Why Russia? “First of all, because my family comes from Russia. I started to investigate and meet my family over there. My final destination was to visit my relatives, who live by the Baikal lake. On my way I met these young people who later on became the heroes of the project. My first trip was in 2004. Secondly, my work in Poland is mainly editorial work. I could not work here on my personal projects. Russia was kind of a ‘photo holiday,’ to detach myself from these assignments and guidelines.”
7 Rooms is published by Kehrer Verlag and is selected as the winner of the Best Photography Book by the 69th Pictures of the Year international (POYi). 7 Rooms is a photobook about 7 spaces, around people the Polish documentary photographer Rafal Milach (1978) met in Russia. Six of these ‘rooms’ are shown in a visual story, in pictures, and the seventh room is the space filled with personal stories written by the Belorussian writer Svietlana Alexievich. These are stories about the Soviet mentality: about the people that were born, raised and used to live in the Soviet system. It is a separate first chapter in which each of the three stories takes you by the hair and pulls you down. Striking personal documents. The other spaces/rooms, chapters if you prefer, deal with the six characters Rafal has met. People who hosted him, showed him around, with whom he hang out. Gala, Sasha and Nastya and Lena he has met the very first year.
7 Rooms opens according to the rules of classical narration. So the first chapter starts with the personal stories, extracts from the book Enchanted by Death by Svietlana Alexievich. A multilayered book about Russian utopia. One of a multivolume series of books, Rafal was introduced to by a friend. It was the missing link: this strong social historical context. The essay starts with Margarita (52). She is a doctor, feeling melancholic about ‘The Motherland’. She used to be a Young Pioneer, wearing a red bandana, united in a prison of Soviet belief. “That great strong state in which we no longer live”. Vladimir, a 22 year old driver, is bitter about the history of the USSR, ‘a Russian story.’ He lost his son. He did not have a youth. Nothing has changed. Svetlana (36) is used to belong to a group. Engineer-technician was considered a woman’s profession. The plan that she knew how to live by is gone, broken. They were ‘programmed’ citizens. Now she has to fight for survival. She swallows a bottle of vinegar essence as soon as her husband opens the front door. “Freedom?…. What is it? I don’t know.”
Rafal: “I needed this Soviet context, all my characters are born in this era.” These personal stories connect with our collective memory and are a prelude to the people Rafal meets and interact with. Each of them tells a story about contemporary Russia, from a very personal point of view. The selection of images – all in color – coming with each character in the book, is related to extracts of interviews with them. Small blocks of text are printed on a left page facing the images.
After reading the essay, the three stories about the soviet years, you have this red page, like an iron curtain. Although, you have the impression you’re still in the Soviet Union. “First you start to breath this Russian landscape. That sometimes has these social marks. So the first four images are linked to that Soviet past: this typical white Russian landscape, the sickle and hammer on a roof, the Lenin statue, the suburban districts. These are the images that come with that Soviet iconography. The pictures of desolate landscapes in the communist era are not rooted in some particular place. It could be Ukraine, Poland…Eastern Europe. I needed these ‘iconic’ images to make the transition from text to images. It is meant to be a slow introduction into modern Russia, approaching contemporary Russia. Like zooming in with Google Earth. Narrowing down the narration to certain people, certain stories, showing pictures that are much more universal.”
certain people, certain stories
The six characters in 7 Rooms ‘are a good pick’; it is a good representation of the differentiation in Russian society. They come from the cities Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Krasnoyarsk. Rafal spent, each visit, between two weeks and three months with them. So there is GALA. “Gala was the first person I met. She speaks languages, is not afraid of change. She is a smart, active and dynamic woman. She immigrated, lives in France right now. There is LENA, who comes from Kazakhstan and has Russian roots. And MIRA who has Khakassian roots, from this Asian locale tribe. So we have this multi-ethnographic Russian society. Then we have the regular Russian family with STAS. And in the lives of SASHA and NASTYA, it’s like time does not exist. While VASYA is split between his life as a transvestite and a regular family life. Quite a broad selection of different kinds of personalities. I did not plan that, but it developed into a wide range of different kinds of people.”
