After a head injury, one man uses photography to separate mirage from reality in small town Russia

13 December 2021

For Evgeny Gusarov, photography is a way of separating mirage from truth — or dreams from waking life.

He began his project, Proof of Memory, not long after a serious head injury. Gusarov, who has a history of epilepsy, had found himself in a tumultuous romantic relationship, and in a job that involved hard manual labour. Both took an enormous toll on his physical and mental health, and finally culminated in a seizure that caused Gusarov’s head injury. “Oh, it’s a funny story,” the photographer says, describing the chaos of the ambulance arriving at his workplace, bungled medical interventions, and his own escape attempt from the hospital itself in a bid to get back to work. “I suppose it’s actually a scary story, if you think about it,” he adds after a pause.

Gusarov spent almost a year recovering from his injury. He lost his job, but soon realised that unemployment was not the most drastic change he’d have to get used to. “My ability to focus and my memory just weren’t the same. I remembered things that never happened,” he says. Gusarov kept having fights with a friend, convinced that they had borrowed something from him, only to find the lost object in his own home. It was then that Gusarov thought of using his long-time love of photography as a tool to distinguish between the real and the imaginary.

Gusarov later watched Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film The Man Without a Map (based on Kōbō Abe’s book The Ruined Map), and felt that someone had conveyed his feeling of disorientation perfectly. Kōbō Abe, a master in his own right, is often compared to Franz Kafka. The film is a metaphysical story, where an anxiety-ridden detective tries to investigate a mysterious disappearance. Memory and disruption permeate the narrative, as déjà vus give way to jamais vus, and objective reality quivers and fades. These themes of disappearance and dissociation, along with the surreal feel of the film, became a direct inspiration for the Proof of Memory.

Gusarov lives in a small town near Moscow that he does not name. “It’s completely ordinary. I think there are thousands of towns just like this one across Russia,” he shrugs. Yet the deserted landscapes he captures have an almost disturbing alien look, such that one might question their reality.

When asked if he ever feels tempted to leave his hometown, Gusarov says no — although in a strange coincidence, one of the people pictured in his photographs did go missing for 6 months. Eventually, he found out that the person had simply left, severing all the ties with the town in a bid to start a new life elsewhere.

Gusarov is looking to produce a sequel to this project and recreate the journey that the person must have taken. It is not easy to guess who it might have been: the few people who are present in the photographs never face the camera, inevitably making viewers reimagine the surreal portraits of Belgian artist René Magritte. It’s almost as if they already are disappearing, and Gusarov’s lens respects their right to do so. “I wouldn’t like to reveal who it was [who disappeared],” the photographer says. “I want there to be a mystery.”