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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UP CLOSE: American Photographer Clicks With Russia




The photographer Eddie Opp's first two trips to the Soviet Union captured the attention of three governments -- and all he wanted to do was study Russian.


An American working for a small software company in Stockholm, Opp had visited once in 1989 as a tourist and then decided to study at Leningrad University. He turned over his U.S. passport to the Soviet consulate when he applied for a visa. Over the next three months, an employee of the consulate asked to meet with him several times -- at a restaurant, in a train station or on a street corner -- each time "forgetting" to return his passport.


Opp eventually received his visa, and the strange meetings stopped. But now the Swedish secret police came calling, questioning him about "his good friend the KGB agent."


This didn't change his decision, and Opp spent two semesters in Leningrad before returning home to Portland, Oregon, where Cold War hysteria reached him once again.


"You have to be careful. The Soviets are so sneaky; you think they are your friends, but they are not," an FBI officer told Opp.


But Opp returned.


"My purpose to come back here was not to necessarily associate with Americans or foreigners. ... I came back for all the wonderful things I like about this place ... my Russian friends," Opp, a white-haired 40-year-old, said in an interview in his small office behind a glass door at Kommersant Publishing House.


Trained as a classical guitarist, Opp changed direction after a hand injury. He has worked as an economist and computer programmer and has a degree in French literature.


But he began to make his name in Russia in March 1992, when he got a job as a news photographer in Moscow.


With photography experience only from his high school newspaper, Opp knocked at the door of the new newspaper Kommersant and was hired. His long shot paid off. Opp's work during the 1993 putsch won a World Press Photo award. In September he was promoted to director of Kommersant Photo Service, which supplies pictures for all six publications of Kommersant Publishing House, one of the most influential in the country.


Opp said he feels absolutely at home here and as the only foreigner in a Russian company, managing 45 people. "I think with Russians it's not generally a problem, anyway. I don't see Russians like a very ethnocentric kind of group. They are very hospitable, very easy to communicate with," he said.


Still, Opp considers himself an American manager and sometimes faces culture clashes when he tries to improve the quality of photography. "I can bring some of my personal ideas ... but I can't make [people] think the way I do," he said.


"Eddie is very energetic and disciplined and has a curious eye -- something that makes him different from our Russian photographers, many of whom have grown jaded," said Yury Dyakonov, Kommersant's chief photo editor, who works closely with Opp. "Our psychology is a bit different, more slipshod, so some people here think he is too meticulous, but there are many others wh o share his attitude to the job."


Opp, who is single, lives in a one-room apartment in southern Moscow, doesn't mix with other expatriates and has been home only once in six years. He said he misses the conveniences of daily life in the United States, but is too bored with the Western personality to live there.


"The longer I live in Russia, the more I think that East and West will never meet, although Russia, unfortunately, is moving with the speed of light to pick up more Western values and habits and consumer patterns and that's really too bad in some ways," he said.


As a photographer, Opp is interested in social themes. He shot emotional street demonstrations in 1992 and 1993 and traveled six times to Chechnya during the war there. But he was most shocked by the conditions he found while taking pictures for a series about Russian medicine when he visited a home for retarded children outside Moscow and a clinic for teenage abortion in St. Petersburg.


"The personnel were caring in their own way, but the result of this was very coarse," he said. "Even knowing that to a certain extent it is the question of economics, that was overwhelming."


At Kommersant, Opp is in a good position to observe Russian journalism. He believes that the style is becoming more Western, but professional standards are still in their infancy.


"You don't have to check your sources and half of it you make up. But that's not journalism, that's fiction," he said, adding that he sees photographers setting up pictures and trying to sell last month's pictures as today's.


He expects substantial changes in Russian journalism over the next decade.


But for himself, Opp doesn't make any plans. He says he might eventually live in his favorite city, St. Petersburg, and study piano.