As part of an ongoing series for Miniclick, Valus Sonov and Kevin Beck interview individuals and photography groups from across the world about their bookshelves, asking them to find another way of looking at their photobooks and zines.
In this edition, Valus talks to Nadya Sheremetova from FotoDepartament. An organization based in Saint Petersburg, Russia which combines gallery, library, book shop, educational facility and much much more.
Valus Sonov: Nadya, can you tell us please when, and most importantly why, FotoDepartament was created?
Nadya Sheremetova: It all began eight years ago in 2006. It will be fair to say that we started it as a protest against the photographic environment that was in St. Petersburg at that time. It didn’t develop and didn’t consider itself as a driving force of today’s time. It needed some fresh blood.
Back then we didn’t exactly understand where it would lead. But we were always moving forward finding new authors on the way, many of whom form today’s circle of new and important young photographers in Russia. I think we had few stages of development; from short seminars that introduced foreign expertise to local community through collaborative work, to a project “Young Photography” that in a course of six years became a hashtag of it’s own with distinctive visual characteristics. We also started the educational program, FotoDepartament Institute. It’s a two years course that began four years ago. This program gave opportunity to many of today’s emerging Russian photographers to shape their style and work on their own projects as individual artists and photographers.
These days FotoDepartament focuses on few things. We would like to change how photographic society, amateurs and viewers look at contemporary photography. How it’s realm was shaped by emerging talents in Russia. Even more-so, we want to influence professionals, the industry and market and the whole system of contemporary art to find points of counter interference between documentary photography and art photography that creates a resonance and social impact. We want to prove to different professional communities that photography is an important thing. Our aim is to create new standards for the visual environment and allocate new fields for conceptual and documentary photography to experiment in unfamiliar territory, such as commercial work, multimedia projects or publications in mass media.
VS: Do you think contemporary young Russian photography has its own style and if so, what are its specific features?
NS: Just a few years ago I thought that what makes photographs and projects of Russian authors different is that they are more emotional. Not just gentle, worrying or emotionally appealing, but that they are more clear about the way the author makes his point of view about his heroes and his motherland. And through his “local” gaze one could always see the love for his subject matter, even if in the photographs we see social problems or human life drama. Maybe it was so because there were more projects like that in those days. Narratives about the life of ordinary people of all ages from all sorts of backgrounds, stories about cities and their everyday existence.
In the last two or three years I see a more conceptual approach to project development. Maybe our activities had an influence on that. Visual language became more abstract, projects multi-layered, texts more nuanced and authors voices louder. Our presence on the international scene increased as well. Probably our key feature is that due to the unfolding of day to day events, our history and the size of the country, we can ask and answer same questions over and over again – who we are, what made us and what worries us. We do so by using new techniques and photographic methods.
VS: Can you tell us how things with photography are in regions outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg?
NS: There are few areas outside Moscow and St. Petersburg where photography exists and is being supported by various institutions. For example in Ekaterinburg there is the Metenkov Photographic Museum. Krasnodar hosts a rather big and prominent international festival of photography, Photovisa. There’s also the Photography biennale “Photomania” in Kaliningrad. We also recently opened a show “Young Photography” in Norilsk – a city inside the Arctic Circle.
There are active photographic communities in Perm, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Syktyvkar. Most of these cities we visited with “Young Photography” exhibitions, lectures and portfolio reviews. More than half of students of FotoDepartament Institute live outside Saint Petersburg, Moscow or even the country.
At the moment we want to find and establish what sort of relationships connect authors from different generations and photographic backgrounds to project their view on reality through the medium in a mutual way.
Our country is very big and it seems that it’s difficult to cover it’s distance. But through technologies such as Skype and online streaming we are able to communicate with each other and develop a united photographic environment and exchange ideas.
VS: Is there any government support for photography in Russia?
