rene august whitfield – surviving estonia

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Rene August Whitfield

Surviving Estonia

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I have lived together with my wife for the last 10 years, in Denmark.

Every year she goes back to her roots in Estonia.

I have been witness to the happiness and the sorrow that unfolds around her family: an ordinary family struggling to survive every day.

These images tell me a story about loss, and of how to deal with it… and about the youngest generation in a family touched by hardship: my wife’s family.



I was born in Denmark in 1972. By trade I have been a stone cutter for ten years, but was diagnosed with spinal degeneration in my neck two years ago. Currently I work as a volunteer, helping homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics in Copenhagen. In my early youth, I had a brief stint at art college in London, but didn’t finish. Moving back to Denmark, I did the wrong thing, and was sentenced one year in jail for armed robbery.

In 2003, I set up my own business as a nude photographer, relatively successfully, but after 2 years I had had enough of it; the initial rush of being surrounded by beautiful women quickly faded away. I changed focus, and wanted to tell stories with my photography. Currently I’m considering an education as a photojournalist – meaning I’ll be at the grand age of 43 when I’m let out into the world :-)

I live in Copenhagen with my wife and my teenage son. For me, photography is a way to constantly refocus on the things that matter.


Danish girl photographer of the year 2003

Cover photo on ”American Photo” magazine (Dec.2003)


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René August Whitfield


16 Responses to “rene august whitfield – surviving estonia”

  • I love this..
    I dig this..the mix of b&w with color..the mirroring..the truth…
    the autobiography..the honesty..the insider look..i wanna see more…
    im not good at words but i wanna write more..i wanna see more..
    plz add more photos in this essay..i love it..mesmerized…
    big hug..peace

  • I always loved watching family albums.
    Mixing bw and color is trendy, too, I think.

    So thumbs up on this. Excellent, I love it !

  • Rene,

    Very real and heartfelt. I also like the use of B&W and color. At first I thought maybe you were using B&W for the scenes of loss and death, but that theory fell away toward the end of the essay. The honesty of these images comes across strongly. The vignetting is a little heavy in some images IMO, but that is a small detail. I too am coming back to photography later in life and feel a sense of maturity and life experience coming through the images. The small details and patina of a difficult life are very poignant.


    All the best,


  • Rene,

    thanks for showing. love the subject matter! some really nice images :)

    Panos said – “the autobiography..the honesty..the insider look..i wanna see more…” i second that, man!

    i would love to see this work more developed, though. i feel like there are many more images that need to be taken in order to give the real portrait of your wifes family that you described in your text. we get a little of what you talked about….a small taste of the family…but not a complete picture. it seems like these are some good snapshots that may mean something to you because you are so familiar with them and their surroundings. for me, they are some snapshots that you pieced together – not a complete essay. i would love to see more images like #4 and 13 that really draw you in emotionally. love those!!

    btw, i say all this because i have been shotting at my family dinners, and everytime i come back with more pictures, i realize that the ones that i had before were not enough, even though they seemed to be at the time. when is there enough??? when is the story complete??? i try as much as possible to detach myself from the photos and look at them objectively…it’s hard!

    Let’s see more!!!

  • Rene,

    Breathtaking photos. I could feel the cold, the sorrow of loss and hard life, and the struggle to live.

    When the first color frame came up I was surprised but I too enjoyed the mix. Usually I don’t like so much to have descriptions with the photos, but this time it worked very well with the essay. Now I want to see more of this family, her half-brother, her uncle, more photos of their lives and Kelli’s life in her new country. I want to know how she managed to escape this life that her family still lives.

    This part of the world is so unknown to me and these photos make me hungry to know more.

