Search for a new visual language, work as a courier, computer games: how did photographers live on quarantine?


Maxim Pyshnenko is a curator of cultural projects in Moscow. He is engaged in popularization and development of the regional art, as well as helping young artists.

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Quarantine, self-isolation - what could be worse for a photographer? Especially when it is their main source of income. The photographer interacts with the reality: people, streets, parties, restaurants, all kind of staged and spontaneous situations. Mostly profession of photographer is a constant communication with the outside world.

Photographers are usual people. During this quarantine they suffer, worry, some of them are pleased with trifles of life, some do soul-searching. And all of them are different, with their own ideas and perceptions of reality.

How did photographers live during the quarantine? Did they shoot? They had enough subjects for photography? How did they feel, what did they live on? Photographers located in Russian cities alongside with those living abroad tried to answer these questions.

Note: by the time of release of the material, quarantine and self-isolation regime in Cyprus, China, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan have been already canceled.
Gosha Bergal
Photographer, Moscow
Quarantine has dramatically influenced my work. Right now it is very problematic to do anything. Firstly, it's absence of earnings, and secondly absence of a topic. So it has come down to the fact that I should myself invent the staged theme for photo series inside the four walls. It is surely a huge problem for a documentary project. Or I could multiply autobiographical quarantine diaries.. I have not yet discovered anything else for myself, at least for now.

There's almost no income. My life has also changed a lot, since none of the activities I did before, now is unavailable. Nothing interesting has happened. The last two months I spent in the suburbs, now returned to Moscow. My studies were transferred to distance learning (Gosha is studying at Rodchenko School at Igor Mukhin's class "Candid Photography", author's comment). I could not do what I was planning before the quarantine hit since it requires a live presence, working in a laboratory, direct contact with people. Now, of course, I'm trying to shoot more, do webpage layouts for magazines and come up with the idea of what shall I do after the quarantine ends.
Kira Golikova
Photographer, St. Petersburg
To be honest, quarantine has had a positive effect on my photography practice and career. I left for China, Zhengzhou back in October 2019, and I kept in my head the thought to make a project there. Photography was not the main purpose of this trip, more of a bonus. By that time, I had finished studying at the Docdocdoc school (St. Petersburg photography school). I hadn't done my annual project and was somewhat upset with it.

In China, I decided to take a break from my studies, but to continue make photography anyway. However, the topics for the documentary projects that interested me were too complicated to be put into practice. They concerned those things that China would hardly want to go public, so I would have access issues, issues with the police in general. In the meantime, I began shooting scenes from my own life, sometimes portraits, playing with the interior, cases of how the new life influenced me.

When the quarantine began, my shooting tactics began constantly change. At first I was kind of paranoid and was afraid to go for a walk in the streets and take pictures openly, so I hid the camera or quietly took pictures on the phone. Then, when the streets began to look completely post-apocalyptic, and it became clear that you could go out fearlessly, I started shooting out in the open.
In some way, I was lucky to be in China during the start of the pandemic. The experience of quarantine was still unknown to the rest of the world, and there definitely was no even a thought in my head that this state of living could soon become some kind of common experience for the modern society everywhere. My acquaintances and friends in Russia went to work, visited museums just as if nothing had happened and were watching at China alarmingly. I saw many Russian-language chats that mainly contained memes and conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, etc. In January-February I saw lots of photos of Chinese people using strange objects instead of masks. I started shooting my parodies of this kind of pictures, trying to overcome the horror of rising fear through absurdity.

When those photographs I've made were sent to the editors, the desert landscapes provoked interest in the media. Thematical publications in Medusa and The New Republic came out, I also cooperated with Novaya Gazeta for a special report. Later my self-portraits ended up being published in some other media also.

As for my income, I'll be honest: for last couple of years I have been a precarium. I am not attached to any company or project; photography has never been a main source of income for me. However, this year photography saved me. I haven't been working for half of January and whole February and was running out of my savings. Opportunity to make some money came unexpectedly when the publication of my photos began. In about one and a half or two months, they brought me as much as my approximate monthly income. With the help of those photos I was able to move to Thailand to wait the quarantine's end there.
Now I have taken a short break in my photography practice but I am doing the promoting of my projects. The second series of China came out in online exhibition in the ZGA gallery recently. I see this as a worthy achievement. I'm thinking over a photo book, and I like this unhurried process.
Rifkat Kakaev
Street photographer, Moscow
The quarantine does not affect my street shooting. Photograph the streets of the city or climb out onto the roof? Why not. To a certain extent in the absence of people in the streets that's even easier to do. The only problem for me right now is working with models and planning on production for big companies. This virus and self-isolation changed everything. Personally, I tried shooting using Face Time and also made some awesome content in the wild nature.

