The end of photojournalism in Russia

Life was tough for photographers in the Soviet Union. It’s still tough.

By Dalia Lourenco

Dimitri KoshcheevEdit
In contrast to Soviet times, Dimitri Koshcheev is no longer suspected of being a spy when he pulls out his camera. (Photo courtesy: Dalia Lourenço)

By Dalia Lourenco

Photojournalist Dimitri Koshcheev stops to take pictures of people raking leaves in a park on Nevsky Prospekt, the main avenue in St. Petersburg, Russia.

No one cares.

When he carried his camera in the same city during communist times, people would often approach him, suspecting he was a spy.

Russian photographers have lived through various stages of creativity and censorship in the last century.  These days state censorship is no longer an issue, yet photojournalism fails to thrive as a news medium.

The Soviet Union

Photographic propaganda was a vital ingredient to communist society.  The Leningrad Underground Photography, published by the State Russian Museum, explains that by publishing photos of symbolic Soviet figures, ceremonies and achievements, its government aimed to idealize the communist lifestyle and maintain public enthusiasm for the regime.   Consequently, any images that were not ideologically charged were shunned, resulting in a one-sided portrayal of society.

Official Soviet photographs included military parades, smiling workers in fields and factories and children in the “Young Pioneer Association” donning matching scarves.

According to Nailya Alexander, founder of the Nailya Alexander Gallery specializing in Soviet and contemporary photography, photojournalism took on a creative nature immediately after the Bolshevik revolution.  Photographers began experimenting with the use of close-ups and tilted angles in order to create the image of the ideal Soviet citizen.

The idealistic nature of Soviet photography was forced to evolve during the Second World War.  While photographers had many restrictions, including being prohibited from taking pictures of dead Soviet soldiers, the destruction and suffering inherent in war could not be masked.    While photos continued to be taken from a pro-Soviet angle, the war created a leap in the country’s photographic history.

By the 1980s, the restrictions had loosened significantly although they were not eliminated.  Photographer Sergey Grachev remembers editors stamping their approval on the back of prints submitted for publication. Grachev had to avoid photographing anything that could be interpreted as poor or outdated.  He says he once submitted a

Russian photographs in the 1990s capture the climate of change and turmoil.  Here people unite in support of keeping the name “Leningrad” for their city.  (Photo courtesy: Alexander Belenky)
Russian photographs in the 1990s capture the climate of change and turmoil. Here people unite in support of keeping the name “Leningrad” for their city. (Photo courtesy: Alexander Belenky)

seemingly harmless photo to a university newspaper portraying a student writing in a notebook.  The editor warned Grachev to be careful with future photos because in the background he had captured an old heater that had been out of use for 50 years.

As a result of these restrictions, an underground photography culture developed.  Photo enthusiasts formed unofficial clubs where they displayed their work to friends behind closed doors.   Koshcheev learned to take photos as a member of “Club Zerkalo”.  He explains the club’s name means “mirror” and its members photographed all aspects of life.  While official photography portrayed only the “white,” unofficial photos exhibited the “black and the grey” of society, such as people drinking or idling in the street.

Political turmoil and photographic freedom in the 1990s

“In the 90s Russia was an interesting country for taking photos,” says the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, Alexander Belenky, “Nobody knew the future of Russia.  Who will win?  Communist or democratic?”

Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation’s newness and instability made for interesting photos.  New businesses, financial upheavals and demonstrations and protests of all kinds ensured there was plenty to photograph.

Furthermore, as the political environment changed, so did the public mindset and people’s reaction to cameras.  In Soviet times, people were suspicious and mistrustful.  Photographers ran the risk of being mistaken for western spies trying to document the misery of communist society.  Someone taking a picture of garbage or a dilapidated building could expect a passerby to approach and ask questions. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, photographers became free to take pictures of everything.

It also became easy for photojournalists to get into institutions like prisons and hospitals to take good pictures.

Finally, after the downfall of communism many photojournalists felt inspired to be working for independent press rather than the government.

“Journalists felt freedom coming,” says Grachev, “and that we will build our newspaper.”

Today

These days, working for an independent newspaper does not necessarily spell freedom.

After working at the independent Argumenty i fakty newspaper for a decade, Koshcheev recently resigned because a new boss began dictating what he must photograph.  He now works for the government newspaper Russkaya Gazeta, where he gets along better with management.

Freelance magazine photographer Max Sher says Russians are going back to old authoritarian habits.  “We have a very bad tradition of abuse of power.  It’s always been this way.”  He says there is a vicious cycle of the powerless hating authority but becoming equally corrupt if given an office.

Photojournalists, including those on good terms with their managers, complain about a lack of access to their subjects.  Paranoid authorities enforce excessive security.  In many cases, a press pass is worthless, whereas in Soviet times it produced respect.

In some cases, photojournalists encounter more obstacles than the public.  In Moscow’s Red Square, for example, it is illegal to take pictures with a large camera, while smaller cameras and camera phones are permitted.

In order to take pictures of institutions photojournalists face long bureaucratic chains.   Whether attempting to gain access to the inside of a building or simply trying to take a photo of its façade, bureaucrats frequently tell journalists to return another day or month but without specifying a date. With regulations constantly changing, photojournalists never know what they must do to get a photo.

The stories illustrated by Max Sher’s photos could not be told during Soviet times.  This photograph is from his series Kommunalka, revealing the pains of communal housing in St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy: Max Sher)
The stories illustrated by Max Sher’s photos could not be told during Soviet times. This photograph is from his series Kommunalka, revealing the pains of communal housing in St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy: Max Sher)

At the same time, there are ways to sidestep even the most stringent guidelines.  Sher says simply showing respect and friendliness can be enough to gain access, especially in rural areas where inhabitants enjoy the attention.  Bribery is another option.

While photojournalists must face certain obstacles to take photos, they rarely find themselves in physical danger.  The exceptions are war photojournalists, whose safety is of course at risk by their mere presence in war torn areas.  In contrast with Soviet times, average photojournalists no longer worry about persecution for their images.  Elena Redkozubova, who worked as a photojournalist for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper and Grazia magazine says when a story reports inconvenient facts, businessmen and politicians would rather put pressure on a journalist than a photographer.  As Sher explains, without words the photos have no context.  Several journalists have been murdered in recent years but photojournalists do not feel threatened.

“What is good about this current state of Russia is that you can be creative and do what you want without any interference from the State,” Sher says.

The artistic photographic tradition developed during Soviet times has lasted into the present.   The U.S. Library of Congress, which holds a collection of Russian prints from the 1990s and beyond, explains on its website that these images tend to display more emotion than the photography of the West, which is usually more documental.

Editors are increasingly using photographs for mere page layout rather than journalism.  Consequently, their photos do not always relate directly to the story.  According to Belenky, what is usually important about a photo is the space it fills on the page, not its journalistic content.

As in most of the world, in Russia it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from photojournalism.  Some publications pay as little as 50 roubles, or less than two Canadian dollars, per photo.  And online publications pay even less for photos than do print.

With the end of the communist regime and the invention of television, photography no longer plays as important a role in the Russian Federation as it did in the Soviet Union.  It is photojournalists’ passion for photography and people that keeps them in the business.

“You know these days, you have to stop dreaming about being a photojournalist,” says Sher.  “This profession is kind of dead or was always dead. Classical photojournalism as we know it… it’s over.  It’s the same as becoming a blacksmith.  You can become a blacksmith but just for fun you know, for art.”

He adds, “It’s no longer a news medium, that’s the point.”