Russia is a world of its own. A vast country straddling East and West, with a wealth of contrasts… and contradictions too. In the heart of huge, sprawling cities, in the midst of endless forests and steppes, in the great frozen tundra, something mysterious continues – there more than elsewhere – to intrigue us, fascinate us and draw us in. Some refer to the unique sensuality of this land and its people as “the Russian soul.” While it may be impossible to paint a comprehensive portrait of Russia, this documentary series offers a chance to discover it in an atypical way: through the lens of contemporary Russian photographers, for a range of singularly insightful views of Russia today.
From one utopia to the next, Russian history is made up of unique social and political upheavals. Since the collapse of the USSR, a new Russia has appeared, one that has been subjected to incredible transformations. Having broken with a past that it continues to glorify constantly nevertheless, the country is moving forward – sometimes on a forced march. Photography, in the meantime, has changed hands. Once the exclusive prerogative of power, a tool of large-scale propaganda, it has become the preferred means of expression for Russians born in the 1970s and 80s, who bring a whole new gaze to bear on their country.
They also open the doors to remote locales. In a country where roads and services are woefully lacking once you have left large towns behind, Russian photographers often strike out for areas that are almost inaccessible. These nomadic travelers bring back surprising, striking stories and scenes: of mammoth hunters in Siberia, abandoned nuclear power plants, pagan communities in the middle of the forest, and more.
Thus an all the more complex reality confronts the over-exposed cliché of a brutal, imperialistic state. Of course, there is plenty to worry about: the country’s closing in on itself, the disappearance of independent media, the repression, the censorship and even the self–censorship. But it cannot be denied that contemporary photography is firing back vigorously, always seeking new ways to see and be seen. The Internet has turned into a fabulous medium for these artists – alongside the specialized galleries flourishing in large cities. Even traditional photo-reportage is evolving towards new forms of expression, with a more radical, nearly underground approach that is not unlike contemporary art.
Some people say there is no “school” of Russian photography. While that is true in a way, it’s only because it’s a school that’s undergoing constant mutation. Photographers are following the country’s evolution step by step, sometimes going back to look for traces of a world that has disappeared. They are developing a unique approach – inspired by Western masters, but enhanced with the Russian soul. And while it may still be feeling its way towards becoming an actual “school”, Russian photography is now widely admired, both in Russia and around the world.
Photography is a medium connecting the artist, reality and the viewer. In this documentary series, the photographers themselves become the medium – our entry point into a little-known, tantalizing world: eternal Russia, today’s Russia.
Official Selection, Festival International du Film sur l’ART (FIFA), Montreal, 2018