots of pets, and photographs taken at the institutions – as well as two video works produced in collaboration with the patients.

Klich’s book also includes a study by the psychologist Leonid Tsoy about violence at the PNI. The paper details well-known patterns of misconduct and abuse at the institutions, ranging from cell phone bans and limited possibilities to receive visits, to lack of care, to physical violence. A passage tells of a woman in her 70s who was bedridden and had not been outside the institution for 20 years. It also describes how patients with reduced mobility are often housed on the upper floors and cannot leave the ward themselves. Perhaps their beds do not fit in the elevator, or the elevator is simply broken. In the event of a fire, chances of survival are slim. It is a shocking read, which most of all leaves me with a feeling of immense waste – how can human lives be squandered like this?

Here, the photographs provide a counterpoint. There is a tendency in certain styles of photojournalism to reduce faces and bodies to signs of suffering. Klich’s images are a corrective to those kinds of simplifications; the photographs remind us that people are always more than their predicament. Despite their ostensible inertia, the images are full with life. One of the most obvious portraits in the exhibition is of a man sitting at a table. In front of him is a lighter and a pen. His gaze is alert, and directed to one side of the photographer. The image has incredible colours, the blue work shirt and the man’s complexion and white hair almost glow against the dull green background of the room. I want to know what he’s thinking.

The exhibition’s main themes of home and the right to a life of one’s own are fleshed out and given a soundtrack in the two video works that are shown in a dark room in the middle of the exhibition space. Homes (2021) shows animations of small houses made of paper by Alexei Sakhnov, a patient at a PNI. Here they appear as ghosts of lost homes. In the same room, the film Voices (2021) shows patients looking out the windows, to a soundtrack that can be described as a cacophonous yet quiet chorus. When Klich, through an interpreter, tried to talk to the residents of the institutions, to find out things about their past, they would often only answer in single sentences. Eventually, he asked them to sing instead. He recorded these individual responses and had the artist Dror Feiler edit the voices into a choir. After having seen all the silent photographs, we are inundated by voices. The result in the exhibition is striking.

It is liberating to experience a form of documentary photography that so clearly distances itself from the macho ideal of the lone photographer collecting definitive photos almost like a hunter gathers his trophies. My favourite in the exhibition, which is also the most melancholy of the images, is of a young man lying with his face buried in a pillow. Three photographs are tacked to the wall above his bed, ostensibly old family pictures. They are one of the few reminders in Klich’s series of time passing and the outside world.

What makes this picture so good is precisely those photographs in the background, someone else’s pictures, which in turn echoes the project’s overall humility and collaborative ethos. “I always collaborate, simply because I don’t know everything,” Klich said at the symposium. The exhibition acknowledges the inadequacy of the photographer and the single image, while at the same time testifying to their brilliance. That’s quite an achievement.