Life on the periphery
Photographer Alexandra Demenkova’s pictures of people on society’s margins reveal their inner stoicism.
Published: January 30, 2013 (Issue # 1744)
Demenkova seeks particular inspiration for her photographs in the lives of people in Russian villages.
Photographer Alexandra Demenkova has found herself in some hair-raising situations in the line of duty.
“I have found myself in danger a lot of times; it always happened when I was taking pictures,” Demenkova recalled during an interview with The St. Petersburg Times in her native town of Kingisepp in the Leningrad Oblast.
“It was mostly with drunken men — or women — when I felt in danger, when people would suddenly get aggressive and attack me, wanting to beat me up, or worse, kill me. The worst case was when I had to run out of a house barefoot — it was winter, minus 20 degrees Celsius, and the man was chasing me with a knife. That happened in Moldova. Or once I found myself face to face with a bull at a farm and I had a narrow escape. Normally, it all happens so quickly that you don’t have time to think about taking pictures anymore. I feel lucky that I survived miraculously so many times, but now I can’t do most of the things that I used to do in the past.”
These are not, however, the recollections of a war correspondent, but simply the obstacles encountered by an art photographer whose focus is the Russian village. Demenkova eventually hopes to publish her images of villages in a book.
Demenkova, 32, who is now based in St. Petersburg and whose work was recently exhibited in Barcelona, Spain and Namur, Belgium, refers to the people she photographs as “characters,” comparing the scenes she photographs to a real-life theater: Frozen frames from places lost in space and time.
“There is a certain connection between life and the situations I photograph, and literature and theater (or cinema),” she says.
“There is a direct comparison for me; I watch life in a similar way other people (and me) read books, watch movies or theatrical plays. But I prefer life, because it is a first-hand experience. Because it is not someone else, like a writer or a director, telling me a story, and me sitting in a chair or on the sofa, but me living, witnessing and discovering it and getting the opportunity to create it through photography, and tell it the way I see it.”
Talking about her subjects, Demenkova describes people beset by problems: People who drink a lot or have other problems, people who are ostracized by society.
“Even if they are always looked down on and most people despise them, for me, they are people who have not surrendered,” she says. “Alcohol, gambling and so on is a way to escape; they are forms of protest for those people. You make a decision, and you use your freedom to do what you want, even if you are ruining your life. It’s an act of liberty and I respect it.”
Demenkova has a degree in foreign languages, although she originally wanted to study literature. Despite her change of heart, she says she continued to devour theater plays every day, spent a lot of time in bookstores and frequented a poetry society for some time.
MELINEE PROCHASSON / SPT
For Demenkova (r) it is important to build a rapport with her subjects.
Her interest in languages reflects how much importance she places on being able to speak with the people whom she meets and photographs. In addition to her native Russian, she speaks English, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese, and continues to work as a translator from time to time.
Communication is very important for Demenkova. Generally she stays for a few days in any one place, enough time to meet people and get to know their way of life. She starts work by talking to members of the community on which she is focusing, and it can be several days before she starts taking pictures.
Two years, ago, she produced a photo-reportage about a school for deaf children, spending days observing and photographing the children. Other subjects on which she has trained her lens include a retirement home, a circus and transvestites.
Her interest in and respect for outsiders is reflected in her explanation of the life path that brought her to photography.
“Photography was the first thing that came and made me think, ‘this could be my life,” she said.
“No other thing before that gave me the same feeling of ‘this is it.’ Before that I had tried different lifestyles and professions, and I would always think, ‘I can’t spend all of my life doing this thing, or living like that.’ The problem was, other people imposed all those things on me, and photography was something I discovered myself.
“Sometimes I feel like a magician, other times like a worthless person who bothers people without any reason,” she says, explaining what photography means to her.
“In any case, I am glad that photography has happened to me; I have become more than a spectator while remaining a spectator. I like the fact that every single picture is created in a fraction of a second.”
When asked if she ever felt wrong about being somewhere or taking a picture, Demenkova replies: “I only regret one time when I was photographing a car accident and a man was seriously injured in it. I was doing it on assignment. Although I sometimes feel that everything I have photographed is a kind of a burden for me, because the situations and photographs stay with you forever, stamped in your mind, I believe it was important to take them.”
Work by Alexandra Demenkova can be seen at www.lightstalkers.org/alexandra_demenkova.