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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Photos Track TB in Russian Jails

The elderly bald man in the blue T-shirt peering intently at his visitor is something of a local hero in the Tomsk tuberculosis penal colony. He has spent 50 years of his life behind bars and even fought in a penal battalion during World War II.

Like everyone else photographed for an exhibit that opens Tuesday at the Radisson Slavjanskaya Hotel, the 78-year-old prison veteran has tuberculosis.

"From what I remember, he has been in and out of TB wards for 20 years," photographer Sergei Gitman said.

The exhibit of Gitman's photos f taken in prisons in the Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, Moscow, Kemerovo and Tomsk regions, as well as in a clinic in Moscow f is being sponsored by the Belgian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, the New York-based Public Health Research Institute and the London-based Medical Emergency Relief International, in conjunction with a major fundraising campaign for their efforts to fight TB in Russia.

Tuberculosis has become an increasingly grave problem for Russia. From 1991 to 1997, the incidence of TB in the country doubled. The organizations say they need $100 million, of which they have only $10 million.

"The whole idea was to create a collective portrait of these patients," Gitman said as he took time out from setting up the display Monday.

Gitman, who is the art director of the Russian Union of Photo-Artists, originally planned to use his contacts to coordinate the participation of many photographers from around the country in the project, but he found that the first few photographers he approached were unwilling to expose themselves to the highly contagious disease. Faced with an impending deadline f the photos, taken in August, were first displayed at a conference in September f he decided to visit the prisons himself.

Unlike his colleagues, Gitman, who in addition to being an art photographer is the editor of the English-language version of Russia magazine, said he wasn't put off by the risk of TB exposure.

"First, it didn't occur to me, and second, I'm kind of a risky guy," he said, adding that most of the time he did not bother wearing a protective mask because it was too disruptive to his work.

Gitman said he hasn't yet been tested for tuberculosis f which can remain latent in the body for years f since he visited the patients and wasn't really planning on it. "I'm feeling just as good or as bad as I have for years," he said.

Gitman said he doesn't blame the prison administration for the rampant tuberculosis in Russia's jails.

"I have a feeling [the prison authorities] are doing the best job they can under the circumstances [to fight TB]. And the circumstances are just horrible," he said, adding that a doctor he met in Vladimir had stopped doing surgery at the ward because the supplies of alcohol had run out.

Some of the photos are powerful propaganda for TB fundraising. Gitman photographed children, some as young as 3 years old, in a Moscow TB ward and visited a cemetery in Kaisk in which the graves are differentiated only by numbers on small uniform markers. Some of the inmate portraits emanate aggression or despair.

But the vast majority of the inmates have indifference or even hospitality in their eyes. The inmates, who were all asked for their permission to be photographed, seem to be collaborating with Gitman to show the world their reality.

While TB is not limited in Russia to prisons, the penitentiary system has been a good place to start for Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Public Health Research Institute and Medical Emergency Relief International. The organizations say 92,000 inmates in Russia have active TB, and at least 20 percent of them have multi-drug resistant TB. Alyona Bakurina of PHRI said the organizations have already begun to work with TB patients who are not prisoners, and if the fundraising targets are reached, that aspect will expand even more.

The exhibit runs until Friday in the Composers Hall on the second floor of the Radisson Slavjanskaya Hotel, 3 Berezhkovskaya Naberezhnaya. Nearest metro: Kievskaya.