My father was a quiet man. Revisiting my childhood in photos brought us closer together

With her evocative photo story My Dad is a school bus driver, Yana Pirozhok explores the freedoms and pains of childhood in rural Russia.

2 June 2020

In remote parts of Russia, where villages are no bigger than six streets, schools are scarce. Each morning, a bus collects kids from neighbouring villages and drives them to school in the largest rural settlement. In Yana Pirozhok’s photos, we see glimpses of the pastures and plains of the Urals through the eyes of a child gazing out of a bus window. These blurry vistas are a parenthesis to a larger story on childhood in rural Russia, yet they capture the essence of growing up in the countryside: where friendships stretch across vast distances; where a more rigid social hierarchy creates a gulf between childhood and adulthood; and where freedom and loneliness slowly become entangled.

Pirozhok herself grew up in a village called Zarobye, situated 100 km from the city of Perm, close to the Ural Mountains. On one of her visits home in 2018, the St Petersburg-based photographer returned to her former school with a Mamiya RZ67, a medium format film camera which gives Pirozhok’s tender portraits their soft focus. For many of the high school kids, it was the first time they’d seen a camera of this size. They were perpetually curious as Pirozhok took their photos, a feeling which comes across in the way their faces take up the frame. In the background of each photo is the bus driver. You might not notice him at first: he appears at a distance, sometimes separated by glass, photographed through bus windows or the rear-view mirror. Compared to the children, he never glances at the camera. This is the photographer’s father, and though his presence is a quiet one, it is crucial to the story.

“My dad had always wanted a son,” the photographer recalls. “His first child was a daughter, another daughter followed. I was the third child: by the time I was born my father had been thrice disappointed. I discovered that story very early on in my life, and I took it literally, which of course had a profound effect on my relationship with him. I tried to get his attention any way I could.” When her younger brother was born, her attempts to win her dad’s affection increased exponentially and “became aggressive”, despite being driven by love. The feeling of rejection stayed with her in adult life. “I experienced a great deal of problems with intimacy in general. I felt miserable for a long time.”

In social psychology, attachment theory describes the ways our early interactions with caregivers influence how we connect with others later in life. It concerns not just who we choose to depend on but how we communicate our emotions and needs. The road to secure attachment starts with healing these emotional wounds, and for Pirozhok, this project was the start of a personal reparative process. Initially, she had planned to make a documentary about schoolchildren in rural Russia that chimed with her own experiences. It did not occur to her that what she was shooting was a story about her relationship with her father.

A homecoming is often understood as a return, even if it is impossible to return to the exact same country, city, family unit, or house. Sometimes, a homecoming actually involves rebuilding a home a second time around. “I was trying to figure out the root of my problems, and I realised it came down to a lack of love and attention in my childhood. After that, my trips back to my village were never the same: I began to observe not just my own feelings, but the love and affection I failed to give to my parents. I understood that my parents could not teach me to express my feelings, because they didn’t know how to do it themselves.”

She was stung by the realisation that she did not truly know her parents, and neither did they know her. She set out to learn about her father as an individual. “This project was my way of saying — Dad, I want to get to know you, and give you an opportunity to get to know me.”

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At first, she asked her dad if she could join him on his school runs, so she could photograph the kids on the bus. “My dad was actually responsible for helping me organise the shoot. It was he that contacted the school principal for permission to photograph on the premises.” For five days, she accompanied her dad on his trips to and from school. “I stayed at the school from morning till lunch, but only tried to photograph in the breaks between the classes, getting to know all the kids in the process.”

The loneliness that Pirozhok had felt during childhood was not just a consequence of her own family dynamics, but the result of living in an isolated rural area. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have any adult friends,” she says. The adults she met, whether at nursery or school, offered discipline instead of guidance. “At nursery, you’d be punished for speaking during ‘quiet time’ or not finishing your food. And this wasn’t the worst of it. You were eternally treated with suspicion: always chastised, made to feel that you were wrong, that you were being disruptive or in the way.” The memories she treasures most were made outside the school grounds: by rivers and lakes or in forests, fields, and farms. She recalls venturing outdoors with her swimsuit and towel, spending the afternoons picnicking with friends, then visiting one of their families’ farms. But she also craved the security of supportive adults — “someone you could confide in and ask for advice without any fear.”

“This is the paradox of village life,” she explains. “On the one hand, you are spoiled by the proximity to nature and have the liberty to enjoy it all without adult supervision. On the other hand, the social environment is far from what you would call healthy. My parents carry a lot of hardships from their own past, and are closed off as a result, just as with the majority of other villagers from the area. Today, I try to be that role model for the kids I meet.”

It’s a mindset which is noticeable in Pirozhok’s image-making: the way that she elevates each child to a thinking and feeling individual, refusing to shy away from drawing out complex emotions. The series represents children as capable, intelligent, independent people. These aren’t stock images of childhood — they are warm and unusually pensive portraits, born out of a process of reconciliation, not just between the photographer and her distant father, but with her wounded inner child.

Pirozhokwas nervous to show her father the finished project. While he was reading the supporting text for the series, “I saw a look of worry flash across his face that he tried to hide. Other than that he didn’t say anything. It was my mum who later told me that he liked the project.” On her departure back to St Petersburg, her parents came with her to the train station. “My dad hugged me tightly for a long time. This was a significant event for me. It reassured me of his affection and feelings about my project.” She refers to the series as a form of art therapy that helped her stretch her own emotional awareness. “It’s not just children who feel neglected. By giving up hierarchies, you are giving yourself the gift of friendship — with a child, with a parent, with whoever you want.”

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