14 September 2017
14 September 2017 - Written by Gemma Padley
An Icelandic missing persons case in which six people confessed to crimes they did not commit is the inspiration for a photography project that probes the idea of memory and its unstable, unreliable nature.
It was while researching Icelandic folklore that British photographer Jack Latham stumbled across Iceland’s most notorious missing persons case. He had been reading up on Icelandic elves known as Huldufólk or ‘hidden people’ for a potential photography project, he explains, and came across the Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case. In 1974, on separate occasions, two men went missing, never to be seen or found again. A group of young “LSD-taking counter-culture hippies” was arrested and later convicted despite the absence of evidence. Each had been interrogated by police and made confessions before being convicted and serving time in prison.
Members of the group have maintained their innocence in the intervening decades and it has now become clear that they may in fact have been wrongly convicted for crimes they did not commit. Experts believe they have suffered from false memory syndrome (FMS) where a person begins to believe that something of which they have no real memory is true.
“I thought that was so intertwined with photography, storytelling, and misleading, in particular with memory,” says Latham whose project Sugar Paper Theories takes the case as its starting point. “I dedicated [time] not to try to crack the case, but to highlight how these six people were told a story and ended up believing it.”
Latham began work on the project in 2014 and continued shooting up until June 2016. He has since made Sugar Paper Theories into an award-winning book with Here Press and an exhibition of the work has recently opened in Reykjavik. Initially making trips to Iceland on his own where he met with conspiracy theorists, Latham began working with forensic psychologist Gísli Guðjónsson, a world-renowned expert on FMS and a witness in the case. The final project combines authoritative texts by Guðjónsson with Latham’s photographs made in response to the people and landscapes he encountered, archival photographs, testimonials, and other forms of documentation. It was, he says, an “amazing collaboration”, an experience in which “Gísli’s research and expertise informed my image-making.”
Although Latham is from the photo-documentary camp so-to-speak having graduated from Newport, University of South Wales with a degree in documentary photography, he sees himself as a storyteller for who research is a vital part of the process of making his work. Indeed, this project involved an immense amount of research, he says. And all documents were written in Icelandic, which was problematic. Together with Guðjónsson and an assistant, Latham went through hundreds of pages of documents, “trying to pick what was relevant … trying to find a narrative.”
He worked in a very hands-on way inspired by a conspiracy theorist he had met. “There is one photograph that sums up the project for me,” says Latham. “It’s the desk of a conspiracy theorist. On the wall is a timeline of events written on sugar paper. It’s his theory, and it’s where the title of the project comes from.
“It has a real arts-and-crafts [feel],” he continues. “If you look closely, there are little gold stars. It’s beautifully done, almost childlike. I like this idea of being an amateur researcher… So I adopted that role of researcher; I started collecting stuff, drawing parallels with and lines between key pieces of evidence. When it came to present it in a way that made sense, that research became part of the project.”
At times Latham adopted a nuanced, poetic approach, describing how he approached some of his images in a metaphorical way. He recounts how he chose to photograph the pet goldfish of one of the six accused rather than the woman herself, by way of an example. “I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for someone who has suffered from this syndrome - to have a pet that is synonymous with bad memory.”
With its piecemeal approach, the project seems to question photography’s claims to truth - well-worn territory, but intriguing all the same. Latham was also keen to ensure his work reflected and respected the experiences and feelings of those involved in the case. “To allow yourself to host the thought that you killed someone, to let that darkness in and to live with it for so long… these people have been through a tremendous amount," he says. "For me, as an outsider … it was about making sure their voices were heard.”
Jack Latham - Sugar Paper Theories is at Reykjavík Museum of Photography until 14 January 2018.
Jack Latham is a Welsh photographer based in Brighton. His work focuses on conceptual subject matter and is often presented in the form of large format photography and self-published books.
Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.
Early Careers focuses on a series by a photographer from the Photographic Museum of Humanity’s online community.