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08Sonya Kydeeva, post-Soviet youth
Photography by Sonya Kydeeva

Coming of age in 21st century Russia

Photographer Sonya Kydeeva is using her lens to liberate post-Soviet boys from their homeland’s staunch gender conventions

Contemporary Russian youth culture is an area of artistic experimentation – an exciting new quest for identity. It is, forgive this tautology, very young, and dates back only as far as 1990s. Russia didn’t have its own Larry Clark or Raf Simons with his The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes: today emerging photographers and artists have to make up for it with the help of their eyes and intuition. Sonya Kydeeva is one of them.

Born in Moscow in 1988, Kydeeva belongs to the generation whose juvenile years coincided with the collapse of the Soviet system, and the total makeover of visual and cultural environment. The country was suddenly filled with new, alien but enchanting fruits of the West: films, music, advertising and imagery. Having absorbed all they could, young artists now use the Western artistic tools to try and capture the essence of being young in Russia, in search for the new national identity. Kydeeva’s artistic practice is universal – her boys could easily be cousins of Hedi Slimane’s surfers – but also deeply rooted in her Russian background. “I do my projects in Russia because my inspiration is here,” she says. “Everything is important: language, history and culture, my vision of space and people in it.”

Kydeeva’s main subjects are boys and young men. Not just an observer, she’s their friend, and as one of their kin she captures not just faces and bodies, but the very flow of their lives in big unwelcoming cities, beside high-rises and in amongst the wastelands, with their tattoos, scars, bruises, skateboards and mates. She is interested in the brief moment of formation; fragile and hardly visible processes occuring during one’s coming of age. Kydeeva also redefines the idea of masculinity, as Russia has always been and remains the land of hyper-masculinity and strong heroic men: she liberates her boys from gender conventions, allowing them to be young and sensual, free and open to everything. Here, we talk to the photographer about capturing youth, gaining trust and working with boys from the street.

What attracted you to the topics of youth, coming of age and masculinity?

Sonya Kydeeva: It was the first subject of my experiments with the camera, and I got hooked. I am attracted by aesthetics of youth and that specific moment in my subjects’ lives when they are not children anymore but not yet complete set personalities. it’s like a material to work with, sometimes I can see my camera shaping them in front of my eyes. Also, for a simple guy who’s being photographed it could be a beginning of growth and developing. I just document the process, and probably provoke.

Do you ever work with models?

Sonya Kydeeva: I used to, but not so much anymore. Working with models is absolutely the opposite way to the way I work. My attention is well trained now, and know exactly who I need. If I spot someone on the street, transport or at the party, I know how to draw them in. Search is a huge part of the process.

Do you have a type?

Sonya Kydeeva: I often shoot boys with street background. Confusion, alienation, void are the key traits of my character.

What’s the hardest thing when working with them? How easy is to gain their trust?

Sonya Kydeeva: I think they are attracted by attention they get: they realise they can be interesting and it becomes addictive. Trust here is a really abstract category because I don’t differentiate myself from them. They don’t see me as a researcher although it’s the first time they encounter such kind of interest.

At first they perceive me as a girl, it’s pretty straightforward, but then they see me as an equal and we become friends. I am really grateful to them, and the feeling is mutual. I capture the important moment of their formation, and they loosen up and acquire the much-needed confidence in front of the camera.

“Largely the images of young guys are borrowed from Western culture. We agree to the rules of this game, but with a certain regional twist. Here, coming of age coincided with the era of global changes. My characters are children of the new times” – Sonya Kydeeva

Do you think young people from Russia, Eastern Europe and the post-Communist world are different from their Western peers?

Sonya Kydeeva: Eastern Europe has a completely different context. The West didn’t go through a major culture clash of East and West, and most of the changes came gradually and from the inside. The Western culture came to Russia after the Soviet union collapsed, and had a great influence.

Largely the images of young guys are borrowed from Western culture. We agree to the rules of this game, but with a certain regional twist. Here, coming of age coincided with the era of global changes. My characters are children of the new times. The previous generations, including mine, grew up with a total collapse in the background. My characters are different: they have everything.

Why do you think the image of a post-soviet teenager (which Gosha Rubchinskiy, for example, used so much in his work) is so popular in the West?

Sonya Kydeeva: Probably because it’s the first time the West had an opportunity to discover a more or less real image of a Russian teenager. I think it’s pretty logical: the borders open and information becomes accessible. Gosha is not the only one exploring the topic but he had more possibilities to promote the aesthetic because of his work in fashion industry.

Where are the landscapes included in the series shot?

Sonya Kydeeva: It’s Crimea. I shot a lot of my abstract photos there because the place, unlike Moscow, didn’t change much and still remains authentic.

What are you working on now?

Sonya Kydeeva: I am working on a project connected to anonymity. It’s more than photography, my character is not just an image of postcard anymore. The participants are still teenagers but now I’m interested in their journey to the depth behind the surface. The project creates the new type of person who doesn’t want to trade his looks anymore, he has something to say. My challenge as a photographer is to invert the aesthetics and expose the changes.