Peter Pflügler: Now is not the right time
I don´t believe in secrets. They will always find a way to the surface and will leave an imprint on us. With my work, I want to use the silence surrounding dark spots in our history in order to break it.
Peter Pflügler is a visual storyteller originally from Austria, living in the Netherlands. He studied photography at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague. His work is centered around the dynamics of secrets and intergenerational trauma.
With the use of moving image, text, photography and performance, he focuses on personal stories in order to highlight universal issues.
He believes that the hidden dark spots in our family history trickle through the silence and influence our lives. Since their origin lie in the unknown, we struggle putting them into a narrative. This friction is also apparent in his photographic methods, where he merges the banal and the mysterious, the observed and the staged.
Now is not the right time
When I was two years old, my father went into the woods with the intention of never coming back.
For almost 20 years, my parents chose silence about his suicidal attempt. And still, I found myself drawn to the place where the incident happened and on its anniversary a wave of grief washed over me. When my parents finally decided to tell me, it all started to make sense.
This project started out as an investigation into the traces of a well-kept family secret. While I was revisiting my parents’ trauma – its places, objects and memories that I could not call my own – I found it here, inside myself. My body always knew.
This is no longer a story about a suicide attempt. This is about the impossibility of secrets, about what we are sharing when we hide. This is about pain inflicted out of love, about the complexity of silence, and the unexplainable sadness of a boy.
Mum, Dad, this is your trauma, that you kept wrapped up in countless colorful blankets and yet unknowingly handed over to me in a loving embrace.
I will carry it with care.
When we met a couple of months ago I was really intrigued when you shared your feelings about this impossibility of keeping secrets for a long time. When did you realize that something was being kept from you ?
It is difficult to name an exact moment of realization. Most of my youth I simply thought that something was wrong with me. I felt all this grief, I had dreams and feelings that I could not understand. I felt a lot of guilt, since I was growing up in a loving surrounding, I felt like I was not allowed to feel that way. This is the example of the perfidious nature of a secret. My parents decided to keep the information of the suicidal attempt of my father, but they did not have any influence on what that did to me. Naturally, I would look inside myself to find an answer. I thought I was broken.
Over the years, I slowly understood that all these weird interferences in reality were traces of something in the past. The inability to name things, the vagueness, the invisibility- these were the hardest things to deal with. It is like living with a ghost.
After some years in therapy, there was a long period of silence in one of our sessions. I felt like I could not say anything anymore. Into this silence, my therapist simply said one word: Papa. And I started crying and crying, filled with grief, and I still did not understand why. But I think, then I understood that there was a link with my father. Sometime after that, I confronted my parents and they told me.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience and why you decided to publish a book on this project ?
I started to work on “Now is not the right time“about 10 years after the secret was unveiled. So, I had time to heal, to digest, to understand. I worked together with my family for 4 years, at the place where I grew up. First, I thought this is a strictly documentary project, an investigation, I felt like I was a journalist. After some time, I understood that this was also a healing journey for my family.
I always say that this project is not about a suicidal attempt. It is about the transforming power of silence. It is about the impossibility of secrets. And I realized how many similar stories were out there. Completely different in content of the traumatic event, but similar in how the family dealt with it. The mechanism of silence and secrets are similar, people feel connected to that when they looked at my project. This is why I decided to make a book.
Another important reason is that I added text in the publication. Diary entries of my family members and text about my memories and my experiences are hidden between the pages. After the reader might be puzzled by my photographs, sensing something, but cannot put their finger on what it is (which mirrors my feeling growing up) I offer the reader the whole context of the story. The relief of knowing.
That is very important for me.
How do you fell now that “your secret” is being told to the entire world ?
I feel thankful, because it allows me to connect to other people and their stories. It is much easier to talk about pain, grief, trauma through art. There is a safe space between me as a person and the audience. My photographs are like a puffer zone. And it is also easier for the audience to connect while still having a bit of a distance.
What comes next ?
Now the book is finally out and this also means a new chapter for me. At the moment I am simply proud and thankful. But I also want to reach out the photography bubble with this book. Work together with mental health institution, share my book and my story. At the same time, I am working on a new project. It is still quite at the beginning, but I am researching on the body as a vessel and a container of stored traumatic energy. Whatever I do, the motor of my urge to create and to share will always be linked to this: recognizing silence, questioning it, breaking it.
Cause, I have said it hundreds of times before and I will continue to say it: In the end I do not believe in secrets.
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