Tag Archives: Collapse Of The Soviet Union

The Girls of Chechnya

In 2010, when she was working for a news agency in Moscow, Diana Markosian asked to be sent to Chechnya. The photographer, who is Russian but studied in the United States, was 20 years old and curious about the history of the embattled region.

“They wouldn’t send me so I decided to go by myself,” she remembers. “Grozny became my destination and later became my home.”

Markosian went back repeatedly after that first visit and soon became a specialist in covering a region where, she says, many of her colleagues don’t want to go. She moved to Chechnya last November to live there full-time. But, she says, her close relationship with the area doesn’t mean that it’s not a risky place to live and work—kidnappings are frequent, she says—or that such risk does not affect her photographs. Although Russian leaders declared the region normalized and peaceful three years ago today, following more than a decade of wars against rebels, life is still fraught. They may not appear in the frames, but Chechen authorities are the unseen presence in the work shown in this gallery, a personal project through which Markosian addresses the lives of girls growing up in Chechnya.

“It’s one thing to come here for a week like I used to do. It’s another to start living here, and not only hear what these women are going through but actually experience it yourself,” she says.

Markosian says that Chechnya has experienced a wave of Islamicization since the collapse of the Soviet Union: religious dress codes are mandatory, young (and polygamous) marriages are frequent and gender roles are increasingly conservative. The president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has said publicly that women are the property of their husbands. And at the same time, high unemployment has meant that many young women who are already becoming mothers still live with their own parents.

For Markosian, this has meant that—after she was told by security officers that her belt full of lenses made her look like a suicide bomber—she carries a handbag rather than the photographer’s gear bag to which she was accustomed, and that she has gotten used to being questioned or having her photographs deleted by officers. “As a regular citizen I don’t feel danger,” she says, “but just because I’m doing something a little out of the ordinary, especially for a woman, I’m looked at more carefully.”

It has also changed her working process. Because of what she says is widespread but justified distrust, people are wary of being shown doing anything that could be perceived as unusual. Something as seemingly innocent as a photograph of a woman smoking a cigarette could have dire consequences. The fear of being different has been a particular obstacle for photographing teenagers, as their parents are worried about what might happen if their children are seen as nonconforming.

But Markosian says that, by spending weeks with her subjects before taking a single photograph, she has been able to gain the access necessary for the project. And, in doing so, she says she has found these women to be a mirror for Chechnya as a whole. “That entire idea of a generation building itself and the resilience these girls have really motivated me,” she says. “They are trying to make something of themselves at the same time that this region is trying to build after almost two decades of war.”

Diana Markosian is a photographer based in Chechnya. See more of her work here.

Misha Friedman

After I discovered Misha Friedman’s photographs on The Forward Thinking Museum’s website, I began to see his name everywhere. Misha is the FTM’s winner of their first quarter 2011 photography contest, as the JGS Annual Artist and recipient of a $15,000 award. His series, Donbass Romanticism, was singled out for its unflinching look at coal mines and abandoned factories and their effects on the health of the residents of Donetsk Oblast, a heavily industrialized region in eastern Ukraine.

Misha’s series, Tuberculosis in the former Soviet Union, appeared on the NY Times Lens blog last week. Some of his awards and grants include Picture of the Year Int’l (POYi), PDN 30, Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50, and Magenta Flash Forward. Born in Moldova, Misha now lives in New York City, but continues to make work in Eastern Europe.

Donbass Romanticism: In the second half of the 18th century romantics revolted against the Industrial revolution in Europe – against rationalization of nature, against social and political norms. In art, a viewer once again was allowed to use his emotions and imagination. Inspired by German and French Romanticism, this ongoing project from Ukraine is my attempt to show how Nature and Man have learned to live within the industrial complex.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of Eastern Ukraine ended up ruined – many mines and massive factories are lying abandoned, people are unemployed or earn just enough to survive – abandoned by the government – and nature is taking over in full force. For decades this land was a symbol of Soviet Rationalism and victory over Nature, but it did not take long for all of that to crumble, leaving behind ruined lives.

– Book Review: “China, Portrait of a Country” edited by Liu Heung Shing

When thinking of China, what first comes to my mind is the semester I spent in Fujian Province as an English teacher in 2002 and the Olympics of 2008 when Chinese officials felt compelled to have a nine-year-old girl lip-synch "Ode to the Motherland" during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies because the seven-year-old girl who actually sang the song wasn’t considered cute enough. I had many discussions with students about the Asian concept of "face," which basically translates into "what your neighbor thinks of you is most important."

