Culture

Photograph of Kremlin brutality

Waiting at a Russian police station after being arrested at an opposition protest in 2021, photographer Dmitry Markov surreptitiously picked up his iPhone, snapped a photo and posted it on Instagram. The image of a burly police officer in body armor and a mask, sitting beneath a photo of President Vladimir Putin, quickly went viral. For many he became a symbol of the Russian regime's brutality, its repression of dissent, and because the police officer hid his face, the photo also represented the Kremlin's fear of its own people.

It was characteristic of Markov's ability to capture such a moment and his photographic style took the viewer deep into modern Russia. Since his death earlier this month, Markov, 41, has been hailed as one of Russia's best photographers. Although his death was announced just hours after the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, there was no doubt.

"He was a 'Russian Cartier-Bresson,'" says Kirill Serebrennikov, a leading Russian theater director who collaborated with Markov. Compares him to the iconic French photographer. "He was able to capture people's souls, their DNA. If you want to understand the Russians, you should look at the pictures of Dima Markov".

With no university degree and little in the way of formal training, Markov began photographing in Moscow at the turn of this century. From the beginning he had no interest in historical buildings or famous people. Instead he was drawn to places such as train stations, markets and the fringes of Russian cities, which are a maze of dilapidated Soviet-era apartment blocks.

His subjects were always the most vulnerable in society: orphans, alcoholics, addicts, the homeless, the elderly and the dead, conscripts and children. It was a side of Russia that was missing from bombastic official narratives under Putin, but one that was instantly recognizable to most Russians.

"Many people live in the Russia that Dima Markov photographed. But they don't see it as he saw it. They see it as something terrible, something shameful and something that should be forgotten," says Serebrennikov. "Dima looked at her and was able to see beauty, eroticism and a kind of fascination."

I first met Markov in 2007, when we were volunteers at a state-run orphanage for children with mental and physical disabilities in a village in western Russia. He was intense and liked to argue, but he was also kind and generous. His empathy for the children trapped in Russia's orphanage system was palpable.

Eventually, Markov abandoned traditional cameras and switched exclusively to an iPhone. He created an Instagram account, which subsequently attracted almost a million followers.

Not the kind of artist to keep a distance from his subjects, Markov combined photography and philanthropy and used his extraordinary talent to support charitable causes from orphan integration schemes, to human rights groups and rehabilitation programs. persons under drug addiction. “Righteousness is the kingdom of the devil; the kingdom of God is charity and forgiveness," he would tell an interviewer in 2020.

Perhaps one of the reasons Markov was drawn to those on the fringes of society was his history. He first started using heroin at age 18, growing up in the town of Pushkino near Moscow, and in recent years has been very public about his two-decade struggle with addiction, as he has been about his childhood traumas, including a father alcoholic.

"He was not ashamed to talk about his demons," says Aleksei Pivovarov, a Russian journalist and friend of Markov.

Creativity was one of the ways he tried to deal with his past and he said on many occasions that without photography he would have died long ago. “Viewers find some of my themes to be bleak, if not let's be honest, depressing. But I feel the opposite: peace," he wrote in his 2018 draft book. "When I manage to express this gloom in a text or a picture, I feel like it becomes a little less inside me."

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Markov was stunned. It was a decision he agonized over and which drew a lot of criticism online. While he opposed the war, he was unable to see an artistic future for himself outside of Russia and felt attached to the people and places he knew.

"I can't stop loving those who are close to me and start hating them", he wrote in one of his last posts on social networks. "I don't know how to act properly in this situation and be a good person to everyone, or if it's really possible"

In the days since his death there has been an outpouring of appreciation for his photography, with some critics placing him in a tradition of socially oriented Russian artists that includes the 19th-century painter Ilya Repin.

Pivovarov compared him to Renaissance masters such as Caravaggio. "People will judge what the early 2000s were like from Dima's photographs," he said. “He saw the light within unspeakable people and shone his love upon them. And they become the center of the universe."

(Taken from "The Guardian", Howard Amos)