Inta Ruka grew up in Latvia when it was part of the communist Soviet Union. For years, time seemed to stand still in the Balvi region, a series of remote villages near today’s Russian border where Ruka went during the summers with her parents. She continued to return to the region and take photographs of the villagers, even when she was working as a seamstress in Riga, the capital. The villagers trusted her, and she enjoyed photographing them. Gradually her pursuit became more focused – to portray them and their hard life with empathy and respect.
Ruka learned basic photography skills at a factory Camera Club, then joined local photography co-ops in Riga and Ogre. Discussions were lively, and it was there that she first saw the work of such masters of photography as August Sander, Brassaï and Imogen Cunningham. She found a mentor and started to work more intensively on her project in 1983, which she called My Country People. Other projects followed, but she continued adding to it even after Latvia’s independence from Russia in 1990.
It is not unusual to recognize a photographer’s personality in his or her pictures. However, I have rarely seen pictures shaped so completely by the person behind the camera. With her intense curiosity and disarming smile, Ruka turns her subjects into friends. The cooperative effort of the photograph is essential to her work, and the portraits that emerge are honest, revealing, and soulful. Like August Sander’s photographs, which she admires, they are documents of a social reality, pictures of people in a region over a period of time. She continues to photograph throughout Latvia, but her Balvi region photographs are less a typology than compassionate portraits of individuals from a now-vanished world.