Games Children Play
The St. Petersburg photographer Evgeny Mokhorev, photographs the disturbing world of homeless youth. He presents an intense account of troubled childhood, as it is lived in the shelters, orphanages and squats that mushroomed as a consequence of the political turmoil of the 1990s. His black and white images impel by the anxious eyes and fragile bodies of children that are etched in the memory for a long time. Eyemazing gets the inside story of Mokhorev's approach to his medium, his influences and the motivation behind the body of photographs Games Children Play that were originally exhibited at the Changing Reality: Recent Soviet Photography exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1991.
Now in his 40s, Mokhorev was not alone among the Russian photographers who addressed the despair of people situated on the societal fringes during the waning days of the Soviet regime. Sergey Bratkov, Yuri Mukhin and Nikolay Bakharev documented the ironic and poignant scraps of life that were hidden or banned from official culture.
All of them derived from the boom of amateur photography in the post-war communist Soviet Union, and counted Boris Mikhailov’s now-classic images as prototypes.
In 1988 Mokhorev’s milieu in St. Petersburg evolved out of contact with the photo club Zerkalo (Mirror), which was frequented by a group of photographers, but also jazz musicians, poets and intellectuals. It was a tight knit circle of artists who, although amateurs, scrambled to learn from each other during the discussions, exhibitions, concerts and readings that they held. This atmosphere of camaraderie was very productive for people searching for self-expression in a time when an ideology of the collective subsumed the individual. Photography was only one medium that assured documentation of real life from an individual perspective, bearing simultaneously an objective and subjective approach, as well as an official and non-official slant. The stimulating environment of Zerkalo was instrumental in the first steps of Mokhorev’s photographic journey, at a time when resources for education such as books or magazines were not getting through the Iron Curtain. The artists then relied on a peer-review type of critique or group brainstorming when commencing on a new direction or theme.
Overall photography in Russia went through a process of transformation after the end of Socialism in the 1990s. It was able to find its place in the field of art following on the example of Western standards, but with new tendencies regarding form and content which quickly surpassed painting in terms of modernity. The 90s were marked by this seemingly radical change. On one hand, many photographers looked back to the language of the avant-garde, including reportage or even the Constructivism of Rodchenko’s photography. On the other hand, they were fascinated by the possibilities of staged photography that emerged once the photo magazines started to arrive from the West. The artists also embarked on staged landscape photography, tableaux vivant, and documentary and action photography.
A particular genre, that was a fusion of a documentary, staged photography and social critique emerged along with themes that had previously been restricted. Ironically, homeless children, vagrants, prostitutes, frozen corpses, drunkards, right wing radical hooligans, as well as wretched old women became photogenic. They were ready for the immediate use of photographers. Mokhorev, a soft-spoken, tall man with the haunting looks of the Russian Silver Age elite, does not exploit his subject’s depravity but implies a humanistic approach speaking about their needs.
Yulia Tikhonova: Childhood and adolescence are the focus of your photo practice: forlorn bodies, thin, and tattooed but mostly children’s eyes, probing and questioning about the outside world. What was the starting point for the Games Children Play?
Evgeni Mokhorev: My first encounter with children took place in 1990 to1991 when a group of musicians and my friends invited me to a shelter for homeless kids. I was hit by the brutality of the environment that they lived in after being fetched from abuse, sickness and hunger. Their faces however retained a curiosity for life, revealing the fragility and naivety of their personas.
It was in the beginning of the 1990s when the squats started to be filled with the children. Once the Socialist system crashed in 1992 and the brutal market economy was introduced, many children became homeless, after their parents sold a family apartment for the cash needed to feed their drinking addiction or simply to survive in difficult economic circumstances. Many kids ran away from their drunken parents. At that time a myriad of stray dogs also flooded the streets of the city. Ruthless capitalism kicked out the weakest first; that were unable to be fed and children became homeless too.
YT: Do you remember some of the individual stories?
EM: Yes, I met 15-year old Sergey who lived in a basement with his four-year-old sister for three years because his mother had sold their apartment to buy alcohol. He eventually went to the police and asked for shelter. The police also brought two 12-year-old sisters who were arrested for stealing. They had lived on the streets playing musical instruments for money since they were six. Neither was able to read or write. Many conversations were devastating to hear and went something like this:
Does you mom drink? … Yes, and so what? ... Some times she gives me a try…. No, I don’t like it... But to ‘sniff’ the glue–this is cool…when I sniff the funny visions in my head come alive, something like animations…you know. It’s ‘ok’ to live in basements, and even more fun when the central heating pipes are hot…. Yesterday, one dick jugged Sashka, he is in a hospital now…Bath? No I did not have one…why bother?
YT: In St. Petersburg I was shocked to see how the wealth contrasts with the dire situation of many young homeless. The stereotype of a homeless child sniffing glue is very common there, especially in the winter, when glue sniffing is more prevalent. It gives street kids a sense of warmth and banishes their hunger. The facts of cold statistics report that recent poverty and social crises have orphaned more than 700,000 kids, as their parents went either to prison, succumbed to abuse, or otherwise became incapable of providing a home.
