Jack Latham has stormed into the photobook world with his book Sugar Paper Theories, winning the Bar Tur Award in 2016, and subsequently being shortlisted for the 2016 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award. This young photographer has an impressive list of achievements under his belt and a passionate commitment to his work, and how photography can be used in the world.
Sugar Paper Theories sets out the complex and jumbled story of a curious and sinister case of ‘memory distrust syndrome’, in Iceland in the 1970s. The actual events of the case are still unknown, and are likely to remain so, but Latham has got as close as anyone to laying bare the facts as they are understood so far. Put as simply as possible, ‘The Reykjavik Confessions’ is the story of six people, who did not commit a crime, but pleaded guilty to murder despite having no memory of having done anything. They were jailed for twenty years. The process of interrogation which they went through was so intense that they believed they had in fact committed the crimes. Latham’s book explores extraordinary and tragic events which absorbed the entire Icelandic nation at the time, but have since fallen into obscurity.
Sugar Paper Theories is a relatively large book, designed to look and feel like a conspiracy theorist’s ‘dossier’; the cover and much of the interior pages are printed on the title’s ‘sugar paper’, what we might call scrapbook paper or in America ‘construction card’, soft and potentially easily torn. At first, the book feels playful, but very soon, a considered darkness comes through. Details of archive imagery from the original police case are enlarged, almost to abstraction, on folded black sheets, interspersed with crisp white pages showing Latham’s contemporary large format photographs of places and people. Testimony and diary entries from the victims are printed large and loud on semi-transparent tracing paper, smaller in size than the other pages, as if stuck in as markers. Newspaper clippings on narrow muddy-pink sheets pop up intermittently, and wide cold landscapes prompt a feeling of emptiness. The entire design is constructed to create a sense of uncertainty, a doubt in what is presented.
Somewhat like Alec Soth’s Broken Manual of 2011, Sugar Paper Theories invites the reader to consider what it would be like to be a character in the book, in this case, to be a victim of ‘memory distrust syndrome’. Almost by way of reassurance, accounts of what actually happened, as much as can be ascertained, written by Professor Gisli Gudjónsson, are presented as introductions to each section. Latham worked extremely closely with Gudjónsson on both the project itself and the production of the book; as well as being tangentially involved in the case itself, the professor uncovered the phenomenon of memory distrust syndrome in his investigation of the events and the victims, so he presents an authoritative voice amongst the scattered thoughts running through the book.
The story is undeniably shocking, intriguing and upsetting, and Latham’s book has brought it to light in a way that an article in a supplement magazine or a website would never have done. Personally, I hope that a documentary film might be made, it would surely be remarkable. The photobook is an impressive achievement, but I found that the contemporary images were much less interesting than the archive ones, and mostly did little to add to the story. Seeing some of the characters involved as they are now would have been fascinating, but they were understandably uncomfortable with the idea of having their faces in the public sphere once again, and so we have no faces to put to the narrative. Of course, Latham is investigating historical events, and much of what existed then has since disappeared, much like the hope of finding out what actually happened.
Latham uses contemporary portraits of people and locations loosely connected to historical accounts, to approximate a sense of contemporary connection to the original place and story. To my mind these are too tangential to be entirely satisfying. The one big gap in Sugar Paper Theories, a photobook which aims to bring one of the most peculiar and distressing stories to public attention, is that the victims remain invisible. Despite speaking out, they are hidden from view. But maybe that’s simply part of the mystery Latham is telling us; we’ll never know what really happened, or if any of it is true.
Reviewed for Photomonitor by Lottie Davies