Sugar Paper Theories
The Royal Photographic Society, RPS House Bristol
On the occasion of his solo exhibition currently at RPS House Bristol, photographer Jack Latham sits down with 1000 Words Editor, Tim Clark to discuss his latest body of work Sugar Paper Theories. The project delves into Iceland’s unsolved, double-murder investigation from 1974 – known as the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case – following the disappearance of two men in separate incidents in the country’s southwestern region. By deftly fusing photographs of key protagonists implicated in the historical event – suspects, whistleblowers, conspiracy theorists, expert witnesses and bystanders – with archival material from the original police files, Latham pieces together a narrative reconstruction of the case to explore the machinations of memory and the power of suggestibility, as well as photography’s truth claims.
Here Latham speaks about revisiting the work, changes that advance the monograph from its first to second iteration with Here Press, and the similarities he perceives between the eclectic nature of photographic narratives and conspiracies.
Tim Clark: Can you tell us about your background and how you came to be a photographer?
Jack Latham: I was born and raised in Cardiff. I didn’t particularly enjoy my time in high school due to being diagnosed dyslexic and as a result didn’t do well in my exams. One of the jobs I had when I was a teenager was photographing party-goers in nightclubs. It was very much just a method to get money instead of some sort of artistic endeavour but taught me how to approach people quite early. A few years later, while at a crossroads with what to do with my life, a friend suggested that perhaps I should attempt to make a career out of photography. I somehow managed to gather enough images to form the suggestion of a portfolio and submitted to Newport University just down the road. To my surprise, given the fact that I didn’t have nearly enough points to even warrant an interview, I managed to get a place on the course. It was photographer Clive Landen who interviewed me. I think he could see that the work I was showing wasn’t very developed but I showed enthusiasm, which I think ultimately helped and was offered a place.
TC: Studying for your degree in Documentary Photography in Newport, University of South Wales, you would have been supervised presumably by the likes of Ken Grant and others. What are your abiding memories from this time spent with the tutors and experience of the course?
JL: My time at Newport was really formative. I had zero understanding of photographic history when I joined. The first year mainly involved trying to keep up with the technical ability of my classmates, but I also spent an enormous amount of time in the library there. Between digesting every photography book I came into contact with and the guidance of Paul [Reas], Ken and Clive, I quickly developed an understanding of what was being made around me.
TC: What was the genesis for the Sugar Paper Theories project? Do you even consider Sugar Paper Theories in terms of a ‘project’? Or do you see it as more of an ongoing body of work, given the nature of the police investigation?
JL: I started making Sugar Paper Theories in late 2014, after finishing my first project, A Pink Flamingo. I had submitted a proposal for new work to the now-closed charity, IdeasTap, who in turn gave three photographers a small grant to make their ‘dream project’. The project I proposed was to reinvestigate the case that Sugar Paper Theories focuses on. After initially making a first draft of the project it still felt unresolved so I continued to research the case more over the following months and then in 2015, I was awarded The Photographers’ Gallery’s Bar Tur Photobook Award which enabled me to opportunity to turn the project into a book.
When I was making the work, the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case was very much considered concluded by the Icelandic Government. After years of appealing to get the case re-investigated the six accused finally saw the courts launch a reopening committee and last year the five from the case who were charged with murder and manslaughter got their convictions overturned.
When The Royal Photographic Society agreed to show the work in late 2019 it felt right to revisit the book also. True crime as a genre is always seen as an episodic one therefore it seemed right to develop on the original text with updates to the case, but also, to highlight that there is still one person from the original six who still hasn’t received justice: Erla Bollardottir.
TC: Can you talk about the inspiration for the actual title: Sugar Paper Theories?
JL: The title comes from the image of the Conspiracy Theorist’s Desk. Sid, the owner of the desk, is a childhood friend of several of the accused and has spent years pouring over the court’s accounts of what had supposedly happened. As a result of all his research he would then try to simplify this complicated case by drawing out a timeline of events on sugar paper. In essence his sequence of events became his sugar paper theory, and this project became mine.
TC: The book was originally published by Here Press in September 2016 after winning The Bar-Tur Award, as you mentioned, and has now been released in a second edition. Can you share some insights into the conceptual logic for the book’s structure and form? Also, what are the most significant changes or developments – to the edit, sequencing or design – that may have advanced the monograph from its first to second iteration?
JL: The physicality of the book is modelled on the case files the courts used to convict the six, which felt appropriate considering the the basis for this was rumours and misinformation. The book contains several different types of sugar paper in addition to diary entries from one of the six. When designing the work we kept referring to the book as the conspiracy theorist’s manifesto as to what had happened; it’s the collection of information from several sources, not all of them reliable. This new edition is a faithful recreation of the 2016 version. Though now there are additional materials added, such as Erla Bolladottir’s foreword and an additional chapter written by Gisli Gudjonsson that explains what has happened since the first book was released.
