Both Russian and Irish, one photographer offers a tender exploration on being torn between two cultures 

What does home mean to someone growing up between Russia and Ireland?

10 January 2020

It’s a weird thing to live in one place most of your life but to call somewhere else your home. Having two homes may sound like an abundance: in some cases, it means two or more languages, traditions, maybe even families. The reality, however, is often more of a sliding scale; you’re never quite sure where you belong. Many spend their lives trying to flee their country, only to realise that they cannot escape their roots. Then there’s the relentless Odyssean voyager, who will travel the world longing for home, only to return to a place that no longer feels the same.

George Voronov was five when his family left their home in Moscow. After his parents divorced, his mother remarried. All of this happened amid the uncertainty and upheaval of Russia’s economic and political transition in the 90s. Together with his Irish stepdad, his family decided to seek a better life in Dublin. The move was only meant to be temporary. Still, Voronov says he had no expectation that they would ever return to their life in Russia. “I didn’t yet have a concept of short-term or long-term. At that age even a year seems like an eternity,” he says. The family ended up settling in Dublin where Voronov is a photographer, working as the Creative Director of alternative culture magazine, District. We Became Everything, his graduate series for the Belfast School of Art, centred on spiritual identity. He visited religious communities and retreats throughout Ireland to capture the moments of connection with the spiritual world.

In Dublin, he and his sister led what he describes as a double life: speaking two languages and visiting their family and friends in Russia every summer. “For three months, I would run free, I’d spend my days [in my family dacha] in the forest or swimming. This felt like a substantial amount of time to be in the country, which is why it felt like I was living two lives.”

Growing up between two cultures is an endless process of negotiation

What seemed like brief stints were just enough time to form lasting friendships. “The bonds I’d forged on my trips back had an intensity like none other. I would see my friends for short bursts and then for the rest of the year these friendships would fade into the background.” At 17, with the prospect of conscription into the military looming, Voronov stopped travelling to Russia and did not return again until eight years later. “From the age of 14, everyone was aware there was a timer on our friendships.” He had always brought his camera with him, but says he became a photographer when he started chronicling those last summers in Moscow.

It isn’t just relationships that become strained when someone lives away from their roots. Growing up between two cultures is an endless process of negotiation. Even beyond border control, visa applications, or the dreaded question “where are you from?” from a curious stranger, more often it’s a battle with your sense of self. What culture do I identify with? Which parts do I keep and which parts do I erase? Then there’s the feeling of guilt or being “found out”. “I began asking myself: am I still allowed to call myself Russian?”

Meanwhile, the media coverage of Putin’s Russia and its relations with the wider world was intensifying. People began to question how Russia was changing from within. During a winter break from his Masters in 2018, Voronov embarked on a journey back to the country he had long called home with a plan to create “tender and vulnerable” photos of his friends. “I was trying to reckon with those bigger questions about Russia on a more personal and intimate level,” he reveals. “[But] when I got there, the whole plan went to shit.”

The series, Once Again for the Very First Time, includes just one portrait of his mother, grandmother, and great aunt sitting around a table. Voronov says it captures a crucial moment of reflection during an overwhelming trip: “I was constantly trying to meet people and wasn’t taking photos as frequently as I wanted to. Each evening, I would regroup with the rest of my family and we would discuss our thoughts on what happened that day.”

“You realise then that everybody is very different. You’ve gone to this big reunion and realise you feel more lonely than when you first arrived.”

The rest of the images are quiet, contemplative studies of his home and neighbourhood. What you see isn’t a photographer shooting still lives; this is a returnee mapping the parametres of memory and rediscovering a home through adult eyes. Photographing on an analogue camera allowed Voronov to spend time with his surroundings and retrace old routes.

Once Again for the Very First Time might be read as a visual index of a person. If we are motivated to return home to see what we’re made of, these are the objects and memories — from the soap holder in his childhood bathroom to the playground in the yard — that form the photographer’s sense of self.

The experience of confronting these memories was one of simultaneous wonder and loss. He photographed a hockey rink he had always walked past in summer while it was all tarmac, but never had a chance to play in. “All of these experiences, by virtue of not having done them, have a certain significance,” he reflects. On one occasion he left the house to get to the waterfront, a route he could have “previously sleep-walked”, only to discover he did not know how to get there.

Voronov calls Once Again for the Very First Time a prelude to a longer project. The simplicity of Voronov’s photos outweigh the grand “homecoming” narrative. The photos are not triumphant, yet they are thoughtful and imbued with feeling. “The whole trip was filled with moments of disconnection,” he remarks. “I met some friends for dinner one night and, afterwards, we went to a bizarre karaoke bar outside of Moscow. We were in this padded function room, everything was lilac, and they were serving purple cocktails. You realise then that everybody is very different. You’ve gone to this big reunion and realise you feel more lonely than when you first arrived.” Among the jubilant photos of New Years Eve with his family, the photo of the lonely Christmas tree at the bar he visited with friends stands for a hollow celebration, “decked out to the nines and sad looking at the same time”. Moreover, the title Once Again for the Very First Time reads like a karaoke song: sentimental, maybe a little cliche, but still sincere.

Before starting the series, Voronov had imagined having two relatively defined homes. “Whatever stability I had conceived had been shaken by virtue of me going back to one of them. It was almost like a rug being pulled out beneath my feet, where all of a sudden the place I originally thought to be a home wasn’t actually my home.”

There are overlaps between this personal series on Russia and his previous series, We Became Everything. The former looks for traces of the spiritual world in our familiar, “real” world; the latter explores whether home is a feeling or a place.

“Some people are rooted in a specific spirituality and a specific set of beliefs and other people are more loose,” Voronov points out. Trying to figure out the world and his place in it, he admits: “I still don’t have the answer to that one. All I know is that we come across people and places in our lives that bring out the true, most authentic version of ourselves.” Perhaps this is the closest definition of home there is.

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