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.