Russia has always had an image problem in the West, even before it adopted communism and became a perennial rival during the Cold War. The Winter Olympics at Sochi have only confirmed or added to the existing biases of Russia as an austere, corrupt, and dour place. And while it’s true that the country is rife with political and social problems, like any society, there is more to them than we realize.
Thankfully, some Russians have become proactive about depicting a more nuanced and down-to-Earth view of their nation. NPR has reported on one enterprising photographer in particular who is leading the way:
Russian photographer Valeriy Klamm felt that foreign photojournalists who came to work in his country arrive with the pictures they want to send back home already in their head: Bleak images of a cold and desolate place where autocrats lord over drunks.
“They already know how to take pictures of Russia, and that’s how they arrive,” Klamm said. “It’s always a wild country that’s in some kind of difficult transition period.”
Klamm, himself, had never photographed much outside of his home city of Novosibirsk, where nearly 2 million people live on the banks of the Ob River in the middle of Siberia.
But in 2000, he started to visit these small towns, camera in hand. He began to ask his photographer friends, both foreign and local, to share images of simple life the rural Russian villages that dot the vast expanse from Europe to the Pacific Ocean.
And in 2009, Klamm started “Birthmarks on the Map,” a collective photo project and website that collects these images in one place.
“Life in the middle of nowhere has always been difficult,” he said. “But I see dignity in the difficulties of these people on the outskirts of our geography. Their patience and simple wisdom gives strength and hope. And this stuff is always necessary to mankind.”
Klamm wanted to fill his site with images of real Russia life, and the result is something closer to ethnography or anthropology than journalism. Klamm actually works with ethnographers who study these small communities to find untold stories.
More than 60 photographers, both award-winning professionals and hobbyists, have contributed. One photographer is a dentist with a massive collection of classic film cameras that he takes to the villages around his city, like Rossiyka, in his spare time.
Below is a small but rich sample of photographs. You can view more of them here.
A meeting of Cossacks in Nizhny Tagil, a town in the Ural Mountains. Fyodor Telkov, Yekaterinburg
On Trinity Day in the village of Biysk in Altai, grass and birch branches are brought inside to decorate an Orthodox Church. Valeriy Klamm, Novosibirsk
An eighth-grade student plays in a pick-up soccer match with her girlfriends in the Mari El Republic between the Russian cities of Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. Fyodor Telkov, Yekaterinburg
A man places reindeer antlers on a shrine in the Murmansk region, a peninsula in the Arctic north of St. Petersburg where he and others keep herds of reindeer. Alexander Stepanenko, Murmansk
Meyram Moldakimov takes care of a water pump facility in a village near Novosibirsk and washes under this pipe twice a week, no matter what the weather. Valerik Klamm, Novosibirsk
A celebratory dinner for a funeral in Altai, a region that borders Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Igor Lagunov, Magnitigorsk
Swimmers enjoy a thermal spring with water that contains radon, a radioactive element. The locals revere the spring near the Mongolian border in Altai for its healing powers. Valeriy Klamm, Novosibirsk
A Cossack practices tricks on his horse in the Rostov region near Russia’s border with Ukraine in 2010.Misha Maslennikov, Moscow
A boy named Zahar sits on an old car in a village called Rossiyka near Krasnoyarsk. Alexander Kustov, Krasnoyarsk
Over the past five years, Klamm has relied on this loose collective to build a massive collection of imagery that depicts a Russia you won’t see when you turn on the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics this Saturday.