For the young generation of Russians, feminism is on the rise: feminism of not just words and concepts, but looks. Young women — in photography, fashion, film and media — are redefining sexuality, pioneering the female gaze and telling visual stories of contemporary femininity in Russia.
Even in the 21st century, Russia remains the land of cast-iron, old-fashioned gender stereotypes. The greatest achievement for a girl is still marriage, childlessness is a stigma and even professionally accomplished women often use a saying which goes: “I’m a girl, I don’t want to make decisions, I want a dress.” The word feminism itself has a history of being rejected by society, so it arrived through a different medium: the laptop screen. The generation that grew up online could not stay immune to the shift in gender roles, and became part of the new wave of feminism: young, image-driven and web-empowered.
In the US and Europe the new female gaze already has its stars: Petra Collins with her suburban coming-of-age stories, Arvida Bystrom challenging the stereotypes of body representation with her candy-coloured shots, Valerie Philips with her portraits of teenage girls, Lina Scheynius with her almost explicit sensuality. The world that these artists create is often built on references to teenagehood and the aesthetic of girliness, Americana and Riot grrrl, and often carried out with a dreamy 35mm grain. Russian pioneers of the female gaze had to start from a different place. Their images are colder, more grown-up and sensual, the colours are dusty, the setting just as cinematic but with no smell of popcorn — with more of the grand stillness of Bergman or Antonioni.
The pioneers in the genre are a group of photographers who started their careers in fashion. They started to reimagine fashion editorials, shifting the role of a woman from an object of desire to a character in a visual narrative. They took inspiration from contemporary masters like Vincent van de Wiljngaard and Vivienne Sassen, infusing it with their unique experience of creative evolution in Russia. This was an environment that didn’t welcome their artistic ambitions, and dictated to them how to look, how to dress, how to behave, what to expose and what to hide. Their works are seeking to transform the outside world, and at the same time serve as the snapshots of inner emancipation.
Born and raised in Moscow, Masha Demianova was a photoshoot producer before picking up a camera. Whether they are model tests in NYC or LA or intimate portraits of friends in Moscow tower blocks, her images are elevated above the everyday. The girls, however beautiful, rarely appear pretty — they are a bit like the photographer herself: troubled, but filled with an inner strength.
The dramatic composition, rich light and heightened emotion in Christina Abdeeva’s work comes from the world of cinema masterpieces rather than magazine pages. She follows her heroines through breathtaking settings: forests, nocturnal streets and monumental cities. The path is never straight: they are lost girls with no desire to be found, both fragile and empowered, dreamy and self-aware.
Anastasia Ivanova takes after Ryan McGinley and captures a connection with the wilderness. Nakedness in her images is free from sexual overtones and indicates a return to a primal, real, complete state. It might represent the inner nakedness of absorbing relationships, or signify an act: that of physically undressing under the dark skies of the Russian North.
Even straightforward magazine fashion shoots are going through a makeover. The first Russian feminist women’s magazine, Wonderzine, demonstrates that fashion is more about experimenting with your looks rather than looking pretty in order to seduce a man. Their shoots feature ordinary women instead of models and explore concepts of age and body image. Gold lipstick and enormous baggy jeans are recommended.
Not everyone, however, chooses the pathway of constructing worlds. Rather than isolating their ideas of femininity from the context of space and time, the new generation of female documentary photographers embrace it. They study social circumstances and explore demographics trying to define women’s place in today’s society.
Turkmenistan-born photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan doesn’t seek an easy path to approach contemporary womanhood. In her project Female Prison she captured the inhabitants of the only correction institution for women in Armenia. In the semi-derelict setting, more reminiscent of a boarding house than a prison, they try hard to keep what means to be women for them: make-up, clothing, small decorated corners by their beds. In her other projects Li-Mi-Yan has also studied the concepts of beauty and maturity, and the daily self-imposed transformations of make-up.
Nadia Sablin, born in the Soviet Union and raised in the US, used her international experience to produce compelling female-centered narratives from both sides of the Atlantic: touching portraits of her elderly aunties in rural Russia or a personal story of sisterhood spanning countries and generations.
Documentary photographer Olya Ivanova unveils unseen rural communities across Russia and captures the lives of real women in remote villages and small towns. Her style and framing evokes classic portraiture, and women in her photographs — of different ages, backgrounds and professions — often appear dressed in their best. Ivanova’s viewpoint is never condescending, and her photographs are both witty and sincere.
The question you might ask: why are those images and stories valuable? How are they different from imagery produced by men? Each of the mentioned photographers probably would have their own answer. I once talked about it with Petra Collins, and she said: “What's behind the camera is as important as what's in front of it. I think male photographers can understand women's sexuality, but there is a lot to say about how women photographers shoot women versus male photographers.” When I asked Masha Demianova how she applies female gaze she deadpanned: “Well I have to. I am a female, and so is my gaze.”
In any corner of the art world, the voice and point of view of women is underrepresented. If, when redefining masculinity, what matters most is what’s in the picture, in the case of femininity the spotlight should be on the female creator. The new generation of female artists are pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities, giving girls a licence to do what they would like to do: dressing up and undressing, creating and destroying, seeking and getting lost, wandering in forests and conquering the cities — for the sake of being, and becoming, themselves.
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