Did my income decrease? To some extent, yes, but this applies to shooting sessions. Of course you can complain because of the quarantine while not trying to learn something new. For the most part, my main source of income comes from animation, photo and video editing.
Stanislava Novgorodtseva
Documentary photographer, Moscow
What is now happening all over the world has raised a lot of internal issues, including those in the sphere of photography. The first impulse was to get to these events as close as I can and shoot. The reality around us resembles hostilities: simple things became harder and gained extra value. When the air smelled of the approaching thunderstorm, the nervous system was in an excited state of anxious delight. I believe this is characteristic for representatives of a number of professions, primarily doctors and the military. Including heroic connotation of the photography activity. At the beginning of photography, my colleagues were working in trenches, on barricades, in plague hospitals, became the mouthpiece of the people in their struggle for justice.

There are lots of decent photographers nowadays that are doing reportage photography. Thanks to them, I'm able to receive visual confirmation of the unfolding events daily without leaving my house. I myself decided not do reportages, I bought worms and went to a river, I love fishing.. I decided that I would not be engaged in reporting shooting. Here in Moscow they surely do not need my help to deal with this. The desire to shoot was not lost, but I need a meaningful approach. In the absence of any monumental ideas, I'm doing my best not to produce the material solely for the sake of its publication as a proof of my professional suitability. Many colleagues of mine have quite successfully switched to remote shooting in Face Time and Zoom. Yet that's just the matter of tool. It should be based on an idea.

I had to postpone the project that I have been working on for the past six months as the heroes are elderly people that I can't contact right now. That's sad, however there's nothing I can do with it. I sublimate in home activities, reading books and suddenly practiced dancing online. Perhaps this is the best investment in my future work activity. There are hardly any photo orders by the media now, yet there is my lovely job as a photo editor. Earnings have declined, however living during the quarantine is less costly.

It's nice that the photographic community is trying to support each other during the pandemic: many platforms made their educational programs free, additional opportunities appeared in the form of some sort of contests and grants, although an important part of the profession in the form of art residences and exhibitions is temporarily unavailable. Because of the quarantine I met a dozen of talented photographers online, those whom I would not be able intersect in reality.
Sasha Grom
Documentary photographer, Kazan
In April, I planned to leave to Ivanovo region, however now during the quarantine going anywhere has become much harder in general. At first I was shooting myself and others at home. Then I tried different methods of photographing. For example, screened images on the monitor. Studied something new. In my photo feed, I have a selection of Yandex maps screenshots and during this pandemic it was a good alternative to taking a walk. So even there you can find something that your eye would cling to. Quarantine affected my income in its first month.

I have never earned money doing street photography hence why the unavailability of streets did not affect my savings. But despite the fact that I have a long-term project that I am now sending to the media platforms, it was quite difficult in the first months. I even had to register as an unemployment for get some government help. However, as I am self-employed, I was paid a little. 1500 rubles (23 dollars) for three months. Thank God I have savings. There is hardly any support you may get from the state. So I have to survive myself, just like everyone else.
Vlad Tretyak
Street photographer, St. Petersburg
In general, my life has not really changed, as I have been working distanly for a couple of years already. Well, obviously, I almost stopped seeing my friends and going to public places. As for photography, due to the fact that it is now inadvisable to use public transport, to my own surprise I discovered such a format: grabbing a skateboard once a week in the evening or at night with a tripod and a camera stuffed into my bag. Sometimes you can make some images that you wouldn't be able to see from the backseat of your car.

I have no issues with the lack of material, at the end of the day, I never took what I was doing as a content the audience should be constantly spoon-fed.
The plots are still the same. In St. Petersburg, the streets are not absolutely empty. In the morning and sometimes in the daytime, however, it feels like that there are noticeably fewer people and traffic on the streets, which is to my advantage.
Masha Chyornaya
Documentary photographer, Moscow
Everything interesting is born because of love and attention to the seemingly unremarkable things, details that eventually grow into a visual statement. Even during the normal pace of life a street photographer will suddenly catch his eye on a strange lattice, find an interesting rhythm in shadows, notice that a passerby's hat is about to fly off his head, so it's a time to bring the camera out. During the self-isolation, this photographer's internal optics is here to stay, it becomes just a little more macro. Ordinary things become an incredible experience, and you've got much more time to finally look into them as everything is slowed down: yourself, a passer-by, a city you live in.

