EHA is a photographic series featuring my mother, who is portrayed in a number of unusual situations, poses and attire with a slightly unsettling, cinematic feel. The series began in 2015 and is ongoing, having become something of a phenomenon, almost with a life of its own, in the interim period.
The real Eha was born in Estonia in 1950, before moving to London with myself and my son, just before the dawn of the new millennium. Widowed, suffering from epilepsy and lacking great command of English, she stayed tightly involved in family life. Then, in 2015, Eha began to suffer from depression and life became bleaker. Beyond the procession of doctor’s appointments and medications, a new focus was needed and, after a chance spark created one day by staging a photo to celebrate a new haircut and wearing an unusual-looking hat we’d spotted in a charity shop window, the EHA project – almost accidentally – was born.
The first shoot was a success and we began to do others. When I started to come back from charity shop and vintage market trawls with increasingly unlikely outfits and accessories, my mother probably thought I was crazy. Deep down, she probably still thinks that’s the case, but my sense of fantasy and play had been set free and there was no going back. Eha, meanwhile, never refused any suggestion, inhabiting the persona we were inventing each time, without further explanation needed. The series became a collaboration, where we both experiment and push things further each time.
What is the secret of the project’s appeal? Eha’s unsmiling comi-tragedian’s face and often direct engagement with the camera suggest deeper purpose and mood. At the same time, her joyful, improbable outfits and the scenarios suggest a playfulness and flamboyance that is clearly celebratory in nature. There is a sense of fun and a ‘why not?’ aspect to the images, which viewers clearly pick up on and respond to Eha in fact was a natural model from the outset. She had studied fashion construction when she was young and she has retained a skill for and curiosity about dressmaking. In real life, as the project progressed, she became visibly more confident, engaging more readily with strangers and taking increasing pride in her appearance. The story became an unusual form of therapy enacted through acts of the imagination, where the exhibitionist personae we created helped bring the real Eha back to the surface.
Today, my mother’s depression and medical treatment are ongoing. It’s important to stress that though the project brings us an immense collaborative joy, it’s not a magic wand, serving to tie up all loose ends. At the same time, it has become intrinsic to her life and our relationship. It encircles us and keeps us safe.
It’s very encouraging to witness the strong resonance of the series in the wider world. Its most recent dedicated exhibition at The Museum of Photography Tallinn in Estonia, becoming the Museum’s most-visited exhibition since 1990.
One of the most interesting things has been the range in age of people attending – all probably taking something quite different from it, whether children and teenagers or younger and older adults. The feedback from the Museum was that the series prompted many to look at their own family situations and at how they treat each other.
The public success of the series began when two images from the series were selected as part of the Taylor Wessing Prize in 2019 – two images from a total of 55 in the exhibition, selected from 3,700 entrant photographs – with one of the two used widely as part of the publicity for the Prize, on social media, on posters on the London Underground and outside the National Portrait Gallery itself. Coverage since then has run from the book ‘Portrait of Humanity’ to national newspaper The Guardian in the UK and national television and print media across Scandinavia, in my native Estonia and as far away as Australia. Exhibitions and competition placements have included representing Estonia at the Visages d’Europe in Paris and being included in Life Framer, The American Photography Open and The British Journal of Photography’s ‘Portrait of Britain’ series. The most recent exciting development is an invitation from the Estonian government for the photos to be one of the country’s creative representations in the forthcoming Expo in Dubai in autumn 2021. Images have also found a home with private collectors in Europe and the US and, via Instagram, have spurned a run of fan art – from paintings and illustrations to embroidered portraits of Eha.
There is much humour to be had from the series and Eha herself loves the attention. She is very much an active player in the collaboration and, in spite of her health issues, her wonderful sense of humour is definitely a key ingredient of its appeal. When I was a child, my mother was full of plans and activities, from sewing to choir-singing to organising theatre trips. She hasn’t disappeared and this photo series continues to celebrate her rich life.
Sirli Raitma is a London based photographer. She was born and grew up in Suure-Jaani in Estonia. Sirli’s images span portraiture, landscapes and interiors, but portraiture – especially involving ambiguity via costume or displacement – is her heartland.