"China, Portrait of a Country" (Taschen 2008) is a huge and heavy tome that reveals China from 1949 to the present day. Editing was completed by photographer Liu Heung Shin who, with his AP Moscow colleagues, won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1992 as a result of their reportage documenting the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I first glanced through, I was expecting a fair amount of propaganda-material on display (and I found it, but some of it was also documented as having been used as propaganda). Ultimately, there is much more to this book and it makes for an interesting reading of the last 60 years of Chinese history.

The variety of scenes displayed is impressive – from Mao relaxing on the beach at Beidaibe with his daugther in the company of other leaders’ children in 1954 to senior party leaders of Liaoning province being humiliated in a public denunciation rally in 1966; from peasants in rural Hebei province outside Beijing who power a manual water pump to Pu Jie to the younger brother of the last Qing emperor, Pu Yi, who sat for a portrait at his former residence in the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1980. Below this last photo one reads this formidable quote by the writer, philosopher, and inventor of the Chinese tywriter, Lin Yutang (1895-1976): "In China one does not have to learn to become a realist: here one is born as a realist."

Thankfully, the book comes with illuminating texts. In other words, this is not a picture book, but a good documentary of Chinese reality, explaining what we look at, providing historical context and helping us to put what we see into perspective.

Liu Heung Shing was born in 1951 in Hong Kong (then under British rule) and went to New York in 1970 to study. Says the editor of his education, "In the final year of my studies, I took a course in photography with famed Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili. This one semester was to shape the rest of my life: upon graduation, I followed Mili and took an internship at Life magazine. Wholesale Loose Diamonds . This put me in the right place, at the right time, for following the normalization of Sino-American diplomatic relations in 1979. Then I was given an assignment in China, which made me the first Chinese foreign correspondent to be sent to Beijing by Time magazine, and later joined the Associated Press." In other words, Liu has the dual perspective of a Chinese national who lived abroad.

Liu saw an opportunity to present China more precisely. "Since 1976, a number of photography books about the People’s Republic have been published by both foreign and domestic publishers. The paradoxes of China do not seem obvious in these books. China has been an elusive subject for editors in New York, London, or Paris. Editors well-versed in the language of photography nevertheless encountered a "Chinese wall" when dealing with official institutions in China, and with its myriad socialist doctrines," he explains.

By including the contributions of 88 different Chinese photographers, Liu more accurately reflected the depth of China in his collection. This in itself is remarkable and likewise are the pictures. I personally look forward to a book showing photos of China taken by both Chinese and non-Chinese photographers.

Spending time with this book is a lesson in history and a learning experience. Here are some of the things that I found particularly interesting:

• Photography was introduced to China in the 19th century by European explorers. The first Chinese photographers were interested primarily in landscapes and portraits. Why? "For thousands of years the Chinese aesthetic was molded by Taoist principles of man in harmony with nature: an aesthetic that was honed in particular in brush paintings and landscapes," explains Liu.

• Mao himself acted as photo editor "in deciding which photographs of the historic handshake in 1972 between Nixon and Zhou were to be released to the press."

• "As the 1990s unfolded, a preference for investigative photography emerged." In other words, this was the beginning of Chinese documentary photography. "Jiang Jian portrayed ordinary people from small communities in rural areas or small towns. Wu Jialin looked at life in the provinces, in mountain regions, and outlying towns, and Yang Yankang traveled the length and breadth of the country seeking out religious communities in rural areas."

• "In the year 1996, photography found itself commandeered by the contemporary-art scene … By 1998, the art world had become obsessed with photography."

The photos in this book appear in chronological order; they show scenes from the spectacular to the mundane, from Shanghai’s famed Xiangyang market to victims of a traffic accident using their mobile phones ("to report the accident" the caption says, but who knows?). A very impressive shot shows the aftermath of a flood in the city of Wuzhou (most of the Chinese teachers in Fujian, where I taught, came from Wuzhou – it feels strange to look at a picture of their devasted city and to learn that such floods occur every year).

For most of the last 150 years (since photography came to China, that is), Western photographers, anthropologists, travelers etc. who took photos of China "tended to see China as an exotic, oriental Muse," writes Karen Smith, an art critic based in Beijing. Her statement is certainly true, for outsiders often see exoticism where locals do not. Anyway, is there something wrong with that?