I was invited to photograph one café's food delivery promo recently. The cafe was, of course, already quarantined. After shooting the food, I noticed there was an aquarium with jellyfish in the hall. If I saw that jellyfish aquarium before the pandemic, my emotion most likely would be a calm "cool". However, this time I could not believe seeing 12 jellyfish swimming, when I'm hardly able to leave my home and the area around it, and this was an experience of a person who has just left the cave.

And, of course, the search for a new visual language that would be able to capture this particular moment in time. One night my attention was drawn to something blue on the pavement. It was a rubber glove. Someone must has removed it with effort and threw it away, sticky and terrible. And this glove for me represented everything that is going on – the exhaustion caused by this quarantine, by myself, exhaustion by feeling fear. I imagined thousands of people throwing their gloves and masks away one day. From that moment I began looking for masks and gloves thrown away all over the city and taking pictures of them at least on my phone in order to make a photo series.
Sergey Isakov
Documentary photographer, Moscow
Our industry (Sergey is a co-founder of the photo store "Perspective", author's note) didn't receive any help from the state, and the flow of clients has decreased by about 90%. But, most surprisingly, people did not stop shooting. And now more film rolls are brought for printing.

In order to somehow entertain the audience and keep posting, we organized our live broadcasts with famous photographers. We hardly covered what we had to pay for the rent and some more film rolls. I believe that people will be taking pictures when everything will be back to normal and we all will have to get back to our lives we previously had.

There are some advantages in this situation also. Firstly, it is unique experience, and it is unlikely that a similar thing would happen in my life ever since. And due to the fact that there is hardly any money coming from my laboratory and I was not paid for all the photo sessions, I took a job as a courier at Dostavista service, so now I'm able to find new stories almost every day on the streets. I already came up with a series of photographs that I'll make during this work.
German Moiseev
Photographer, Cyprus
I am in Cyprus currently, the quarantine measures here were strict indeed with high penalties (300 euros and above). I lost my freedom of movement even before the introduction of harsh measures, when I flew here in mid-March. I was placed into the observatory for two weeks. Back then it was a really unusual experience.

My motivation was abundant, I made a project with self-portraits, it even was published. Self-portrait itself was a novelty for me, to this extent the circumstances of quarantine were in my interest.
Being trapped at home, I had issues with my projects and creativity. I don't know if it's the home comfort that relaxes and demotivates me, however something has changed. I haven't been shooting for a month. For me, that's a really big break. Right now I'm not going to finish the old projects either since I'm feeling hardly any vital forces inside me.

There is almost no work now, before the pandemic I worked on commercial projects such as weddings, portraits, etc. Now there is none of this. On the other hand, I had time to put my archives in order, sort all the photo accessories out and put them into containers, create eBay listings for the stuff I don't need anymore. I started experimenting with some photographic processes, tried cyanotype. Also launched my YouTube blog about analog photography.
Life in general has changed. I began thinking of finding some alternative ways of earning, thinking on what and why I am doing more deeply.
Aleksey Pavlov
Photographer, St. Petersburg
At approximately thirtieth day of my voluntary self-isolation, I realized that my life had turned into a set of scripts. One day goes exactly the same way the previous one did, I'm just following the recommendations and instructions being well aware of what is about to follow and what the consequences may be. I'm constantly feeling that, being locked in the walls of my apartment, I moved myself into the world of some poorly written visual novel. Any choice there is illusory, breaking the rules would inevitably lead to 'game over'.

It seemed like a great opportunity to delve into myself, to spend time developing, yet now I am so tired of these endless online courses and thousands of ways to spend self-isolation with fun and usefully. It turned out that all the spiritual needs fade into insignificance when there is no access to simple pleasures such as seeing your friends or wandering tranquilly at the streets without the permanent fear of catching a deadly disease in a public place. It's like if such thing as photography 'motivation' was turned off.

At the end of March, the opening of my first solo exhibition had to take place, also in April and May I was supposed to take a couple of promising trips. I was sure that I would return with beautiful photos and I am still sure that everything would be so. Had to just postpone these plans for some time.

The passion for creativity has not disappeared, it has only intensified. This makes me happy. I tried distance shootings, the material turned out to be quite good. I came up with a bunch of ideas for my future projects, a couple of them are really cool, I will come to them as soon as everything comes back to normal. And right now I'm working on a computer game. Well, some sort of a game. That's a photo project on the topic of self-isolation, which will be presented in the form of a game. I'm sure if it was not the current situation, I would never some to new artistic forms I'm practicing right now.
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