Sarka Vancurova, Street Portraits of Young Couples – Gabrielle Sarthou

[August 23, 2023]

By Gabrielle Sarthou

It was in Montreal in 2020, during the pandemic lockdown and the even stricter conditions of the ensuing curfew, that photographer Sarka Vancurova started her series Street Portraits of Young Couples. Her gelatin silver photographs present young couples in search of physical and social connection during a time of generalized forced isolation. Moved by an urgent, ardent desire to find each other, these teenagers and young adults, found on public benches, in parks, and on streets, look directly at us, immersing their gaze in ours.

Drawn to these duos’ radiant vulnerability and uniqueness, Vancurova decided to take their pictures. The couples choose their own poses, bringing raw, simple, and true expressions of love to the shots. Capturing an instant, a small piece of a story, Vancurova immortalizes this memory of love during the pandemic. Such images frozen in time bring to mind what the late Milan Kundera (1929–2023) said: “Memory does not make films, it makes photographs” (Immortality). The subjects’ frontal gazes evoke a spontaneous encounter; they give the sense that the person looking at them is interrupting a moment that has nothing to do with her. The positions are reversed: we’re the ones who are walking, we’re the ones being asked to reveal some of our complexity.

Vancurova is a Czech-born documentary photographer and humanist artist who has lived and worked in many European countries, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands; she settled in Montreal in 2020. Her reportages focus on people engaged in struggles against social injustice or living on the fringes of society in different parts of the world. She calls herself a “visual journalist,” a way of saying that she approaches the arts from a journalistic point of view and documents what she sees in her images.

After taking the first portraits in her series in Montreal, Vancurova continued this instinctive, emotional project in her travel reportages. Street Portraits of Young Couples also features young people from Paris and Mexico City. When we realize that the images come from different environments, we begin to think about facets of love that bridge cultures, languages, and customs. Each couple brings a different narrative and dynamic, enhancing the project as a whole. The streets and parks in each city visited become the theatre for unique narratives. Looking at all these duos, it is possible to imagine their lives, to piece together an idea of who they are. And yet, their stories remain hidden.

Taking portraits is a way of getting closer to people. The candid and spontaneous shots in Street Portraits of Young Couples reflect Vancurova’s curiosity, her tendency to approach others, but especially the connection between two people. The series speaks of human beings and their relationships, asking about both what brings us together and what separates us. The series suggests social ties stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic. Vancurova chose her models impulsively, stopping when she noticed something surprising, photogenic, admirable, atypical – something indescribable that brought her up short. She wasn’t necessarily seeking; she was finding.

The choice of black and white is interesting. Like Peter Lindbergh, who said that, for him, “black and white has always been connected to the image’s deeper truth, to its most hidden meaning,” Vancurova finds that “reality is more real” in black and white. She wanted to emphasize not brightly coloured clothing but facial expressions and body language. Many images in the series highlight expressions of embodied tenderness or protectiveness: interlaced fingers; a hand on a shoulder, hip, or belly.

The series is not yet complete. She will continue to add to it during her coming trips. These portraits of young couples serve as visual evidence of hope and human resilience in the face of life’s challenges and tests. More than a simple set of photographs, this project reflects humanity in all its splendour. In all its love. Translated by Käthe Roth

A graduate of the St. Joost School of Art & Design in Breda, the Netherlands, Sarka Vancurova is a documentary photographer and independent photojournalist based in Montreal. Her social concerns have led her to engage with the fate of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Afghan families in Quebec. She has contributed to various news organizations, including the web media Pieuvre and the daily newspaper La Presse, both of which published her reportages shot in Mexico.

Gabrielle Sarthou (she/they) is studying for a master’s degree in art history at UQAM and teaching at a CEGEP. Sarthou’s research, focused on gender studies, involves historiography and colour theory. As a curator and art critic, Sarthou likes to connect art and words by contributing to a number of cultural magazines, including Ciel variable, ESPACE art actuel, and Vie des arts.