Irina Popova: Another Family, 2013

In 2008 the photographer Irina Popova, who was then participating in a documentary photography workshop called “Objective Reality,” spent several days with the family of a young woman she randomly met when the latter was drunk on the street with her child. The resulting photographs (which bear a thematic semblance to the famous Case History series by photographer Boris Mikhailov that captured scenes of social disintegration after the collapse of the Soviet Union) were exhibited in St. Petersburg that same year.

The exhibit, titled Another Family, was calmly received by the audience. But a massive scandal erupted when Popova placed the photographs on the Internet, leading some online viewers to appeal to legal authorities asking them to “carry out a necessary investigation into the circumstances surrounding the child captured in the images.” The authorities launched a federal investigation, and Popova found herself in a difficult ethical situation—not unlike that of photographer Kevin Carter, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving African girl crouching in the path of a hungry vulture. Carter was subjected to large-scale public condemnation for not having saved the girl, a factor that contributed to his eventual suicide.

Popova decided turn the story of her photographs into a book that chronicles in great detail the series of events surrounding the project: from the text of the initial assignment to the public address to Anfisa, the little daughter of the heroine, whose fate became a cause for concern among the Internet community; from Popova’s correspondence with the workshop instructor, Oleg Klimov, and her personal journal entries to numerous quotes from online forum and blog discussions about the photographs themselves—including questions of whether or not they had been staged. The case story surrounding Another Family has raised a series of issues that appear very rarely in Russian public discussion: namely, the freedom of the photographer to choose the subjects of his works, as well as the photographer’s responsibilities toward the individuals he/she is documenting, and the question of whether or not it is possible to separate the artistic from the ethical.

The book is now in draft form and a crowdfunding campaign has been launched to raise the money for its publication. With the author’s gracious permission, Artguide is reprinting several excerpts from the forthcoming book.

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

02. Irina Popova
First meeting with Lilya
Objective Reality: Internet photography workshop
July 17, 2008 at 1:19

I first met Pasha and Lilya the day after I got the assignment for the project. You could say that I lucked out. The previous year I had photographed a similar couple, who kept their child in a basement. I met Lilya late at night by the Gostiny Dvor shopping center. She was completely drunk and was pushing a stroller. I asked if I could take her picture. To be honest, I found her to be unusually pretty even in her present condition, like the girl-freak from a Nirvana music video. She was sprawled out in the middle of the street, shouting and singing songs. And you haven’t even seen my Pashechka, she said. He’s so handsome, so sweet, and his hair is really red and sticks out like a dandelion. Come over to our place, he’s probably already home, if the cops didn’t pick him up along the way. So I went. And I ended up staying at their place for a week.  

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

Re: project for “Objective Reality”
From: Irina Popova <***
To: Oleg Klimov <***
When: July 4, 2008 at 23:41

Hello, Oleg!

Please forgive me if I’m overburdening you, but it’s really important that I figure out the further direction and parameters of my work. I’m attaching previews of the work I’ve done over the last two days. It’s about a strange couple named Lilya and Pasha. And also about their daughter, Anfisa. But it’s mostly about Lilya, because I was really taken with her as the heroine. Right now their house is a real mess, there’s a bunch of random people around, the child almost fell out of the window (as you can see on the photo), and they’re scraping together the last of their money to buy liquor. They’re planning to call dad and ask for money.
They need to buy heroin.
They offered me to live with them for a while, but I would go crazy if I stayed in that place too long. What do you think I should focus on in my photographs: their drug problems, their love, their negligence toward their daughter? Should I try taking some staged photographs (since Lilya is pretty and interesting) or do an entire series of blurred shots?

Irina Popova

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

Re: project for “Objective Reality”
From: Oleg Kliomov <***
To: Irina Popova <***
When: July 5, 2008 at 13:29

Irina, this is interesting!

The things you managed to shoot are already outstanding. So far I’m seeing your attitude toward their daughter.
You need to photograph everything.
Don’t think too much about the stylistics, but still try to shoot with maximum sharpness. With blurred shots, you should aim to have at least one detail that’s in sharp focus.
It’s better to photograph the broader issue: him, her and the daughter. As I understand it, they’re pretty open.
From your selection I already see several shots with the daughter. In general, that’s already good and interesting. Try to capture the relationship between Him and Her a little more. Try to see if there is any aggression (or the opposite). Good job capturing the white blur of the young woman against the two young men (that are showing the middle finger).
It looks pretty terrible, but that’s exactly the kind of “conflict” I was telling you about. If the blur (the girl) hadn’t been light-colored, the shot would have read differently. I picked out several shots that I’m sending back to you. Just as examples and for future direction.
I have to say, you’re doing a great job, I wasn’t even expecting this. Shooting like this—that’s already serious. Keep shooting, even if only a little bit more.
And be careful.

Good luck, sincerely, Oleg

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

Re: project for “Objective Reality”
From: Irina Popova <***
To: Oleg Klimov <***
When: July 12, 2008 at 15:17

Hello, Oleg!

On Tuesday it got really murky so I took a trip to the Valaam Monastery. So now there’s another thread to the story, about one’s love for God. Now I’m back, and ready to get down to work.

