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Irina Yulieva’s Broken Knees
Photography Irina Yulieva, courtesy of Fotodepartament gallery

What’s it like to grow up in Russia today?

Coming-of-age at the intersection of adolescence and the collapse of the Soviet Union, this photographer uses her camera to reengage with her youth

Coming-of-age during the collapse of the Soviet Union is a world away from the ‘teen dream’ most of us are lucky enough to experience. I say lucky because – putting it into perspective – heartbreak and bad hair choices amount to nothing compared to how our fellow teen counterparts have lived, and still live.

“I remember that time very well: no money, shops with empty shelves, food could be obtained only in exchange to special ‘coupons’,” recalls photographer Irina Yulieva, who grew up in Russia during the 70s and 80s. “The whole country was chaos. After the school day we had to rush to the shops to exchange those coupons for food. I had to quickly learn to cook and do the house and I had to grow up early. In those days I spent most of my time in the street, left on my own.”

Born and based in St Petersburg, Yulieva’s happiest and most ‘reckless’ times were the three month summer holidays that she took in the countryside. “This was an absolutely different world: the world of unity with nature, the world of self-actualisation, a search for basic values and exploration of human relations.” Her experiences were – as she says ‘unconsciously’ – transferred into her later photography work, published by Pogo Books under the titles Tender Age and Broken Knees.

Seeing her own daughter grow was her artistic jumping-off point. “I was witnessing that amazing transformation of a girl into a woman and I remembered myself at that time so clearly. I remembered how my own body changed during adolescence and how the rough and unstable was the emotional background,” she says. “I recalled that vulnerability and frailness co-existing with sexuality and aggression starting to become apparent.”

Capturing her own children, their friends, her friends, relatives and the town locals, Yulieva finds herself drawn to the beauty and power that youth holds, and by using photography as her medium she is able to search for answers to her own past experiences. “While taking pictures of them, I live the moments of my past life over and over again: the first love, the first disappointments, and the village disco full of drunken teenagers,” she reveals. “The same decorations and the same situations let me turn the time back, return there, think those things over...”

See more of Yulieva’s work here. All images courtesy of the artist and Fotodepartament gallery