TC: Writing in the foreword to the new edition, Erla Bolladottir (who is still guilty of perjury in the eyes of the law despite the acquittal of five men) states: “It has been 44 years. I have survived the ghosts that thrive in the darkness cast by this case, ghosts that leap out at every turn. I am still here fighting, still holding out hope for justice.” Notably hers is the only voice from the individuals convicted in the case that is summoned in the book. Since you have elected not to focus on the victims but rather conspiracy theorists, journalists and prison guards, amongst other players, at what stage during the work’s evolution was this decision made and to what end?
JL: Early on when making this work Erla and I became very close. It became clear when trying to figure out how to visualise the case that photographing the remaining accused seemed a bit redundant. As a society we digest an unhealthy amount of crime documentaries and our curiosities into the quirky and bizarre can at times be hard to stomach. I also don’t think that by portraying the faces of the falsely accused you would necessarily learn anything more about them; it would simply further objectify the real victims of this case. Instead, I opted to photograph things like pet goldfish, diaries or churches; things that suggested far more than they could ever portray but also didn’t make a spectacle out of people who are central to it all. Now with the recent developments of the case it seemed like the right idea to provide a space where Erla can share, unedited, her experience first hand.
TC: As you say the book features additional texts via articles from Gísli Guðjónsson, the Icelandic-British academic who is a renowned authority on suggestibility and false confessions. Can you speak about the importance of his involvement in relation to the role of collaboration within the work and how you wanted his texts functioning in tandem with the imagery?
JL: Gisli was the first to coin the term ‘Memory Distrust Syndrome’ in 1982. His research into false confession and coercion has been used all over the world to overturn injustices; most notably here in the UK the ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Birmingham Six’. As a result, he was asked to be an expert witness for this case, tasked with providing a psychological understanding as to how Memory Distrust Syndrome could have occurred during the initial investigation. Gisli, Svavar (my assistant at the time) and I would travel throughout Iceland together, revisiting key areas of the case, talking to people involved and making photographs. The dynamic was an interesting one. Gisli is a scientist and so instantly the relationship we both had with the case was very different; him working with absolutes and me responding to them. Once his text was paired with the images, it created a grey area where factual words are sequenced besides open, subjective photographs.
TC: In terms of presenting the work in exhibition format, Sugar Paper Theories was previously shown at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography and has now been restaged as an enlarged version at RPS House in Bristol. Firstly, out of curiosity, how was the project received by the Icelandic public? And what were the key decisions and modes of thinking behind ‘building it out’ for its current venue?
JL: When we showed the work in Reykjavik in 2017, the court had just launched a reopening committee in-regards to the case. The exhibition as a result coincided quite well. The show itself, which had original evidence, sculptures and police files on display, became a place where people could interact with this piece of Icelandic history in a new way. Erla, Gisli and I also held several events in which members of the public could engage with those central to the case to understand how and why such a large miscarriage of justice could have happened so close to home.
The exhibition at the RPS builds on that. The show includes new archive material as well as the court’s case files of which the book was designed around. The show also represents the first time that the work, in its entirety, has been shown outside of Iceland. In the past months the Icelandic government has once again dug in its heels about recompense and has completely neglected the injustice that Erla continues to face. In a strange way, the case has become contemporary news again so the exhibition has also turned out to be quite timely.
TC: Sugar Paper Theories pulls together various strands from your previous work, not least of which is the blend of fact and fiction as a means of harnessing and expanding the medium’s narrative potential. So many uses of photography, as it intersects with the mode of expanded documentary practice, also deploys different layers or ranges of visual imagery – from archival material and newspaper clippings or interviews and records of discarded objects – to offer more experimental strategies for storytelling in ways that disrupt viewers’ expectations. As such, practices that engage with history-telling and the “past” seem then to pivot around the memorable line from Siegfried Kracauer: “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed.” Where do you see your work residing amidst these challenges and opportunities, given it ultimately has a documentary attitude?
JL: There is no denying that there is a documentary approach to my work, something which I feel I inherited while at Newport. However, it would be disingenuous if I suggested that I had considered the greater practice of photography when initially making Sugar Paper Theories. The inclusion of additional materials within the work was a way of interacting with my research so that it wasn’t just invisible throughout the project. I will say that because I’ve been making work around conspiracy theories for a number of years now, I’ve grown to see a lot of similarities between the eclectic nature of photographic narratives and conspiracies. It’s been said before that conspiracy theories attempt to make sense of a senseless world and I’m very much of the belief that photography attempts to do the same. ♦
Image courtesy Jack Latham. © Sian Davey