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Yulia Spiridonova
Kyra (Magenta and Blue)Photography Yulia Spiridonova

Photographing sensuality in post-Soviet Russia

Flying in the face of the country’s ever-growing conservatism, these nudes explore our vulnerabilities and desires when it comes to the body and sex

Today’s Russia is not the best place for artists exploring the themes of the body and sexuality. The government’s crackdown on homosexualism and the rise of traditional values create a nervously conservative atmosphere. Behind the conservatism, however, is a generation of young people who have lived through a few major shifts in social attitude to sex: from Soviet taboos to 90s liberation and the stigma of the new times. Yet they are keen to explore and in some ways feel as free as ever. Moscow-based artist Yulia Spiridonova is one of the artists capturing her generation’s intimacy and sensuality.

“I've been working with the topic of nakedness in the post-Soviet space for a long time, I am interested in studying the norms of the accepted in the public sphere and in the context of contemporary mass culture,” Spiridonova says. “The topic for me is very fascinating as my coming-of-age coincided with the 90s when the norms were transforming at incredibly high speed: from the Soviet concept of body and physical as a taboo to total freedom to the point of tackiness during the Perestroika. These photos are part of the book Neither You Nor I, which I was working on with Matthew Monteith, my professor in Massachusetts College of Art and Design.”

“This work for me is very personal, and it speaks, first of all, of the impossibility of the dialogue between two subjects and consequently the impossibility of the dialogue with oneself,” she adds. “My friends used to joke that in these photos even the most beautiful girls are portrayed in a way that it’s impossible to feel aroused. In photography I’ve always been drawn to the coldness of the perfect sculptural form which contradicts the natural feeling of pleasure and desire.”

“My friends used to joke that in these photos even the most beautiful girls are portrayed in a way that it’s impossible to feel aroused” – Yulia Spiridonova

The photos are incredibly revealing – but far beyond just capturing the naked body. They are emotionally raw and intense, as if the vulnerable sides only exposed during sex were suddenly put in the spotlight. The revealing moment which happens between the photographer and the model is crucial for Spiridonova. “I photograph strangers or people who I barely know. I am interested in working with ordinary people who are curious about the new experience of shooting. I hardly ever work with the same person more than two or three times. I am interested in the psychological moment of exposing, shyness and trust. After a few shoots it passes and I’m not that interested anymore. The shoot is a performance on both sides of the camera. Just like in chess, you need to plan your actions: a few in advance to get your model to the state you would like to see them in. I never tell my models about my plans, as according to my experience, it never works.”

When it comes to working on such sensitive topics in Russia, Spiridonova is convinced that there is freedom – maybe just hidden beyond the surface. “I don’t feel any limitation connected to Russian society getting more conservative. I don’t think in Russia we’ve got very strong restrictions,” she says. “I was shooting in Boston for two years and society there was super conservative and more religious. It was very hard there to find people who would agree to have sex in the park, for example. Some time ago my photos were exhibited is Osnova gallery in Moscow and I even managed to show my video with two guys kissing on the bed – and they were kissing for quite a long time.”

Check out more of Yulia Spiridonova's work here