The Colour of Racial Hatred: Russian Photographer Sergei Stroitelev

 

While depictions of the former USSR tend to overwhelmingly confirm a traditional Western gaze, the work of Sergei Stroitelev has always looked to challenge the prevailing images of the region. As a photographer, he offers a unique insight into a specific zone where the political interacts with the personal. He captures with amazing sophistication and humanity those topics that we speak of in the macro while omitting the fine, micro details.

His photo series Colour of Violence, originally published on Bird In Flight, captures both the physical and emotional scars left by racially-motivated attacks on immigrants living in Russia. His usage of colour masterfully conveys both the sense of diminished value that foreign victims of assault in Russia feel and the visceral shame that follows. It is a truly remarkable work of photojournalism.

Sergei is a photographer from St. Petersburg who graduated from the Graduate Photojournalism Department there in 2014. His work has appeared in National Geographic Russia, Vokrug Sveta, Lenta.ru, Meduza, Nevskoye Vremya, LensWork, Wall Street International Magazine, and Vice. He was also awarded the Jury’s Special Award at the Humanity Photo Awards in 2015.

 

For many years during its existence, the Soviet Union propagated a belief that it was a nation of brotherhoods. Whether Russian, Chechen, or Tajik, it did not matter. The country juxtaposed itself with the United States in particular, which has long suffered the consequences of racism and colonialism. What has occurred in present day Russia for this belief to lose its significance?

I think the main reason in the recent past was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the separation of the nation. This led to a distancing of the nationalities who resided in the post Soviet territories.

As far as the present is concerned, I think my country is in transition now- and has been for the past 25 years. It is very sad to admit that we have been making one step forward and one step back ever since the collapse of the Soviet regime, thus not moving at all. Middle and lower class people, who constitute almost 80 percent of the population, still find themselves unsettled financially and emotionally. This results in distrust and closeness. Russians have lost their unity.

Throughout the different experiences told by the victims of racial attacks, they speak not only about their trauma but also those Russians that supported them, such as Fitsum and Francis. Clearly, you are not painting Russian society in one colour but pointing out the division that exists within Russian society. What are the fault lines that exist in Russian society on race? Is it an issue of education? Or poverty?

Unfortunately, I think that the vast majority of people have racist beliefs in Russia. Some people hate but remain silent, while for some these beliefs are limited by the kitchen space but there are also those who go out and kill. I will call it latent racism in the majority of cases. The thing is that after some publications of the project on the web, I started to read comments from the audience and to be honest I was shocked. There were statements that called for further violence, such as “this black guy was beaten- now go and kill him”. Some commentators asked to display the Russians who faced violence from migrants. They did not realize that these offenses weren’t of a racist nature – they are purely criminal and constitute only 2 percent of the total number of crimes committed in Russia yearly. Others stated that I was inciting racial hatred through this project.

I believe that there is nothing to incite, everything is already blazing, but very silently, as you can see from the comments that I cited above. It means that we are not talking about division – racism is a global problem in Russia, which infects the whole of society. It’s a problem that nobody prefers to talk about.

Education, poverty and a bunch of other factors make up the fault lines. They are all rooted in this transitional stage in Russian history. It reflects in people’s minds as in a mirror. We all know that negative processes inside society are aggravated in periods of transition. It is obviously happening with racism. Sadly, nobody knows when this transition is going to be resolved. It may take another decade for the country to find its path, or it may never end.

You have stated in one interview that photography can be an important medium towards creating awareness about social issues. With over 2,000 reported beatings or murders in Russia in the last decade, is this an issue that is within the mainstream? Do people need to become more aware of the issue? Or, is there a general disinterest in having a broader conversation about race in Russia?

Well, as I mentioned in the previous answer, I read reviews of the project and a large part of them were of a racist nature. However, I  did see that some people started to think and to realize something. If there is a chance to change the opinion of one person out of ten, then it is already a perfect result for a piece of photographic work. The main problem of photography is that it remains photography – a visual image on our monitors or in our hands in printed version, though social photoprojects should go beyond that. The ideal result is that somebody who sees the publication goes on to help the characters of the story, but even triggering the thinking process and realizing that something is going wrong also can be considered as a very good achievement.

Of course people need to become more aware. Photography is a good medium to broadcast the problem to the audience, to display what we are all doing something wrong, that the country is sick, but it is not enough. We also need TV.

But, as I said, the problem is silent and very slick. Photographers prefer not to work with it – there is no guarantee of a publication. Russian TV is full of propaganda and we don’t have channels who are ready to transmit the issue, except Rain (the project was also published on the website of Rain channel). Only journalists who have personal interests make independent projects and try to promote them in order to raise awareness. It is quite difficult though, due to the aforementioned situation with the Russian media.

The colours and lighting you chose for this project present many interesting questions. Although the usage of red holds many symbolic under-layers regarding both the violence of spilling blood and the human commonality, what interests me is how lighting is used to almost mask the subject. Their facial characteristics are difficult to see and they are almost placed in the shadow. Can you speak about the lighting and colours you chose for this project?

I think that the project has two levels of visual form. The first one is portraits and monologues of the characters. It is a very easy form to make a clear visual statement that can be understood by the audience. It is all shaped in another form of red colour which is quite tough for some people to look at but necessary when a photographer is dealing with an issue such as racism.