Visu­al Arts

Every­one is Present

Ter­ry Kurgan

January 1, 2013

In this book, Ter­ry Kur­gan begins with a fam­i­ly snap­shot made by her Pol­ish grand­fa­ther in 1939 on the eve of the war. Pre­sent­ing this evoca­tive image as a repos­i­to­ry of mul­ti­ple his­to­ries pub­lic, pri­vate, domes­tic, famil­ial, and gen­er­a­tional she sets off on a series of med­i­ta­tions on pho­tog­ra­phy that give us star­tling insights into how pho­tographs work: what they con­ceal, how they mis­lead, what provo­ca­tions they con­tain. Each essay takes up the thread of the sto­ry of her fam­ilys epic jour­ney across Europe as they flee Nazi occu­pa­tion, until they reach Cape Town. Kur­gans essays are part mem­oir, part trav­el­ogue, part analy­sis, and they demon­strate her sophis­ti­cat­ed under­stand­ing of a medi­um that has long engaged her as an artist.

Discussion Questions

Every­one is Present is a series of essays using a war-time diary and a col­lec­tion of fam­i­ly pho­tographs left by the author’s grand­fa­ther to cre­ate a work fus­ing text and image, which cre­ates a mov­ing fam­i­ly mem­oir and reflec­tion on pho­tog­ra­phy and mem­o­ry. A cross genre work that draws on the author’s twen­ty-five years of visu­al arts prac­tice and writ­ing, the vol­ume itself is a work of art.

Each essay builds a grip­ping fam­i­ly his­to­ry, begin­ning with the Ger­man inva­sion of Poland, as the fam­i­ly trav­eled through Roma­nia, Turkey and India to South Africa where the family’s tran­sit visas final­ly ran out. By fus­ing this account of the Jew­ish refugee jour­ney with a detailed read­ing of seem­ing­ly ordi­nary pho­tographs (which actu­al­ly hold secrets) the author teas­es out details of her fam­i­ly (who typ­i­cal­ly nev­er spoke about their wartime expe­ri­ences) in extreme con­di­tions. Through this process, the read­er begins to under­stand what was lost, what was found, and the rela­tion­ship between fate and char­ac­ter in forg­ing a new life in an unin­tend­ed place.