Samara state of mind: one photographer’s journey to bring Instagram #success to provincial Russia

1 June 2021

The rise of social media has spawned a whole new generation of lifestyle coaches, ready to offer their expertise on creativity, time management, relations, and success.

But for amateur photographer and engineer Pavel Dokuchaev, their tried-and-tested tips seemed more in tune with glamourous influencer lifestyles in LA than his life in the Russian city of Samara. He decided to take matters into his own hands: deciphering common coaching tips — from “take risks!” and “build your community!” to “embrace your opportunities!” — and putting them into action in a photographic examination of provincial Russian reality.

So, just what does a “successful man” look like? With a little help from Google, Dokuchaev soon found a ready-made visual language of sinewy men in suits either posing in front of property or sprawled across a sports car.

Dokuchaev recreated these poses in his own images. Every picture brings a coaching mantra to life — but wedged among stereotypical Russian interiors, these snapshots of success lose their shine, in many cases suggesting decline or failure. Dokuchaev’s backdrops are carefully selected, but they are all unashamedly authentic. “Those are real flats and interiors, a functioning playground. The roadside cafe is real,” Dokuchaev says.

The only suit that Dokuchaev owned was a classic shiny polyester jacket and trouser set, a staple seen at high school graduations across the country (a detail well-appreciated by his Russian audiences). Meanwhile, sports cars, mansions, and champagne with lobster were swapped for a bicycle and a friend’s summer house, rooms with carpeted walls, and Russia’s signature bar food treats of Zhiguli beer and dry smoked fish.

Despite being home to more than a million, locals in Samara call their city “the big village” in praise of its carefree, laid-back vibe. This atmosphere makes its way into Dokuchaev pictures too. One of his photographs — ”find the right business partner!” — shows him sharing a beer with a friend in a small kitchen, in a scene that suggests cancelling a meeting with investors in order to host a barbecue in the park.

While almost all of the photos were carefully pre-planned, some scenes evolved out of the blue. Dokuchaev shot his ode to “take a risk” in a seedy roadside cafe (where he tucked into a tasty meat pie of perhaps questionable quality). As he cycled back home, still clad in his suit, trousers tucked in white socks to stop them from catching his bicycle chain, he passed a local park. There, a stranger, apparently impressed by his awkward look, challenged him to try and shoot a bullseye at the small fairground kiosk — an open-air shooting gallery — where she worked. Dokuchaev agreed. After all, how could one better “embrace the opportunity”?

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