Sabine Dundure: I am Karen (reinterpreted)

Sabine’s photographs of  the Karen Community were part of her final year degree project. The photos were overlaid with text offering both a striking visual juxtaposition as well as interpretation by artists and subject alike.

The photos were shown at Bank Street Arts alogside multiple curatorial text interpretations, inviting the audience to re-consider not only the photos and Dundure’s textual overlays but also the whole problematic of text and art in galleries.

I am Karen – Sabine Dundure

‘Sheffield has one of the biggest Karen communities in the UK. The change of environment […] is immense. Nevertheless they try to integrate, whilst protecting their unique culture’ Sabine Dundure

I am Karen is a portrait project documenting the lives of Karen refugees resettled in Sheffield. Dundure photographs each subject in their new home landscape wearing traditional Karen dress, juxtaposing different aspects of their lives.

Texts alongside each photograph tell their personal stories of family, of life in Burma and Thai refugee camps. The words, unedited, handwritten, where possible, are as much image as text. Dundure builds these words into her portraiture to create a visual narrative, exploring the correlation between identity and environment.

Sabine Dundure is a Latvian photographer. She graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with BA (Hons) Photography, and has previously been commissioned by the Sheffield Volunteer Centre and Sheffield Hallam University’s Multifaith Centre to create a series of portraits. These were exhibited at the National Interfaith Week and National Volunteer Week. The subjects of Dundure’s photographs come from the environment she lives in.

(Text by Angelina Ayers)

I am Karen – Sabine Dundure

“I Am Karen is a portrait project documenting members of the Karen community in Sheffield. The Karen are one of the largest ethnic groups living in Burma and for decades they have been struggling for democracy, equal rights and greater regional autonomy. As a result of state oppression, many Karen people have been forced to flee their home villages, hiding in jungles or settling in refugee camps on the Thai border. Some of these refugees have been able to resettle in other countries.

Sheffield has one of the largest Karen communities in the UK. Despite the huge challenge they face when settling … [here] … as the culture and environment is so different from that of their homeland, they try to integrate whilst protecting their unique culture, in the hope that one day Burma will be a democratic and peaceful country.”

Sabine Dundure, 2011

Sabine Dundure is from Latvia. She studied photography at Sheffield Hallam University and in Riga. She has recently exhibited in Sheffield and the Ukraine.

(Text by John Clark)

I am Karen – Sabine Dundure

The following an extract of a conversation between Sabine Dundure and Andrew Conroy

AC: What prompted your decision to photograph the Karen community members ‘posing’ for the camera instead of, for instance, candidly observing them in the context of their lived, everyday lives?

SD: I rarely take portraits that are not posed. I like my subjects to be aware of the picture taking process. I want them to stop doing their daily activities and spend some time in front of a camera. It all makes the individual and the process feel more important and special.

Secondly it is down to the equipment I use- 4×5 large format camera. It takes time to set it up.

AC: It’s interesting that you use the terms ‘important and special’- they imply a self-consciousness on the subject’s part that a lot of photographers might be uncomfortable with. Given the questions of access and communication, was doing this more of an issue with I Am Karen than other projects you’ve worked on?

SD: The way people position themselves in front of the camera can say a lot about them. The Karen project was different because the people I photographed have a ‘bigger’ story behind them. Although there was sometimes a language barrier it was never much of a problem. Karen people are very friendly, welcoming and hospitable… and they want people to know their story.

(Text by Andrew Conroy)

I am Karen – Sabine Dundure

This text accompanies Sabine Dundure’s work but is not part of it and exists on the margin of the work; its purpose to provide a first point of contact for the viewer.

Each image is in two parts: a portrait of a member of the Karen community now living in Sheffield and a text telling their story in their own words.

Like this text, the subjects are marginalized yet help to define and triangulate the limits of that which marginalizes or exiles.

Dundure presents the people in a blank uncomplicated manner, in order that we can make judgements about them and their situation. We can examine their dress, which may seem unfamiliar to us, and look hard at their faces. We may fancy that we detect intelligence, wit, stoicism and so on. To closely examine these images is normal for a gallery visitor; encountering the subjects themselves with this intensity would be intrusive, impolite, offensive or bureaucratic. Galleries encourage us to infer and speculate based on cues within images. Those judgmental acts – prejudicial, partial and born as much from ignorance as much as knowledge – are affected and mediated here, by the autobiographical text accompanying the image as part of “the work”, and further complicated by the text you are reading now.*

The spaces between viewer and subject are plotted on a global scale as well as being mediated through Dundure’s camera. These people have seen things we hope never to see and yet they live among us and share our city.

Of course, I am identifying with you, the viewer, and assume that you identify with me. You may have more in common with the subjects than with me. How could I know?

*Depending on when you read this, or whether you read it at all.

(Text by Bryan Eccleshall)

I am Karen – Sabine Dundure

Presenting that which remains hidden from normal view, I am Karen serves to address assumptions about local identity, challenging received ideas about urban social environments.

The portraits in this series will act, for some, as both introduction and revelation. Asserted before us here, the presence of the Karen community engages the viewer in a visual and textual dialogue which redresses the social geography of our locality, providing an opportunity for reflection upon identity, community and shared space.

The surface simplicity of these portraits conceal complex contradictory messages delivered through visual juxtaposition of individuals with their environment. The subjects confront the viewer with a steady, confident gaze belying the hardships detailed in their written accounts, and their bright textured garments appear at odds with the decaying concrete and cold tarmac that surround them. Their presence within these mundane urban environments makes strange worlds normal to us, presenting both familiarity and difference, recognition and confusion. However within the images’ deliberate banality, the subjects become remarkable and their remote realities tangible.

The accompanying textual vignettes deny the subject’s objectification by the viewer. The broken English of their accounts, however, maintains a fragmented, indistinct picture, delaying the immediacy of their thoughts and emotions. Translated from one language into another, meanings are lost, misinterpreted and reformed anew, becoming vague and blurring the initial clarity of the image.

Repeatedly translated into new contexts, the Karen people presented here reveal transient and unstable identities which are constantly revised and adapted to suit their current environment. These portraits offer onlookers only one possible version of a multitude of selves.

(Text by Cloe Reith)

I am Karen – Sabine Dundure

Why should I write a text to accompany these images when Doh Ray has already said it all: ‘I may have a smile on my face when I tell my story but in my heart I am very sad, very hard’? His expression in the portrait is not quite a smile, but his warning – gently expressed – makes me reluctant to write at length about an image in which so much is folded away from view. We see people and hear something of their stories. We do not know their hearts.

Back and forth between the texts and the portraits, a viewer could become a little desperate. Where is the story in the picture? The history in the face? It is easy to imagine that events touch the heart and the heart determines the expression as the body takes up its place, at the top of the stairs, in front of the washing line. Yet this is not how it is at all. When you stand with others, even if you know their stories, you do not share the taste of their experience or feel its texture. You only know that their lives have a taste and texture beyond what you can feel.

Here in the gallery, I shall try to listen to Doh Ray’s warning – to avoid emerging as the weak link in the chain of generous subject, careful photographer, and glib consumer of art. There is plenty of critical jargon designed to unlock the secrets of images such as these, but I’ll put it aside for the moment and simply stand here with the pictures. I’ll look into the eyes of the people in the photographs just as they direct their gaze out through the lens at me. And I’ll think about what it means that I shall inevitably be the first to look away.

(Text by Richard Steadman-Jones)

See also.