A century after the Russian revolution and almost thirty years after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, what remains of the communist parties around the world? A photographer visited them. In five countries.
What is left of the communist ideology, which influenced more than a century of world history before almost disappearing in a few years, asked the Dutch photographer Jan Banning? This question served as a red thread in the project of this former student of social and political history born in 1954 to parents from what is now Indonesia. In Jan’s lens, five countries with parties still claiming to be Marxist-Leninist, shown through the intimate space of the activists’ offices, and focused on the omnipresent communist iconography. His work, Red Utopia, which gave rise to a traveling exhibition and a book, presents movements with unequal electoral successes, and activists with varied profiles, with one common point: today, the revolution is no longer their horizon.
GEO The October Revolution has just turned 100 years old. When did the idea for this work come to you?
Jan Banning: I thought about it as early as 2013. At the time, I was angry that neoliberal logic was presented to us as the only valid ideology, with no possible alternative. I’m not a communist, I never voted for them, but in the face of growing inequalities, I felt the need for more equity. Why, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, has the communist ideology evaporated? I associate the parties that claim to be communist with the Khmer Rouge, with authoritarianism and rigidity, with the immense shadow of the gulag… But I do not forget that other political systems have also led to millions of deaths, organizing genocides, pogroms, inquisitions, colonialism, civil wars… But also poverty, poor management of wealth. I remained an academic, and I put my historian’s eye on the vestiges of communism.
How did you choose the countries?
First, I eliminated those that are officially communist – China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba – because most of them have long since converted to a market economy, more or less. And I was interested in places where people join the party out of conviction, not career. I also ruled out the United States, where the CP is too marginal, and then South Africa and Chile, because in these two countries I felt that they were trying to manipulate me so that I would offer flattering clichés. I chose Russia for obvious reasons since it is the cradle of the October revolution. And I chose Nepal, Kerala, and Portugal because the communist parties there continue to gather a significant number of votes. Italy interested me because of the history of its party, which was perhaps the most important in the West in the 1970s, and which had an original interpretation of the ideology, leaving more room for artistic freedom than the other communist parties.
Did the militants let you approach them easily?
I started each time with a phase of the approach, during which I went on the spot just to see if the project held the road visually. I did not systematically explain my approach, I only specified that I was not a member of the party if I was asked. Some people may have assumed the opposite, but in any case, the reception was rather warm. In Russia, for example, the activists I met, often elderly, were flattered that someone from far away was paying attention to them when they felt abandoned by the authorities. In Portugal, it was more complicated. After I sent the photos I had taken during my first stay, the central committee exempted me from returning. Without explanation. I had to cancel my trip three days before departure. I suppose that my work, focused on the intimate, did not show enough, for their taste, jubilant crowds waving red flags. In Italy, it was different: I was able to go four times. And not only did I eat very well there, but no one made any comments, I was given complete freedom.
How did you choose the people who appear in the portraits?
Sometimes, as in Russia or Kerala, there was only one person on the spot who came to open the office for me! I also tried to give the most accurate vision possible of the profile of the activists. In Italy, there are many young people, alterglobalists, environmentalists, members of the slow food movement… and among them, many women. But the choice was always made by intuition. Sometimes, the image seemed more meaningful, stronger, without anyone on it, except for the portraits of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao. Besides, it was quite interesting to find the same figures everywhere, even if some seemed more popular in some countries: Stalin in Russia, Mao in Nepal, Che Guevara in India but also in Italy…
Did your shooting follow a particular ritual?
Not necessarily, but one thing is for sure, I am someone who works slowly! I set up my tripod and feel my way around until I find the ideal position and light. To improve the composition, I have sometimes moved an object around a bit, like a bunch of keys, but always after making sure that its place had no particular meaning. I never moved a piece of furniture, let alone a portrait or a painting. The quickest pose must have lasted forty-five minutes, the longest, several hours. This was the case in Russia, with five party members. I was curious to see them interact and tried to make myself as invisible as possible. The more time passed, the more the bottle of vodka was emptied. The two women, embarrassed, were trying to hide it and control two of the men, frankly drunk! This time, I took about eighty pictures, without ever changing my camera.
You say you were moved by this work. What did it trigger in you?
It was different in each country. In Russia, I was shocked by the discourse of activists who sometimes denied Stalinist crimes, explaining that these were only rumors spread abroad. By dint of my contact with them, I understood their nostalgia. I understood that they did not experience the time of the purges and live in cities that were sometimes preserved from them. But I also understood how much their material conditions have deteriorated since the fall of the USSR. They have lost the little security they enjoyed at the time: they no longer have access to a good health system, they receive little or no aid, their children have left for Moscow or St. Petersburg to find work… In Italy, it was something else. In the South in particular, in Sicily for example, I was able to observe how young people refused selfishness and tried to do, at least on their scale, something to help their community. I did not become a communist for all that, but I was moved to meet people who sincerely wanted to work for a fairer world.