Photographers' Blog

Portraits of Russian voters

February 29, 2012

By Will Webster

Russia goes to the polls on March 4, in a presidential election that present Prime Minister and former two term President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win. Russian politics is a strange beast, opaque is the most constructive word to describe the process of moving and shaking that goes on in the corridors of power. A whole class of analytical Kremlinologists aim to shed light on the minutiae of the process, although opinions widely differ, and the outcome appears to be the same – 6 more years of Putin in top spot. In this atmosphere behind closed doors, with one outcome highly probable, it’s difficult to illustrate the campaign trail, if such a thing exists. However in this story of same old, same old, there is a group of individuals that stand out, that no one seems to ask about: the Russian people – they are the ones that cast the votes. People like Anatoly, an artist from Moscow.

Following a parliamentary election in December, one of the typical plays of allegiance shifting and maneuvering in the top levels of the power vertical something changed. Widespread claims of vote falsification brought out around 5,000 people onto the street in Moscow, a show of opposition to the authorities that hasn’t been seen for years. The movement grew, organized and strenghtened in the fertile fields of social networks. It provided leaders that in principal have no political leverage apart from a following online. People like Alexey Navalny, anti corruption blogger, and Yevgrnia Chirikova, an environmental activist battling the destruction of her local forest to make way for a new highway. Would they be able to maintain their voice of protest and public displays of opposition throughout the winter (a bigger problem for those not aware of it – ask the Grande Armee of 1812) in order to make a difference in the presidential vote? The protests did grow, a couple more followed, the numbers swelled – up to 100,000 came out to call for fair elections in January. The authorities seemed to be at a loss on how to snuff out this unplanned voice of opposition. Official plans were immediately drawn up to make the voting process more transparent, webcams in polling stations, symbolically see-through ballot boxes. Still, the unrest persisted. Another strategy was started – organized supporter events for United Russia, let the people know (on state run television networks) that actually most people are with Putin. By necessity these shows of support must be more impressive than that of these Muscovites wearing white condoms (Putin’s initial response when the white ribbons appeared on the street).

Aha – we have an angle, the people are moving, thousands and thousands of them, showing their support with their feet. But rather than faceless pawns, they are real people. People who want their vote to count.

Question for the interested news consumer: who are these people?
Question for a news photographer: how to show this?

A pow-wow with the Russian Reuters TV and pictures team and regional chief photographers came up with the idea of picture postcards of normal Russians. As it turned out there was a series of protests/support rallies planned the week before voting, maybe a last chance to see. We thought – keep it simple, let the contrast between the different types of people, if there are any, speak for themselves. Typologies, collections of similar images, are often used photographically as a way to find similarities and differences not clear when looking at individual subjects in isolation. Applications of this approach are legion, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of long exposure images of cinemas, or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s black and white grids of industry.

August Sander may be considered a pioneer of typological portraiture, whose book “Face of our Time” occupied almost 20 years of his life as he assembled a cross section of everyday personalities in early 20th century Germany. Incredibly beautiful work of course, but having been given this assignment, and given the nature of news where 20 minutes can be the shelf life of a story, I could see this approach may not be best suited. Pawel suggested the white background approach, after some unease it was settled. It worked for Richard Avedon in his typology of the American West. Risky still – Avedon was a pretty good photographer.

Only one way to find out. Armed with the back of an office portrait of Putin (his faced taped out) and a 50mm lens, Sergei our driver and I set out for the pro Putin rally, 100,000 expected to march on the Olympic stadium in Moscow, a “surprise” visit by the great man pretty certain. Incentives of money and fear guaranteed attendance. Same old same old. Put on a show for the masses, favorite of power mongers since Roman times. The first problem we encountered was getting people to stop long enough to get a picture. There was a military business to proceedings – a battalion from the “Russian milk” factory (with flags to prove it) moving into position here, a squad of Asian looking men (“do you speak Russian?” the organizer asks) being handed out vouchers there. A unit of African students came dancing past at one point. They all brushed aside Sergei’s pleas to stop and be photographed. Eventually we found the metro station tucked between the numerous buses that had brought a lot of the people in from surrounding regions. Even where people had time to kill as they waited for co-supporters, the inclination to be photographed was low. Maybe they agreed, but on hearing that personal details were required, doubt would set in. A lot of the youth from different cities said they had been told not to. A young female student eventually buckled, the vain pleasure of being photographed more powerful than possible punishment from the party. Her agitated glance to the distance was the closest I could get to her looking in the lens before she flitted off.