  • RENE,

    You clearly have a good eye and there are some strong images here no doubt, even if I felt the whole essay at times a bit inconsistent. You have been able to create the sense of loss, the mood but it seems to me that you have the ability and talent to penetrate this even more… I really liked the dog picture nb 11 and it reminded me a bit of a great picture from the essay Sahkalin that was published last year as part of EPF. Personally, pictures 6 and 16 could be edited out and are not at the same level as the others. Finally I like the pictures of the sequence 7,8,9,10 but having all of them one after the other seems a bit repetitive and you could have mixed a bit more… Anyway, not sure if the others will agree…but in any case, you should carry one awith this project nd show us more!!! Good luck with your conversion to PJ!!!


  • I love the train picture. The dog is pretty good, too. The whole thing conveys a strong feeling of bleakness and despair and reminds me that we are all foolish when we expect that somehow life will always work out dandy for ourselves.

    I wonder how it was for you, being a nude photographer?

    Did you ever get cold? Did your camera straps rub your bare flesh raw? Did you ever feel a little silly, running around naked with cameras? Did anyone ever complain, gawk, or avert their eyes?

  • Some beautiful images and I like the idea of photographing/seeing family (because that is what I have been doing as of late :)). Your wife, her brother and grandmother look to be fantastic subjects.

    A bit confusing at first. Could you use some more focus. Maybe a bold close up portrait of your wife towards the beginning would have given us a better sense of who this is all about. Took me a few go throughs to figure things out. Be careful to not rely so much on captions to tell us the story.

    Best of luck and congrats on being here on Burn.

  • I am not sure I’m in tune with the mix color – b/w unless there is a clear distinction in what they respectively refer to (for instance people color, location b/w or vice versa). This is not due to a lack of elasticity from my side. I guess I can just focus less on the images because I am forced to switch from one mode to the other without being accompanied by a consequent change of content. The photo I like it’s the one of your wife with her grandmother, as I think this is really the only photo that talk about or evokes loss.
    In my honest opinion, you’re stronger on color, as it’s clear you have an eye for it. If I could, I would also suggest to work more on the characters you portray. In other words I mean that if this is meant to be an intimate personal story, I would like to see the people you photograph evolve within your essay, as for now they seem to be very ‘still’ and I do not get enough understanding or emotions out of them. The captions do help, but I still think that the photos should have been a bit stronger, more poignant. Ah! I forgot! Another picture I like is the one of the gang member on his bike near by the tent you shoot from.

    All the best and please do accept my apologies if my comments are unwelcome or if you’d think they’re out of place.

  • Rene! Ç)

    Congratulations on having your essay published. I too love personal stories, stories that document and reflect upon the specific life of someone and i am also a big fan of “family album’ stuff….i too was very drawn to some of the images as well (the shot of Misha looking into the window, the picture of your wife and babushka crying, the opened bedroom door, the photo of her mom, etc)….i wasnt bothered by the mix of color & b/w; however, i think the use of mixing the 2 needs to be purposeful…as they require 2 different types of seeing (photographer) as well as 2 different ways of viewing…when i see a b/w image i react, physically, a certain way and when i see color, i react a different way: it’s simply how we process the visual imformtion, so i think one should be careful in how they apply that, as it could be a distraction….but, actually here, saw the mix as if a family album, jumping from current to memori mori to internal reflection and this collision works for me, visually and emotionally….

    i also was particularly drawn to the story, myself having a wife from russia and so i responded strongly to the grief and continuing reconciliation of former and present life and history…it’s my family’s story as well….and the captions really helped me, which would be my only criticism: pictures, i think, do not have to explain, but they should carry us too…and the captions do a great job contextualizing and adding info…thus, for me, a text would work…i agree with Charles, something with your wife alone that hints at what the journey is would help carry this…

    but what a powerful, moving and (most importantly) perosnal story….thank u so much for taking us on your and your wife’s journey!

    congratulations on all Rene…and shit, 43: we’re young! :))))


  • Hi Rene.

    It seems pretty clear people connect with your images. I’ve always been one to be attracted to sincerity, and thats what I felt here. Just checked out your web sit and it confirmed the feeling I got from these images, that you have a belief in what you do. You do because you believe, and it shows…

    Hope to see more on your site over time.

