Moscow-based photographer Elizaveta Baum was still a child when she was introduced to the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church. Growing up, she came to question the strict religion chosen for her by her parents, but it was only when she met students of Stavropol’s Theological Academy in southern Russia that she found herself re-examining her own turbulent childhood experiences with faith. For her photo series The Only Way, she met young men on the threshold of the spiritual and secular worlds — and found herself reassessing her visions of faith, individuality and belonging.
Baum came to Stavropol with St Petersburg’s DocDocDoc school of photography, searching for a story for her graduation project. In the course of long walks around the city, she stumbled upon the Theological Academy, and was instantly drawn to its gates.
A prolific street life photographer, Baum found it challenging to work with the school’s closed community and the ascetic interiors of its dormitories. As she talked to the students about their path towards God, she also felt disoriented and troubled by traumatising memories of religion in her own childhood. “I felt confined. A stranger just pretending to be one of them, although I was not,” Baum says.
Baum had expected to talk about mythical revelations with her subjects, but many of the young men she met in the academy had very earthy reasons to turn to God. Most attended church as children, although often due to family tradition rather than their own free will, just like Baum herself. None of the students Baum interviewed said that they had a special connection with God in childhood, except from one young priest, Dmitry, who always felt a “superpower, providence; that serving God was the only way in life”.
Most of the students chose their faith and their destiny as adults, and saw religious service as the evolution of other interests, such as psychology and even rock music. Many found the church through music, enchanted by the solemn beauty of bell-ringing or the ethereal polyphony of an Orthodox Christian choir. One interviewee, Nikolay, joined the church at the age of 11 to become a bell-ringer inspired by the example of a local priest. The students were “young, breathing, lively, individual, and actually just very normal people,” says Baum.
One trainee priest, Ivan, felt his calling during his conscription into the army, and applied to the academy as soon as his military service was over. His fellow student Ilya, a former rock musician and construction worker, had been disillusioned by corruption in the Orthodox Church. He entered the academy to prove that serving God was not about “riding the town in limos”, but about providing direction, guidance, and support to those in need. Another student, Sergey, joined the church after a near-death experience caused by a minor operation on an infected finger. “I was not afraid of death itself,” he told Baum, “but I was scared to face God and account for my actions. I realised I had not done enough good. I decided to come back [to the church] and change my life forever.” Another young priest, Egor, was in turn deeply affected by his childhood fear of losing his parents, who worked for the police. In time, he grew to understand that “God grants mercy, not judgements,” he says.
The connection between Baum and her subjects, fostered by the stories they shared with her, soon found its way into each photograph. Intimate, warm, and nuanced, the portraits capture young men at a liminal moment, showcasing their individuality as opposed to the facelessness of their dorm rooms.
During conversations, Baum admits it was hard to remain unbiased, or to avoid filtering their words through her own memories. The photographer’s religious upbringing saw her parents limit her access to both television and the internet, as well as “immodest” clothing. The experience made her feel alien and strange rather than special. Today, she maintains that she has a stronger belief in the liberating power of art than the mercy of God. “The sense of indignity and peccancy imposed by religions is not only unacceptable but devastating,” she says.