EM: Although I was interested in each inhabitant of the shelter, I understood that I would not be able to photograph everyone. And this was not my agenda. I wanted to tell about the extremity of the kids’ situation, their life conflict that is very tangible. Their trauma is also photogenic (in a humane sense of this word of course). An image of a skinny child pressed against the metal headboard of a bed, communicates a tragic message: this child is in danger. The image is haunting and may be even seen as erotic.
YT: Do you think that your images imply erotic references?
EM: Well… This question should be asked of a psychologist or sexologist, upon seeing my pictures. I am only a photographer. When I shoot the images I do not aim to present the kids in any sexual way. Yes, I depict their naked bodies but I try to avoid overt sensual suggestions, and I am not concerned with their sexuality. Let me tell you that the image Maxim with the Doll (2002) was shot with the permission of a correction police officer in one of the shelters. When the boy was showing his photo around I asked him, “Don’t you feel shy to see yourself tattooed here?” He replied, “Tattooed and naked is not me, but the person who shot the photo.”
YT: This is a very interesting observation…it seems that kids do not see themselves as they are in reality: vulnerable, deprived and wretched.
EM: Exactly, I was deeply shaken to learn how fast kids assimilate into the environment of a squat and that it almost became a second home and a convenient form of existence. Perhaps they consider a shelter as a sort of play or violent spectacle where they can re-enact the roles, which they observed in real life. Even their games are violent: they fight with guns, pretending to shoot one another, they slap, kick or impose other forms of violence. This is what they have learned–the power governs everything. An image of Anton with a gun from 1992 became iconic; it was used for the cover of Victor Pelevin’s book Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, which presented a satirical and erotic allegory of the post-Soviet and post-9/11 world.
YT: Can you tell me about the methods of working with children in front of the camera which you use?
EM : This is not easy work for two reasons. Kids often don’t have any taboos and ingrained skepticism yet. They want to try everything that’s new and are keen to participate in the game of photographing which I suggest. But kids also don’t have any boundaries and limitations—they can easily freak out and refuse to shoot for good. I have to deal with both maneuvering between their personalities and my concept. It’s very important for me to involve my protagonists in the creative process and prove to them that the end result, the photograph, is dependent on them as much as it relies on my skills as a photographer. The way they look, the gestures and movement of the body, determines the expressive qualities of the photographs. I am here merely to document their momentary expression of personality. And once my model takes on the role of co-author of the piece, then things start happening in the picture.
YT: But what is really happening…could you elaborate?
EM: I am very interested in the pictorial qualities of photography, and uses of light, metaphorically as well as literally. And if the photograph is “a painting by shadows” then I choose to paint or sculpt my objects with shadows. For instance, by sharpening the contrast between the figures and background, I stress the disconnection of kids from their environment, thus generating a viewer’s empathy with the subject’s. On several images, I blur the borders of the image rendering an effect of an aged image to communicate the psychological relationships with society and their peer's experience of growing up.
YT: Do you see yourself when you photograph these kids, or in other words are these images reflective of your childhood?
EM: My childhood was different. The two decades that separate me from my protagonists were pivotal in Russian history. I was brought up in the relatively safe environment of the final years of Socialism. Our life standards were very modest but we still had a roof over our heads and had no doubts that this life would be forever. These kids are different as they came out of the historical turmoil, which swept the country in the 1990s. Victims of the severe economic crash and moral decline, these children have seen nothing better than lawless resolutions and the power of abuse. What they lived through, no adult would wish to experience. It's not surprising that they assume the current environment as the right model to follow. Many of them got involved in crime, prostitution and drugs. All this said, both generations have a lot in common—we played the same games with pistols and wars, we developed in a similar way as shy, lean and fragile kids–victims of adult cruelty.
YT: Was it a form of play when you started shooting pictures at eight years of age?
EM: Well…yes I got my camera and this was the start of everything I do now. I am a full time photographer. Although I came from a working class family who had no interest in art, I was fortunate to meet several peers at the photo-club Zerkalo (Mirror), which existed in St. Petersburg since the mid 70s. The club was a starting point in my exploration of life through the viewfinder, and at that time I knew that I was drawn towards an inner world of children and teenagers portrayed in their social environment. Nailya Alexander, the owner of the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York, described my trajectory as a conscious progression from the late 1980s photographs of street kids, to recent work that stripped away the social context but focused on deeper cause of reflection.
YT: Alexander also said "Mokhorev is the only artist in Russia who took upon himself to portray the most fragile and vulnerable part of society–children and teenagers. Through his images one can follow the tumultuous painful transition of post Soviet society."
EM: I had two shows in her 57th Street gallery location: The 26th Element in 2007 and Ambiguous Desires in 2008. She commented on the originality of the multi-layered connotations that explore both marginal territories, and map the magical transition of adolescence, that constituted my approach in the recent years.
TEXT BY YULIA TIKHONOVA
©picture Evgeny Mokhorev