NS: Unfortunately there is no specific program devoted to photography as a separate art form. But if you are an institution, then together with other art related organizations, you can apply for support from the Ministry of Culture or local council. Some of the regional initiatives are supported by their local administration to fund art festivals or projects alike and it’s a positive thing. Unfortunately though funding is not great and it’s not enough to support a contentious work of independent institutions. For authors there are no ways to support their projects without commercial work.
Saying this though, photographic medium in Russia has a certain independency and maybe this is the best way to partnership with the government.
VS: What about conceptual photography? For example in USA as well as Europe it has been developing for quite a while.
NS: If you think of conceptual as a way of reflection on the boundaries of today’s photography, than our photographers and students actively engage in the same processes as their counterparts worldwide. Philosophy and photographic theory influenced myself, my friends, colleagues and tutors in our Institute. It was a base on which we formed our educational program and online magazine. Young authors actively engage in theory and convert it to their practice. Little by little we get theoretical writings translated to Russian. From Sontag’s “On Photography” to recently published Andre Rouille “Photography between document and Contemporary Art”. All these things actively update our photographic environment. At the same time though it separates those who want to progress and think about photography from those who just want to shoot and use already developed methods and tricks.
VS: Are the ways for young authors to publish photobooks?
NS: I have to admit (with happiness and relief) that it’s only rather recently we started to talk about books made by Russian authors as a something worth mentioning. Igor Samolyot, a graduate from Rodchenko School of Photography, published a book “Be Happy” and it was selected for “Photobooks Vol. 3” by Martin Parr. Elena Kholkina received her first prize at Le PhotobookFest in Paris. Yana Romanova made some of her projects as photobooks. “Shvilishvili” her last one, was seen on some of the festivals and bought by various collectors.
This year at UNSEEN fair in Amsterdam we had a table with 30 books from Russian authors. Before this only photographers from Rodcheko School had a chance to present their books at a fair in Vienna. It is possible to count on fingers those who make photobooks in Russia at the moment. And they are doing it passionately but on their own, without any financial or technical support. It’s difficult to find printers that will guarantee quality and good post-production at affordable price, but they all understand the level of responsibility for their books. Once it’s published, it’s not the end of the road – it has to be promoted both locally and on a world market and it’s the task of the author to do it.
VS: Will FotoDepartament publish it’s own books and magazines?
NS: Unfortunately at the moment we do not have financial or technical abilities for that. For a magazine, online platform seems more organic and promising, but a book needs a physical form. We actively support photographers who want to publish. We discuss ideas, talk about materials, how the end result should look like and what publishers like. We also do lectures and workshops with published photographers.
Our bookshelf in the FotoDepartament shop, with zines and books by Russian authors, I consider a special input on developing of photobook culture. We also have a special section in our online shop.
Soon we will have English version of the site, but even today we receive a lot of orders from abroad. This gives us hope for the increasing interest for Russian photobooks in the world as well as for our authors and their view on life and universal truths.
We asked Nadia to pick some of her favourite photobooks…
“How to be… a photographer in four lessons”
Thomas Vanden Driessche
I bought this book at Paris Photo in 2013. It was that year when about 30 photographers came from Russia to the festival. Some students, others friends of FotoDepartament. Everyone had finished projects and were looking how to realize them through a variety of different works and trends. We all think of how we are different from other authors or schools of photography or how ideas become a cliche. This book tells this story in a somewhat funny yet curious form.
The Anxiety of Photography, 2011
Curated by Matthew Thompson. Aspen Art Museum (USA)
At FotoDepartament Institute we started to actively study the building blocks of photography. This catalog grabbed my attention by hosting the most relevant photographers of the time who were dissecting photography as a medium. It also analysed the phenomena of new photographic practises. In these hectic times of change for photography, name becomes more important than it’s content. For the moment being the image still holds its validity, although interest to explore photographic borders still doesn’t lose its relevance.
Handbook to the Stars, 2011
This book was at the right time in the right place. It was at times when self-publishing was gaining momentum and many photographers looked at a book as an independent object. In the book images are cruelly treated. Randomly sequenced with some parts of the images transferred to another page. The book becomes a mental map which viewer builds upon integrity of all images together.