  • You really have some beautiful pictures and I appreciate the captions too.
    Mixing b/w with colour wouldn’t be my preference, just from a cohesive point of view, but it does show that you’re equally adept in both.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Thanks to all for your advice and comments. This series of images is put together out of a few thousand gathered over the years. To not make the story too complex, I gathered the ones I felt would give the essense of how I have percieved the “story”. There are many stories within. But I made a choice and cut many away.
    But I can see what many of you mention. This being such a personal odessey, it´s difficult to be objective; but also, not something I strove to be.

    On a personal note; I mentioned in my bio that I was considering to become a PJ – that has been cancelled, and instead I have enrolled to become a nurse;-)
    All the fuzz about Haiti/pj´s/Zoira ect. has made me realise I want to be on the other side. So in about 5 years time you´ll hopefully see me somewhere in Africa proudly wearing an MSF west – and probably with a camera slung over my shoulder:-)
    Again, a big thanks for all your feedback. It´s much appreciated!
    Best Wishes….René

    Ps.: @ Bob – yes 43 is no age; and it´s a realisation that has just dawned on me;-)
    @ Frostfrog – Perhaps it was me being nude that made it only a “relative” sucess;-)

  • René,

    Congratulations on being published here. I really enjoyed the series, although I agree with Mimi above. I think the whole essay would have been stronger if presented in color instead of B&W or mixed.



  • I love the way this work has a progression. It actually feels like there is some resolve in there, positivity at the end, sad to leave but leaving with some stability behind.

    I signed up so I could comment here, because this work is the one story on here that strikes the biggest chord with me, especially image 4. I bled tears when I saw it, it killed me. I came from a really fucked up family. My mother was an abusive alcoholic and my dad couldn’t figure out how to deal with that so he didn’t. Its Ireland people didn’t separate and there was no divorce so there was forced compression, deal with it anyway you can but keep it cool ok? Make it look alight on the front. My mother’s behavior didn’t really take off until I was in my teens, I was the last of four. 16 years between my sister and I with two brothers in the middle. Ironically now, its really only me and my sister who fully acknowledge ourselves, where we come from and how we got here. My brothers are still workin’ it out.

    In october 2009 my dad turned 80, the first full family reunion in 20 years happened and it was an interesting time for me because it was going to be possibly the only time I as an adult got to see my origins and to figure out some of the answers to questions about my personality and how I do things I had. Going back to Ireland 7 years after was head-fuck in its own right but then the family and seeing all of them and thier kids now grown ups etc wow what a fuckin’ blinder. Surprisingly I reconnected with my mother after not having spoken to her in ten years -not one word, not one iota nothing, and then whammo this is your mother, shes different, awake and cohesive. I had wanted to gauge her head off with a meat-cleaver, but then it all washed away in a massive sudden and decisive rush of blood to the head, and then it was gone. The last time I saw her was in her car outside a train station in Dublin where we kissed and I left got on the train and cried like a torrent. She was already crying before I even got out of her car.

    Your story is intense and awakening, I love you for your ability to see beyond yourself and to have the clarity of conscience to be able to see into someone elses life and document it. I love you again for actually doing it. I love stories like your own, people who fuck-up and come out the other end as the most arresting and divine human beings in existence, because our bad behavior acts as a filter.

    Maybe Ill put together all the pictures I shot of my trip back home, maybe. Thank you so much for your inspiration.

    Its funny, but when I saw that you were born in 1972, I perked up because no one is born in 1972, its my year, and everyone is now older or younger, they always were for me, I never sided with anyone my own age because I never could see eye to eye with anyone my own age. Im irish, the pope came to Ireland in 1978 and he said it was cool for people to marry fuck and have babies and no condoms and thats what happened, all the kids came out a year later and they were all called either John, Paul or John Paul, ..yeah reallly.

  • It’s definitely a good work, though a bit incomplete maybe, hope you keep on working on it because it can become an excellent essay. What I don’t like though is the black and white, which looks kind of old-style compared to the freshness of the color pics, which are very well treated. If it were to me, I would certainly keep it all in color.

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