Dagestan’s youth are fighting for their right to self-expression

20 August 2021

The beauty of self-expression is what we appreciate most in art and fashion. It’s also an integral part of being young: testing the boundaries of conventional dress codes and experimenting with your identity. In Russia’s conservative southern republic of Dagestan, however, even modest rebellion is often met with judgement and harassment — from family members and society at large.

Khizri (18 years old)
Radim (20 years old)
Saida (26 years old)
Karina (23 years old)

Photographer Madina Gadjieva was born in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s regional capital. She’s been shooting images since 2012, but it took her some time to find her field of interest: human stories, communities and themes of social and gender inequality. For her series One of Us, she focused on the young people of Dagestan who dared to be different, challenging local social norms in their dress.

“The Republic of Dagestan is one of the regions of Russia where patriarchal worldviews and traditions dominate,” she says. “These place certain restrictions on people’s behavior, their hobbies and appearance. Such rules are largely accepted and considered natural here, as people’s choices are strongly guided by public opinion.”

Asya (20 years old)
Timerlan (26 years old)
Jamilya (22 years old)

But Gadjieva soon found that no matter how traditional, there are always those seeking a different life. The photographer searched for her non-traditional models on Instagram and social media. “I was looking for young people who look unusual by local standards or engage in creative practices which might be seen negatively, like cosplay,” she says. Many of her subjects had unusual hairstyles or tattoos, made music or enjoyed design — things which would not be considered a novelty in most big cities. In Dagestan, however, they face constant harassment including physical and verbal harassment.

“They are just normal young people who are creative and aren’t harming anyone,” Gadjieva says. “I just want our society to see that”.

Alexandra (21 years old)
Maria (20 years old)
Zumrud (23 years old)
Nika (19 years old)

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