A Winning Focus on the Russian Countryside

For photographer Vladimir Syomin, rural Russia is the real Russia. Often, it is not a pretty sight.


His subjects are often funeral processions, the sick and the old. But his pictures also portray the enduring faith of those who suffer in the countryside: Religious processions and devotionals are a common theme.


Syomin, a recent winner of an American photography prize, speaks of rural Russia as a "vandalized country, a forgotten people....a country given up on by God, a country which resembles a territory just abandoned by the conquerors, full of human beings crippled by life and who have resigned themselves to this fate, but try with their last energy to preserve their spirits and humanity."


"It is these people I want to record; the majority of the Russian population, the heart and soul of Russia," Syomin said. "For their experiences are too often forgotten or brushed aside."


For his glimpses of Russia, the Moscow-based photographer has received the privately-funded W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund grant for outstanding documentary photography.


The fund, which is based in New York, was set up in 1978 by photographers in order to encourage and support upcoming talent in the documentary field. The fund provides financial support and brings recipients to New York to meet with other international photographers and see exhibitions.


Rural Russia, Syomin said, "is totally different. There is neither speed nor color. This life, protected by swampy roads and woods, is different from that in the cities. If you live there for a while you think that television from Moscow is like something from another planet."


He sees the renaissance of religion in rural Russia as a major force forming the future of the countryside. "Among these people there is an overriding belief in miracles and hope; they believe that the motherland can heal and render happiness." Nationalism is another rising force, he noted.


Syomin's current project, which he began in 1991, has three goals: to record the Russia of yesterday and the Russia that is emerging, and to reveal the relationship between humans and the land.


The third aspect occurred to him while traveling in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan and Turkmenistan, and while living with the workers who built the Trans-Siberian railway -- experiences which led him to believe that the relationship between people and land "is one of the most basic and fundamental relationships for human life."


The award-winning photographer worked for the Novosti Press Agency for a decade, from 1972-1982.


But he found that he preferred to be his own boss. "Traveling and regular employment are not complementary. To be on the road or on a train is my home."