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Charkow – Everyone Has Roots

Ellen Korth’s Charkow won the 2017 International Photobook Award of Photo Independent!
(Get a copy from the artist on Edition.ly)

Charkow is about the search for a sense of belonging with in its center my mother and her secrets. My mother fled during the Second World War from the Ukraine through Germany to Holland.

Everyone has roots. Everyone is nurtured by the ground from which they grow and in which they flourish. The town, the region, the country. The scent in the air, the taste of the earth. The color of the trees. And maybe, more importantly, the family you grow up in. Even if you move houses every year, you bring the soil that nurtures your family with you. Soil into which your roots can grow deeper and deeper as you grow older. Except…while everyone may have roots, not everyone has soil. Some people’s roots aren’t in soil but on the ground, in a thin layer of earth to camouflage the hard ground underneath. That’s the kind of person I am.

I know almost nothing about my mother. She was always very quiet and never told me anything about her origin. She destroyed her past. When I was a little girl, I found a suitcase in a cupboard in our hall full of half-torn off photos. As soon as I asked my mother about the suitcase it was gone. She let everything from her past disappear. My mom came from Charkow, that’s basically all I know. Two years ago, when I was occupied with this book, I tried to gather information about her, sadly I wasn’t able to find anything. Maybe she even changed her name? Even that is still not clear for me.

She destroyed all of her personal belongings and concealed her origin. She searched and built her homeland in me. But for me, she remained a mystery. Who was that woman with a suitcase full of photographs torn in half, who made that same suitcase vanish after I had found it as a little girl, on the top shelf of the hall’s cupboard? My mother didn’t throw pebbles but bread crumbs, in the knowledge that the birds would eat them. Breadcrumbs are all I’ve got left.

I have traveled a lot, and widely, and after a nomadic life, I eventually ended up in northern Germany. I was born in the Netherlands and in contrast to my mother, I would have known after such a long time that this country is my homeland. It is very important to me, while my mother could never settle in the Netherlands.

I have never been to the Ukraine. Only after returning to the Netherlands after living in Germany for 35 years, I asked myself; “What is the meaning of a homeland?” Everything repeated itself in my own life, the difference to my mother being that I voluntarily left home. My mother wasn’t able to settle anywhere – nowhere felt like home to her. I didn’t choose the place where I lived voluntarily. But the reason I stayed was a relationship. A relationship can be a home as well. For my mother, this wasn’t true, so I turned out to be her home.

Home is where the heart is,
Home is so remote,
Home is just emotion
Sticking in my throat,
Home is hard to swallow,
Home is like a rock,
Home is good clean living,
Home is,… I forgot.

LENE LOVICH, Home

I wanted to ask people what homeland means to them? Their house, their garden, their lives, their partnership? I talked to people in my neighborhood and visited these people for a long time during their regular days. I took part in their lives. I wanted to show the joy in people’s way of living. How happy they are with the place where they live. And why this place is their homeland.

After my studies in textile design, I made textile objects for a long time, with many exhibitions at home and abroad.  After that, I started to photograph the textile objects and work together with a photographer and filmmaker. I made artist’s books from these projects.

Exhibitions are important to me, because everything that will be turned into a book, should also be possible to be experienced in a physical way. I want to use this book to record the wonderful stories, which the people I’ve visited and interviewed told me, so that they won’t get lost. Everything will be documented and archived.

The hardest part in the creation of a book is to melt together the collected material and the photos’ casting so that it becomes a story. I work with Sybren Kuiper, a book designer. It is always an exciting process. An artist’s book is more for me than the ability sheer ability to turn pages. The kind of paper is highly important. The whole examination is supposed to be a sensible act. For this I admire the books from artists like Yoshihiko Ueda, Rinko Kawauchi and Duane Michals (with his witty handwritten texts alongside his pictures).

My work is deeply influenced by Japanese culture and philosophy. I studied Japanese philosophy for many years. The aversion towards the excitement of our fast paced time created the need for tranquillity and focus in me. I’m fascinated by Japan, where the art of reduction and minimalism has a century long tradition. The eastern idea of emptiness, beauty, gardening, architecture paper and more have a strong influence on me. Often I work together with a photographer/ painter, who visits Japan every year for several weeks. As part of this collaboration we created artists’ books together. Actually, after my first Japan trip I started creating artists’ books on my own. This trip and later ones influenced me a lot.


Ellen Korth

I work as a multimedia photographer/artist, known as producer of, among other things, the international prizewinning design book Utilité (awarded with the silver medal for best book design in Leipzig) and the photo-art book Jorinde - admitted in the library of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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