Irina Popova

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

Re: plans
From: Popova Irina <***>
To: Oleg Klimov <***>
When: November 2, 2008 at 10:27

Hello, Oleg!

Regarding the things you said I should focus on: here is a photo taken on the street in the daytime, with Lilya pulling the stroller and another person standing nearby—a “friend of the family.” There is also another one where the dad is kissing the daughter’s little feet. I think that’s one of the best images in terms of impact.
I still want to refrain from taking a linear, accusatory approach—after all, we’re not judges. I’d like to uncover the situation from various angles, but overall, it seems, everything is turning out quite well; at least I was able to look at these photographs in a detached way, as though I had just seen them on someone’s blog. Now I find them to be very bright—it’s fascinating how such depressing content can combine with such visual brightness. I like that. In terms of the accusatory tone: in that sense, photography is much better than text, because it merely observes and doesn’t judge. A lot of my friends (photographers and non-photographers alike) said these photographs would be enough to put these people in jail, let alone take away their parental rights.
I don’t agree. At least, I wouldn’t want things to turn out that way. Because then, everything that I’ve done would be meaningless, since it would turn out that my photographs had caused harm, above all to this family. And society would have had another reason to gloat and feel even more superior. No, I wanted to do the opposite: to show that there’s no dividing line between “civilized people” and the “bottom,” there is no “we” and “them.” They, too, have a family, they too have feelings, and they’re no worse than all the other people who have never yet found themselves on the edge. I would like to show them as human beings.

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

18. Oleg Klimov’s entry in the Rodchenko School blog
The rights of children and photographers

I hope all of us are more or less aware of the wide range of problems each photographer might at some point encounter, from the strictly professional to the highly personal. I also hope everyone understands that we’re not walking out to take a stroll down the street, but to observe society—sometimes directly through ourselves and our own person, through the experience of empathy…But the consequences of our actions will be inevitable as long as photography maintains its documentarian character and continues to have an impact on society. I ask you to keep in mind that photography in the 20th century was able to put an end to several wars, including the war in Vietnam. We are no longer in the 20th century, but photography has retained its initial value. Although there also exists a different point of view—that photography is a cause (or a reason) for war.
Given our situation, I really hope Ira finds the strength to handle everything that comes her way and doesn’t lose interest in the values of the profession, which undoubtedly still exist in equal measure to the individual values of the photographer. At the very least, I will do my best to make sure that is the case.

Oleg Klimov

P.S. All comments to this post have been saved but are temporarily unavailable.

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

imeglinskaya: We’re all different, and we look at Anfisa’s situation differently. There’s only one constant factor that unites us—the law. It states that Ira will not be punished if she refuses to disclose the couple’s address. Beyond that, Ira has to make her own decision. If you, Oleg, wanted a big public discussion on the topic of whether the daughter should have to look at her father’s member, then you already got it. Meanwhile, the answer to that question  is concrete and obvious: she should not. It doesn’t even need to be discussed. If the goal of this exhibit was to have the child taken away, then Ira should have been given advance warning about your plans. Now, we can only go down the path of the law. Bringing in the cops would be the same thing as pulling a prank and then hiding. Warning Lilya and Pasha about their problems would be awkward. You have to identify the main problem—everything can’t be solved at once. I can understand where you’re coming from only in one regard: are we ready to hold back the avalanche that has a good chance of crashing down on our heads? That’s the question that needs to be answered first, and you can move on from there. In other words, if the goal is to contain the fire, then I understand your point, Oleg. But doing what’s right from the point of view of the truth is probably beyond anyone’s ability in this situation.  

Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

Re: Hello!
From: Irina Popova ***
To: Olga Korsunova ***
When: January 4, 2009 at 23:10

Hello, Olga!

Thank you for your support. I wasn’t planning to “abandon” this family—on the contrary, I’m finishing up my work and plan on hurrying out tomorrow to see you in Peter. In terms of the exhibit, it was a good idea to put it up, but not all of it. I think we shouldn’t put up the photo with the windowsill. Because the one with the cigarettes was just a joke, but the one with the windowsill is serious, and it looks more dangerous than it really was: there was a screen on the window, and I was holding my hand over the girl as I was shooting—and in the next shot, the mother’s hand is pulling her back inside. And we definitely need to write a new text. A fundamentally different one. And mention in there that it’s not right to attack the individuals who just happened to be on display thanks to the exhibit, and in so doing to create the illusion that the root problem is being addressed.


Irina Popova. From the series Another Family. 2008

Re: your mail
From: Olga Korsunova ***
To: Irina Popova ***
When: November 8, 2010 at 01:30

Ira, it’s really great that your story continues to captivate you, even if living with it isn’t all that easy. I don’t think that everything one shoots should have such a long-lasting emotional effect, but when that happens, it’s not just a situation of luck or big publicity, but something beyond that.
It all comes down to your personal responsibility.
Of course, this is a much bigger and more difficult test for you than for your subjects. It is for them, too, but you crossed that boundary and then came back through the looking glass.
Good luck to you.

P.S. Were you initially planning to take the photographs that you did, or were you envisioning or expecting something different? What is most important is your message, both before and after the shoot.



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