There was a wide range of ages, maybe statistically more likely due to the enormous quantity of people. There were people with agendas, not only those showing up because they had been told to. Stability was key for some, and it cannot be denied that in some form this is what Putin’s time in office has given Russia. The monk with a guitar on his back and CD’s of his music in his pocket had a strong Slavic national identity issue, another of Putin’s main promises. There was an enormous Siberian farmer, from a village called “Medicinal Herbs” (it exists, we checked on Google earth), who mistook us for a TV crew and hoped to get his message on air.

We walked and tried to convince for 2 or 3 hours before getting tired of hanging around the toilets where we found we could approach people more easily. We set off to see what the Communists rally would hold, on Revolution square.

With the number of attendees more like hundreds than tens of thousands this was a cozy affair. As ranks of officials made rousing speeches on the stage, we asked around the fringes. Here people were more open to the idea of being photographed, there was a social atmosphere, although more than once we were told “For Reuters – No!” The demographic was marked – young and very young people, some having made the journey from out of town, some obviously following the ideology and others simply buying into the look.

Then a much older generation, who grew up in the party and whose living conditions after its demise have worsened. Most had their story to tell and listening to them one felt their yearning for the good old days, which, judging from the camaraderie present, did actually seem to have been good. These beliefs are easy prey in the more efficient, or cutthroat, market economy of today’s Russia, where massive profits are to be made on the resources up for grabs, some times unscrupulously. However, this generation is a considerable part of the electorate, candidate Gennady Zyuganov who has run for president since the early 90′s is consistently number 2 in the overall ratings.

One very pleasant pensioner in a traditional Russian fur hat agreed to put down his flag and be photographed. I took about 20 frames of him and in every one his smile came out a scowl. It really wasn’t him. I was very aware that stereotypes could be a problem with this typological approach, and tried as much as possible not to concentrate on any one type of participant. Producing a representative sample can be as awkward as trying to produce a random sequence of numbers. In the end I decided that who was there was there, and whom I photographed was whom I photographed. This was the fact of the matter.

Two days passed before the White Ring protest, an attempt to make a human chain around Moscow’s inner ring road, some 16 kilometers in length, to demand fair elections. No group seemed to be leading the effort; just the facebook page saying around 7,000 people were attending. They needed 34,000 to turn up at various places in order for the chain to be unbroken.

Sergei had made a new background, this one a significant improvement on my previous effort. He had also put on his Prada full length down jacket, a gift from a “New Russian” acquaintance, because we had got mighty cold last time round.

There was a moment of doubt – would this be the time authorities cracked down on the protesters? The action was unsanctioned, meaning police were legitimately allowed to detain participants in any unauthorized gathering. Sergei’s big white placard (the colour of the movement) could bring unwanted attention to him. To me it seemed unnecessarily cautious, but then I’m not Russian. Sergei had been on the barricades in 1991, he is better placed to know.

We arrived about half an hour early to one of the designated meeting points, maybe we could get some pictures before this non-event. Nobody was there. There were lots of buses around, like at the Putin jamboree, but today they bore the blue stripe of the militsia. A riot helmet occasionally appeared in a cloud of cigarette smoke between them. Ten minutes before time a lady walked past with the white ribbon, I asked her to pose, Sergei bit the bullet and raised the white square behind her. A policeman approached, and politely asked us to please mind we didn’t obstruct the pavement. Another young man walked past and after a seconds hesitation stood for me too. After I finished his picture I looked up and the area was suddenly crowded.

We stood in the same spot for half an hour as the chain formed, everyone we asked instantly agreed with a smile to be photographed. The environmental activist Chirikova took her place in the ring, I asked for her photograph and Sergei stood behind her with the white as she continued to hold hands as a link in the chain. By this time there were hundreds of cars beeping and hooting as they drove past slowly, the ring in some spots was a couple of people deep, the noise and excitement had come from nowhere. We had our sample very quickly, creative professionals and executives, students, retired intelligentsia, all from Moscow, all with a smile on their faces.

A wag in a Guy Fawkes mask turned up, maybe ironically, since everyone here seemed to be more open to sharing their details, and were most probably not representative of 99 percent of the Russian population. Since I was more or less done, Sergei took the opportunity to slip in the ring, more I think as an opportunity to feel part of this experience than any particular political motivation. He took the white background with him, and stood opposite the cordon of police who quietly made sure that no one strayed onto the road itself. What could be a representative sample of these different events? Each had its own atmosphere, and how all these people ended up being at the events was different in every case. Many people feel that Russia doesn’t have the prerequisites for any kind of social media fuelled regime change. There is no obvious agenda for those at the white ribbon protests other than demanding fair elections. Russia is huge and varied and for some the present regime is satisfactory. For some obviously it suits them too much, at civil society’s expense. What is clear is that same old same old is going to get progressively harder to enforce.

Sergei wears Prada at the White Ribbon protest.

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