Image of Motherland book review

Motherland – Simon Roberts

Published by Chris Boot (192pp Hardback) Review Lydia Bigley

Russia, despite its fascinating history, straddling Europe and Asia, east and west, old and new, remains a country whose heartlands are rarely visited by Westerners. A lifelong fascination with this inspiring place led photojournalist Simon Roberts and his wife Sarah to pack their bags and spend a year travelling around every nook and cranny of the world’s biggest country, covering over 75,000 km and crossing 11 time zones.

The book contains both landscapes and portraits and Roberts has chosen to move away from his usual “shoot-from-the-hip” reportage style and concentrate on posed portraits. The photographs are laid out chronologically, following Roberts’ journey, which began in August 2004 in Magadan in the Russian Far East and ended in Moscow in July 2005, and are interspersed with quotes by literary and political figures that have shaped Russia’s modern identity. Many of the portraits are very intimate and even a little exotic, such as the one of wrestler Zhenya Seychov, from the “Far-Eastern Academy of Physical Education” in Khabarovsk, giving the book an anthropological feel. I am enthralled by the photograph of the “Provodnista” (female train attendant), Tatiana Hozhenest. Not only does she smash the stereotype of the drab Provodnista with a “drag queen” style hairdo, she is also gorgeous. And I can’t help but smile at the photograph of a young Siberian teenager wearing an Eminem hoodie (I wonder if they have Asbos in Russia too); nowhere in this world is immune to the reaches of American popular culture. The “sexy” uniform worn by the young student waitress who works at the Café Pilot in Magadan, wouldn’t look out of place on the pages of FHM magazine and seems entirely at odds with the rather sedate and bland interior of the café itself on the opposite page. Roberts wanted to create a “visual statement about contemporary Russia”, and indeed manages to avoid the obvious and clichéd images of drunk Russians falling over or drug-addled youngsters in drab Siberian towns, with the exception of one photograph of a distinctly shabby woman and her worse for wear male companion in the Jewish Autonomous region of Birobidzhan, in the Russian Far East. However, elsewhere, the frequently posed portraits can sometimes feel staid and repetitive. Many of the landscape photographs have a painterly quality to them; the frozen warship in Murmansk, (which bares an uncanny resemblance to German rock group Rammstein’s Rosenrot album cover) and Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky Port on Sakhalin Island. These are also the most haunting photographically and the ones where the quality of the medium format camera he shot them on can really be recognised. They demand to be seen blown-up large and hung in a gallery. Oddly enough the images of destruction and displaced people in wartorn Chechnya are both the least interesting and most stereotypical. These are images we have all seen before in the news. The book is well designed, with the single page images just about big enough to do them justice. The inclusion of a map and list of the places Roberts visited at the beginning, along with the clear captions that accompany the images throughout, help you to travel around Russia in your mind and make a mental connection with this vast country without ever having to leave your living room. However I can’t help feeling a little greedy in wanting to see even more images, to know more about the people’s lives. Maybe it is just too difficult to cover such a vast topic in a 192 page book. Lecturer, translator, and expert in all things Russian, Rosamund Bartlett’s in depth explanation of the meaning of the word Rodina (Motherland) at the beginning of the book is not only too heavy on the literary history but also about five pages too long. Roberts’ own story of his epic journey (detailing the discovery that Sarah was pregnant halfway through their trip!) would have been a far more appropriate and interesting introduction. Instead this is tucked away at the back with the acknowledgements.

While the “lifelong fascination” with Russia I share with Roberts is not necessary to appreciate the photographs and the amount of work that went into this compelling document, some knowledge of Russia and its history will certainly make it a more enjoyable experience.

published in Foto 8 Vol. 6 No.2, Autumn 2007

Lydia Bigley © 2018