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LGBT Russia's past is burning

A contemporary Russian photographer pays savage tribute to her country's oppressed lesbians

This article is part of a series on the gay scene in Russia in response to the country's horrific anti-gay laws. Read more here.

One of the first statements this recent Nokia photo competition finalist and 2012 D&AD winner made to me was: “I like challenges.” And that’s a good thing, as Anastasia Korosteleva's complex task of documenting Russian youth culture today—particularly its social problems, inflamed by the recent government ban on gay propaganda and anti-gay rioting—is made doubly difficult by her simultaneous hunt for “the unusual in ordinary things” and “a new way of desiring.” 

Korosteleva’s portraits are indicative of her own generation’s greater uncertainty in the face of exciting, yet rocky, political transitions and seismic shifts of identity. This is evidenced in her work by her unremittant focus on gender construction, invisibility, and displacement.

Could you describe your work in your own words?

It’s an exploration of contemporary Russian youth today. My most recent photos Girls, is a reflection on LGBT rights. Its quite a big issue in Russia right now. I promised to hide the twins’s identities and faces, so I burnt in their faces. I enjoyed creating the melted visual effect since these days, everything’s digital. Also, its relevant because lesbians were burned as witches in medieval times.

Is a “witchhunt” still happening today with the anti-gay rioters? Is it religious or cultural?

The attitude of Russian society has worsened towards the LGBT community since the legislative ban on gay propaganda. Its religious and cultural. But I think this new law is just a trick to find a problem where there is none by using gays as scapegoats, to divert attention away from more serious problems. 

Such as?

Social problems like poverty, alcoholism…Its not hard for young people to find a job in Moscow right now, but the rest of Russia is a completely different story.

The twins you used in Girls were women. Do lesbians in Russia have to fear the same social stigma as gay men?

They encounter the same problems, but usually don’t have to worry about physical violence against them. Lesbians in Russia stay silent about their sexual orientation, especially after this ban, because they fear punishment. Because it seems that the current government is against the LGBT community. 

What were you trying to achieve with the photos?

Not really a political statement, but a commentary on the situation. I leave the rest to the viewer. I’m not only focused on this topic: its just one of many that I work with. 

What influences your work?

People I meet and photograph—I’m inspired by them. And the strangeness of certain places, as with my Alien Surroundings series.

Was it inspiring to meet the twins?

Actually, I prefer not to speak about them at all, if that's okay. I made a promise.

What is your greatest challenge as a photographer?

To be innovative, because there are so many good photographers out there. But its difficult to be unique, to find your own style, and find a theme that isn’t already widespread.

With Transition, you seem interested in Russia’s transition towards more western values. What is the most difficult part of that transition for Russian youth?

One of the difficulties is that they’re constantly trying to be trendy and compare themselves to Europeans. For example, the boy in Transition is covered with contemporary tattoos, but at the same time, he’s living in a flat with a carpet on the wall, which is very typical of ex-Soviet times. There is a contradiction between his surroundings and his appearance, as well as within his belief system: East, West, future, past. Its all mixed up. I think it’s hard for Russian kids to find themselves in this environment. 

What’s the greatest difference between Russian youth and their European counterparts today?

There’s more freedom in Europe, and not as many prejudices. If you are trying to be different, its ok, because everyone is different, but in Russia, there’s more fear attached to it. Being different is like staging a protest: you need to defend how you look and what you want to say. When I was in London, I was surprised at how no one cares if you have strange hair or wear loud clothes. Even in Moscow, everyone tends to dress in black, so if you dare to wear a bright red dress in the Tube, everyone will stare at you. But standards are still changing.

Any new directions you’re taking?

I’m currently working on a project that is based on visions of the future and reconstructing children’s dreams.

This article is part of a series on the gay scene in Russia in response to the country's horrific anti-gay laws. Read more here.