11.41 – Michał Łuczak & Filip Springer
11.41 is a photographic and literary story about a tragedy that happened in Armenia in 1988, the story of a huge catastrophe and the preposterous beauty hidden in the details.
As a result of an earthquake which took place at 11:41 (hence the title), 514 thousand people lost their homes, 33 thousand were injured, 25 thousand lost their lives, and 917 buildings were damaged.
Why did two Polish reporters decide to prepare a book about an earthquake which took place in distant Armenia nearly 30 years ago? The authors don’t share their motivations, they don’t confess why they chose this precise place and tragedy. Maybe because it was the greatest or the most tragic or because it occurred in the period of the decline of the USSR and forced the world power to admit its weakness.
Filip Springer was interested in the testimonies of survivors, people’s struggles with their everyday reality, memories, and feelings of guilt caused by the fact that they didn’t die with their loved ones. Composed of twenty-one short chapters, the book combines a travel diary, an emotional commentary, and statistics. The photos taken by Michał Łuczak tell the story of the city of Spitak from a distance, and at the same time convey some universal truth. In the first part the photographer recorded some traces of human presence, and in the third he shows gravestones with effigies of tragically deceased victims.
Part I and III
Łuczak discovers his protagonist in detail. He manages to capture an interesting ambivalence: the temporary structures that he photographed are beautiful and miserable at the same time. The structures themselves serve as stories about life, and are its awkward manifestations. These are things that outlived their owners, and thus are a kind of their representatives. As no people are shown in the pictures, each of these things becomes a specific memoir, a testimony. The more imperfect or weak they are, the more interesting the story they tell is. The photographer doesn't need a crying figure to recount the tragedy of an individual. The narration is discreet and balanced, not overly stylised.
In the third part Łuczak presents fragments of gravestones of the victims of the catastrophe. Even if the effigies are naive, they are not funny, but rather touching – they provoke emotions pretty similar to those you experience while you go through an album of family photos. The scenes documented on them are an idealised image of life. Family portraits, memories of time spent together dominates, although a lot of space was given to the individual silhouettes. We learn the most about the deceased from raised up brows, crossed legs – positions of bodies stilled in a photograph. If we assume, these are one of the rare photographs of the victims, they constitute also an important question about the role of the photography as such, about what is worth documenting.
Springer starts his story with the account of Rusana Papyan, who lost her entire family in the catastrophe. Her tragedy is interspersed with sentences by the reporter who concludes the victim's story in a quite banal way, for instance:
In the silence of her flat, each word rots.
Chapters where the emotional engagement of the reporter is less visible read much better. This is the case of the second chapter where the author describes the behaviour of animals before the tragedy:
One day before the catastrophe, Levush Hakobyan visited his neighbour. They planned to had lunch together. His neighbour had an aquarium, where he kept twenty-three silver guppies.
‘We were eating and they were jumping out of the aquarium, one after another, straight onto a carpet’, Levush said. ‘We had to bring something to cover the aquarium. We were eating and they kept vehemently bumping into it from underneath. They strived to escape at any cost’.
The fragments I enjoyed most were these in which the author limits his role to putting facts together and doesn't interpret them, doesn’t do it for the reader. Apart form recalling some individual stories, the reporter presents descriptions of temporary architecture or commentaries on the lack of urban planning. From these documents, the author of 13 pięter [editor’s translation: 13 floors] and Bathtube with a colonnade easily draws conclusions about the state's attitude toward its citizen.
What Springer and his characters have in common is that they originate from the former Easter Bloc. The fall of the USSR ('the other side of the world') returns in the text several times. The foundations of the USSR were supposed to be shaken, instead it was the earth that trembled in Spitak. If this analogy is the moment when reportage mixes with belle-lettres, I would rather be in favour of the first one. 'No metaphors, when the historical documentation exists', Philip Roth is believed to have said, and this sentence kept returning to my mind when Springer looked for right words to describe the suffering of his characters. So it did while I was reading the last, 21st chapter of the book.
To sum up: is this a book about an earthquake or a failed political transformation? Unfortunately for the text, it is about both. Fortunately for the photographs, these two things turned out to be merely a starting point for other explorations. What is most to be appreciated in this book is the juxtaposition of two very disparate sets of photos. Thanks to this decision a clunky bench seems to tell as much about an attitude towards life as the way an elegant dark-haired man from a gravestone holds his cigarette.