Gala likes Russia and considers life in Russia unpredictable. She went to school during Perestroika. Her parents were sick of communism. She never experienced ‘democracy,’ living in a system that is manipulating people, imperialist in nature. She got pregnant from a Frenchman, studying and working in Shanghai. She works for a local television station. The first picture shows Gala wearing a woolen hat with the letters CCCP [USSR] on her forehead. One picture shows a children’s playground with two tanks surrounded by apartment buildings in a desolate snow covered suburban landscape. Some pictures are related to a shared common experience. During a trip to a small industrial city Rafal photographed a row of chairs in an empty Soviet theatre hall. The same counts for the Neoclassical iceskating ring. “These are spaces she introduced me to”.
LENA likes the tactics of Putin, but doesn’t vote. Her opinion is that life in Russia is so much better then during Yeltsin’s era. “The sense of patriotism is what he has awoken in the Russians”, she says. Lena’s flatmate lives his life scrolling the internet in bed and having sex with his girlfriend. She detests racism and nationalism. Her former boyfriend was shot, her best girlfriend killed in a car crash. Lena is afraid of dying alone.
Rafal: “She is always complaining about Moscow, where everything is so expensive. She is tired of the daily working routine. She read her recent horoscope to me. It was amazing to what extent a majority of points corresponded with her personal statements in the interviews we just had held. So I decided to use this horoscope in the book to describe her personality. Her view on contemporary Russia and politics. Lena speaks about politics but is not interested in it. Stas is the only character in the book interested in Russian politics. Everyone else is disappointed, so they do not get involved. I tried to include as little politics as possible in the book. Another cliché about Russia is that it is all about politics, and that it is everywhere. However I did include this contemporary social context, which is related to political issues, unfortunately. That’s the way it is.”
A first portrait shows Lena on her balcony. She lives in the suburbs. To get to the center of Moscow is one hour and a half by metro. Followed by a picture of people walking in complete darkness along a bill board, showing a snow beauty queen, just next to the red square. “In fact, it already is a historical image because today the Russian hotel is there, built these past years. Totally ugly, bigger then the Kremlin.” Family is important to Lena. Being alone in Moscow, she keeps, old pictures of her family in Kazakhstan, all cartes visites, in a shoebox. And then there is that depressive picture of two telephones on a table in a corridor, at her work in a medical institute of immunology.
VASYA is a transvestite, a drag queen. Married to Jana (“it’s a job, like any other”). They met at a night club. She liked the optimism, the banners, the parades, even the propaganda, in times of the Soviet Union. Jana was 11 when the USSR collapsed. They have a 5 year old daughter. Vasya is trying to cope with the fact that he is gay. His stage nickname he found in an art book ‘Panikhida’: a memorial service for the dead in the Orthodox Church. The word is tattooed on his back, deliberately spelled wrongly. “Vasya is the most colorful person in the book. What interested me most was that he was leading a double life: a night life as a drag queen, and a day life as a family man. He is a totally relaxed, amusing fellow when he is at work as a performer in a night club. Besides he is a visa-gist, a hair dresser. He earns money doing this transvestite show. A first picture shows him with eyes made up, a naked torso and jeans on, resting against a door, at the backstage of the night club. Jana works for a cosmetic company, doing day shifts. Vasya is working night shifts. They hardly spent time together with their daughter because of the different work shifts. This whole story in pictures is constructed around the idea of switching from one kind of work to another: night-day-night-day, also color wise. Cold blue and green for the night life versus warm reddish for the family life. To underline the fact Vasya is jumping between those two worlds, constantly.”
a stiff black notebook — flipping history
“I decided to make this regular notebook, because I ‘collected’ these people. I put them down in my notebook. The form justifies the idea of a personal diary. That’s why my handwriting is on the cover, and in each title of the chapters. And the format relates to the fact that in those days I worked almost exclusively in landscape. 7 Rooms is opening up like a textbook, for reading. The stories of these people end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Followed by the stories of my people — fully conscious, full of life. They were 6 to 12 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed: kids basically. I like the idea of flipping the book, like flipping history. We had the Soviet Union, and now we have Russia”. Another reason to make these two different sections in the book is, that the text is not even written for this book, it is a different entity. That’s why the essay is on different paper, that’s why the text is vertically. “Like being on the road, you complete the file, put in some images, some text, all collected in a notebook. It is there, all the material as part of the object.” And fitting in the chronology of history.
see also: Conscientious / review