One of the most common questions people asked upon my return from an exchange semester in Saint Petersburg was ‘and what were the Russian people like?’ as if I could sum this up in a handful of well-chosen words. In light of the contemporary refugee crisis and the European referendum, the concept of national identity has become an increasingly pertinent topic. However, their question focused more on generalised stereotypes of Russians which are mythologised in popular culture.
When travelling or living abroad stereotypes may begin to haunt your everyday interactions, as a slightly forced conversation can hinge on your British love of tea, or meander around the stale subject of the weather. While these can add useful fuel to waning discussions, it is far more rewarding and compelling to look beyond these stereotypes. Photography can be a useful medium in attempting to explore Russia (or anywhere) without any preconceptions, as it obliges you to really look, even if only for an instant. There are so many qualities about Russia which are indescribable, yet photos allow certain moments to be captured. These snapshots can then accumulate into a greater impression of a country and its people. For example, these photos contain the solitary gaze of a passenger riding a slow train, and the glimpse of a fur coat from a puddled-street. While photos cannot offer a voice to their subjects, they can demand a second glance at a person who we may have stereotyped, or simply dismissed altogether.
A quote from Susan Sontag may provide a more concise accompaniment to these photos, as she writes that ‘One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images.’
Text by Joanne Riggall
All images © Joanne Riggall