How one Russian family showed this British photographer the links that truly bind us

27 November 2019
Interview: Diane Smyth

English photographer John Peter Askew first visited Russia in 1996 when he was invited to Perm, a remote city nearly 1500km east of Moscow, to exhibit his photographs. The exhibition was sponsored by Giorgi Chulakov, a partner in a local electronics repair firm who paid for the exhibition posters and for Askew’s tickets from Moscow. He also invited the young photographer to stay with his family for much of his month in the city. Askew knew that the offer was “a significant gesture” just five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union — a time when money was scarce — and the two struck up a friendship.

The following year, Askew was invited back to Perm to take up a month-long residency with the Perm State Puppet Theatre. This time he stayed with the Chulakovs for longer. Inspired by the family’s generosity and kindness, he became a regular visitor for the next 20 years, amassing over 20,000 images of their life. His new book, We, brings together his extensive and quiet study of family life in Russia for the first time. Here, he tells The Calvert Journal about the many trips behind his poetic tome.

Girl Learning to Fly (2017)

My first memory of Russia is sleeping in a compartment on a train slowly moving east from Moscow towards the Urals. I dreamt snow was falling upon me through the darkness. When I awoke, I saw an endless white landscape illuminated by the morning sun.

Man on Train (1997)

The heart of my work lies as much in the friendships I’ve built as in the photographs themselves. The Chulakovs have become family to me. They always have a vacant bed in their home, a seat in the car, and a plate at the table for me. In fact, they joke that I am their relative who lives in London.

Woman and Children Outdoors (2009)

My inability to speak Russian gave me a certain freedom. It forced me to find a way to think about the world without relying on words. It opened up a space for me which I filled with looking.

Carousel in Snow (2007)

For 12 years I paid little attention to the photographs I was taking of my friends and their lives. But I did compile handmade photo books and playful collages, which I would post to the Chulakovs as mementos. They had my photographs on their walls and in their photo albums, as did I. Perhaps that’s what makes for the unselfconscious nature of many of the images. It was this aspect that initially drew my attention back to them in 2008 and made me embark on turning it into a body of work. After 12 years, they were so used to me making holiday photographs it didn’t make a difference that I was now calling it work. Each year I would return with pictures to show them. In 2017, I brought the penultimate book dummy to Perm to get feedback from the family. They were part of every step of the process, helping me pick which images to include and how to arrange them.

Man Riding Bicycle (2017)

I hope my images convey a gentleness and a respect for the subject which isn’t dependent on nationality, because they come from a belief in the importance of kindness in our interactions with the world. I hope my photos ask the question: “How is this world [pictured] different from our own?”

J Child Sleeping in Flowers (2010)

I made five dummy publications in total, each with a small but significant improvement from the last. In the process, I edited out many arresting photographs because they didn’t seem to fit: either because they had an “edge” to them, or they were ambiguous in content, or they were too much of a document of the time and place. Inevitably many images fell under the radar – like this image [below] which is a recent discovery and definitely makes the cut.

Boy by Stream (2017)

I chose the title We for its simplicity, and for the way it considers the subject, the photographer, and the viewer. It’s inclusive and expansive. “We” holds the idea that even though these photographs are about the Chulakovs, they should hold a wider resonance for everybody. I am interested in representing peoples’ better selves, in the belief that we have the ability to become better too. If we are to change the world and envision a better place, we have to think of “we” rather than “I”.

Fruit Compsition (2009)

I end my book with a quote from Zamyatin’s afterword: “…for those who cannot only walk, not only march in time, but fly as well”. Zamyatin wrote his own novel, also titled We, because he was politically-driven and interested in a better world. The book is funny, full of light and fantastic inventions, and as such not as straightforwardly dystopian as 1984 or Brave New World.

Woman Glancing Down (2007)

We: Photographs from Russia 1996-2017 by John Peter Askew, published by Kerber, is available now.