2012 [1996 -2010], c-type photographic prints, various size
In 1996 I had my photographs exhibited in Perm State Puppet Theatre, Russia. Giorgi Chulakov, a partner in a electronics repair firm, sponsored my show. He paid for my train ticket to and from Moscow, printed the advertising posters for the show and for much of my month in Perm I stayed with his family. There wasn’t much money around then, it was only five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and this was a significant gesture.
I returned a year later for a residency at the theatre. This time I stayed all my time with the Chulakov family. Giorgi’s business involved buying up broken electronic telephones and computers in Moscow to repair and resell in Perm. I was met at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport with their van overloaded with stuff. It was deep winter. Outside Moscow, under blue skies, the roads dissolved into frozen streams of snow and ice for the 1200km drive east to Perm: a dreamlike journey into the heart of a white continent.
Giorgi and his eldest daughter Lyuba visited England the following summer. We spent a week on Colonsay, an enchanted island off the West coast of Scotland. The sea to them was an unimagined, magical world, as their winter was to me. I spent the subsequent New Years eve in St Petersburg with Lyuba who was now studying painting there at Herzen Pedagogical University. Then Giorgi died of cancer.
My visits to Perm continued and always I thought my work was elsewhere, giving little attention to the photographs I was making of my friends and their lives. Perhaps this accounts for the unselfconscious nature of many of the images, an aspect that first drew my attention in 2008. It led me to begin thinking of my archive of over ten thousand images, stretching back almost fourteen years and encompassing four generations of the Chulakov family, as a body of work.
The Chulakovs are a family of three sisters and a brother just as in Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. I discovered too, that Chekhov had written to Maxim Gorky, saying that when he set his play in an imaginary provincial town, he was thinking of a town like Perm. John Berger begins a novel by writing ‘I remember most of what I hear, and I listen all day but sometimes I do not know how to fit everything together. When this happens I cling to words or phases that seem to ring true'. As an outsider, and as one who can't even speak Russian, I can only ever create my own story, my own play of the Chulakovs’ lives. Lying at the heart of Chekhov's play is arguably the sense of difficulty that human beings have in living in the present (in the play the three sisters long to return to Moscow where they see their real lives to be). At the centre of my work is the desire to pay respect to the things I photograph: a person, a teapot, a tree, a cat and to show them in their best light. The action of paying respect to people, things, life, not only gives a reason for, and a meaning to, living in the present, it is a stepping-stone towards fundamental and lasting political change.
These are photographs of friends, food, flowers, pets and smiles. They are tokens of love. I want them to be seen as family photographs and I'm happy how such a position is at odds with my position as an outsider. It reflects the contradictions that are inherent to photography, the bizarre mix of reality and fiction that makes its identity illusive and the ambivalence of being a conscious being in the world: how we must always be on the outside to even those people and those things that are closest to our hearts.