Online, we scroll through thousands of images every day, but few have the allure of old family photo albums. Archive project What Is Your Name allows its 300,000 followers to peek through old snapshots of Russian and Soviet life, all submitted from the family albums of users on Russian social network VKontakte.
What makes these family photos different from those we see on our newsfeeds? The arrival of affordable digital cameras and the sprawling rise of social media saw an explosion of photography, but it also changed what we shoot and how we take images. Selfie-driven pictures have seen more traditional family photography — unposed, unguarded, and unfiltered — retreat and become lesser-seen.
Daniil Maksyukov, a streetstyle photographer from Nizhniy Novgorod, set up What Is Your Name in 2014 as a direct answer to that shift. “I realised that I’d only taken a handful of family photos in 10 years. The files were scattered between my laptop, flash drive, and smartphone, unlike earlier images, which were organised neatly into a family archive. When I see my childhood photos, it feels almost like it’s only thanks to them that I remember my early years at all,” Maksyukov told The Calvert Journal.
Most of the images submitted by strangers to What Is Your Name can be split into three main categories. There are nostalgic pictures of parents’ weddings and honeymoons, and a high volume of awkward childhood shots, usually with significant meme-making potential, that are shared for fun. There are also chronicles of military service, and in particular, demobilisation albums. This peculiar genre thrived in the USSR: each group of men undertaking military service was paired with a chronicler and painter, who compiled these souvenir photo albums, often complete with calligraphy and decoration.
Other Soviet-era symbols also make constant appearances in What Is Your Name, including the ubiquitous red carpet wall hanging. Maksyukov’s favourite pictures aren’t common or familiar attributes of daily life, but those which capture special celebrations: wedding photos or holiday snaps that show parents and grandmothers in ways their children have rarely seen them.
For Maksyukov, family archives provide a cultural and anthropological adventure. He claims that every decade has its own particular fashion to it: jumpsuits mark the 90s, while photos from the 50s usually feature formal coats and hats. Busy backgrounds began to appear in the late 80s, as portable cameras became more accessible, moving photography away from clean studio backdrops. “Studio portraits look timeless; it’s only clothes that subjects are wearing that might reveal a particular date or era,” Maksyukov explains. “Point and shoot cameras, due to their wider lens angle, include more background details and objects in the shot, providing more evidence of their time.”
But beyond spotlighting hairstyles, interiors, and fashion of their era, Maksyukov also believes these archive images reveal the connections and rituals many of us have lost. “In the USSR, photo clubs and schools were all readily available, and most camera aficionados had dark rooms at home. Naturally, these photographers put family life in the centre of their practice. I think it explains the high quality of family archives during that time,” Maksyukov explains.
Today, Maksyukov worries that photography is too fast-paced — and that a photo has value only if it’s shared on Instagram Stories.” In the mid 00s, people in Russia still uploaded family photos, mainly from holidays, onto social media. Now, in the selfie-era, family photos are hardly ever shared. Some people don’t post images of their relatives online due to fear of frauds or scams, [but it’s also as if] it’s only your personal experience that counts on social media,” he says. It’s for this reason that time spent with his own family’s photographs, usually with his grandfather, has become so valuable. “As soon as we’ve swapped news, inevitably there comes a moment where one of us suggests, ‘let’s look at photographs!’, Maksyukov says.
In future, he plans to expand What is Your Name by tracking down and developing discarded old films found at flea-markets or on eBay, hopefully locating the families pictured within and interviewing them. But for now, the photographer’s latest passion is pre-revolutionary archives. “When you stumble upon these images on the Internet, they feel alien, as if they’ve stepped down from history books,” Maksyukov says. “But when our followers share them, I have goosebumps, as in, gosh! These people were real! That’s how they used to dress and smile. It feels more personal.”