Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute

In Visible Presence book cover. Image links to event page



Book Talk. In Visible Presence
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Please join the Harriman Institute for a book talk with Olga Shevchenko. Moderated by Yana Skorobogatov.

A faded image of a family gathered at a festively served dinner table, raising their glasses in unison. A group of small children, sitting in orderly rows, with stuffed toys at their feet and a portrait of Lenin looming over their heads. A pensive older woman against a snowy landscape, her gaze directed lovingly at a tombstone. These are a few of the evocative images in In Visible Presence by Oksana Sarkisova and Olga Shevchenko, an exquisitely researched book that brings together photographs from Soviet-era family photo archives and investigates their afterlives in Russia. In Visible Presence explores the photographic images’ singular power to capture a fleeting moment by approaching them as points of contestation and possibility. Drawing on over a decade of fieldwork and interviews, as well as internet ethnography, media analysis, and case studies, In Visible Presence offers a rich account of the role of family photography in creating communities of affect, enabling nostalgic longings, and processing memories of suffering, violence, and hardship. Together these photos evoke youthful aspirations, dashed hopes, and moral compromises, as well as the long legacy of silence that was passed down from grandparents to parents to children. With more than 250 black and white photos, In Visible Presence is an astonishing journey into domestic photography, family memory, and the ongoing debate over the meaning of the Soviet past that is as timely and powerful today as it has ever been.

Olga Shevchenko (Harriman Postdoc 2002-2003) is Paul H. Hunn ’55 Professor in Social Studies at Williams College. She teaches and does research on visual culture and photography, post-socialism, and social memory in Russia. Shevchenko is the author of Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow (2009, Indiana University Press), and the editor of Double Exposure: Memory and Photography (2014, Transaction Publishers). Her most recent book, In Visible Presence: Soviet Afterlives in Family Photos was written in collaboration with Oksana Sarkisova and published by MIT Press in 2023. It is an extensive study of Soviet-era private family photo archives that demonstrates the singular power of the photographic image to command attention, resist closure, and complicate the meaning of the past.