Theater of Cruelty

A collective memory of growing up

Childhood Memories
ROM / Alongside our large-scale visual culture, Iris Maria Tusa has a rare photography book about Roma people – here we see how childhood shapes us, and later we shape our image of childhood.


In the years 1966-68, the American photographer worked Bruce davidson (b. 1933) with a series of photographs of East 100th Street motifs. The work included thousands of negatives and culminated in a book publication by Harvard University Press and an exhibition at MoMa in 1970. Davidson's intention with the project was to meet the people who lived in the city's unfashionable, run-down areas "eye to eye", to document the life of the city – depicting both as a problem and as an opportunity.


In connection with the exhibition in autumn 1970, the curator wrote, John Szarkowski (1925-2007), in the press release about Davidson's heartfelt empathy in the depicted: "Most photographers have approached Americ's visible minorities as though they were exotic quarry to be stalked and captured, or as statistics that might buttress a political position, or as symbols of the majority's guilty. Bruce Davidson has done a more difficult and more valuable thing: he has shown us true and specific people, photographed in those private moments of suspended action in which the complexity and ambiguity of individual lives triumph over abstraction." (1) In the same press release it is stated that Davidson's series is the result of a conscious collaboration between the depicted and the photographer and appears as the antithesis of the unconscious documentary photograph. We like to understand this by how the people depicted appear in a conscious pose, with their gaze firmly directed towards the camera lens. In this way, an effect is achieved that the conveyed story is "ours", where the viewer's eyes are the lens of the photographic apparatus, where the distance between the viewer og the set does not occur in the way it (often) does within documentary photography. Equally, the images must be said to be within the documentary photography genre.


At the same time, Davidson's method arose out of a certain necessity, as it must be said to be impossible to enter people's homes without it laying down guidelines for how life in the household appears. Moreover, the magic of the camera is so strong that most people naturally adopt a posing attitude towards it. In our mass-producing image culture, we also see how small children slip into another person as soon as a camera seems turned on: Look at me!

The antithesis of the unconscious documentary photograph.

It was perhaps unnecessary for an informed reader to point to Davidson's canonized East 100th Streetseries as a backdrop to read the Romanian contemporary photographer Iris Maria Tusa's series Childhood Memories , but it can be useful to see the historical relationship of this category of images can ha, in order to highlight what the present can possibly make use of from tradition.

Created in Dubrussia

Childhood Memories is an ongoing series of photographs created in Dubrusja, an area that stretches from southeastern Romania to northeastern Bulgaria. The population is mixed, but clearly dominated by Romanians. (2) The photographer himself has described the series as a creation of a collective memory of growing up. (3) In this lies not only an acknowledgment of the strong sense of growing up, but also a slightly nostalgic look back at a world that was not characterized by modernity's many moment-killing factors. The pictures were made over a number of years, but no chronology has been created regarding the emergence of the works from the photographer's side. (4) It is also in the nature of the motifs that some actual chronology is of less interest, apart from cataloguing considerations. Throughout, there is a conservative motif circuit that emerges in the series.

The backdrop with Davidsons#East 100th Street# can therefore appear searched. His motifs show to the highest degree contemporary and only appear as historical as the years have actually passed since their appearance. We also know that his pictures had an effect, in that decision-makers were made aware of social biases in the cityscape and prioritized a timely adjustment. Was there a social responsibility implicit in Davidson's work? It is not easy to say, and it touches on a complicated field. According to the press material from MoMa in 1970, Davidson has avoided creating any form of poverty pornography by working closely with the individual or the individual family, so that they do not appear as the statistical material of a big city. For Tusa, such issues do not seem relevant. Or are they?


For a true-born Norwegian, it is difficult to think of the countryside in Romania without thoughts of extreme poverty arising, even if the reality is far more nuanced. It is therefore not surprising that an immediate reaction to the series Childhood Memories can be a human empathy. Don't waste it! But at the same time, the pictures probably open up something more than a charity's Christmas magazine is used to. They open up chapters in one's own history, and it is a story which, for very few people, is about growing up in Dubrussia. For the photographer, on the other hand, the roots of the grandparent regeneration in the area are important. It is a bond, and a key to interest. The photographer's own experiences are important artistic tools, just as the viewer's horizon shapes the experience.

Childhood shapes us, and later we shape our image of childhood. Most people can recreate the feeling of being in motion, how the small crags are like eternal peaks, the air that carries us forward, the heat that is reflected, or the dew that meets bare feet. All that is actually recorded and lies there as memories in such a way that we know that the chapter is closed: It is no longer like that.

Is it like that for those who are children today? Beneath the many layers of modern varieties of childhood that only exist now, it probably is, at least to a certain extent. The summers of my childhood took place neither on sailing trips, in the South nor on expeditions. They were quite everyday and were spent at Dombås, Møre or Kongsvinger. Where there was, as it were, no modern era, but a development set to zero.

Such moments are recreated at Tusas Childhood Memories. It is not the individual's subjective experiences of growing up that show interest, but rather growing up as a phenomenon. In this way, place (Dubrusja) and time (now) are also detached as components in reading the images, as are surrounding factors such as social conditions or infrastructure. The photographer's distance from the depicted as a problem area will also cease, as the vast majority of them must admit that they have been children. It will be looking into a mirror, no matter how you look at it. This is also reflected in the children in the pictures, who in most cases openly address the photographer or the audience. Such motives can be experienced as confrontational. Between who you were and who you are. Or the depicted can act completely absorbed in their landscape, in their "play".

A childhood consists of a given interaction with other people. Sometimes you can live freed from overly tight ties, at other times you are present and actively searching in your communication. These are elements that Tusa alternates between in this series.

They get glimpses of life experience

It may be useful to see Childhood Memories in relation to Joseph Koudelkas gypsies# (1962-1971). There are several similarities between the series when it comes to the condensed concentration that a limited motif circle offers the possibility of.

Between who you were and who you are.

In Koudelka's pictures, too, time dissolves, and man is left to the elements of nature, as in a film by Kurosawa. It is inconceivable that not gypsies has been inspiring for Tusa. But with regard to the content, there is an important difference. At Koudelka, a group of people is shown, and we are made aware of their living conditions. Naturally, this is a simplified way of describing one of the most important photographic projects of the 1960s, but it is through simplification that the points emerge most easily. IN Childhood Memories the elements surrounding the human external are so toned down that there remains a core that revolves around the few glimpses of life experience that carry you forward.

Iris Maris Tusa is an independent photographer based in Bucharest, Romania. She has had many exhibitions. See

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