Photos by Bogdan Shirokov.

Bogdan Shirokov captures a softer side of Moscow's youth

The Russian photographer's portraits challenge Russian male stereotypes and celebrate their more emotional side.

by Dane Harrison
|
11 March 2020, 4:00pm

Photos by Bogdan Shirokov.

The symbols of youth in Bogdan Shirokov’s photography feel as recognizable in Moscow as they would anywhere. Sporting well-worn Nikes and untied Converse sneakers, tattoos, cross necklaces and sleepy blue eyes, young men are presented in their own distinct dreamy realities.

“The concept of masculinity in general is complex all over the world -- and yeah, it is also difficult in Russia. I grew up in a small town in Siberia, and no one there even thought about it,” Bogdan says, on what feels like the first spring day in Moscow. In his apartment, sunlight slips over his collection of photography books from artistic inspirations like Wolfgang Tillmans and Ren Hang.

“It was normal where I’m from that a man should go to work and should not show emotions, and should not cry, shouldn’t laugh -- he should just think about ‘normal’ work, how to get more money, how to be independent and hide his emotions from anyone," Bogdan explains. "And no one thought about it, no one even talked to me about it -- about how to think about what masculinity is, and how it can be harmful or what it can lead to. I’ve never been as masculine as I might have seemed -- probably because I used to cry when I was a child, even if I was happy or sad. When I was a teenager, I cried too. And I cry now.”

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Photography may be his medium, but Bogdan is an artist documenting a new side of Russian youth. His work prominently features Russian boys in naturally lit portraiture -- young men depicted as equally strong and vulnerable.

The first of Bogdan’s photos that personally struck me was a portrait of a shirtless tattooed young guy, posted to his Instagram. The boy’s back is turned away from a fence, sunlight pushing his head down. "Рабочий класс" (which translates to working class) is tattooed across his chest like a royal emblem, the year "1997" in the center of his collar bones. Running down his arms are cartoonish inked flowers, storm clouds, alien faces, a wrench, and across from Bogdan’s lens, this boy is immortalized in sun and shadow in all of this multiplicity -- this striking rendering of shy boldness.

Bogdan chooses models who perhaps “unconsciously, without realizing” share a similar look -- “maybe you can see it in their eyes or in their behavior. And in my mind,” he says, “it is usually the case that these guys have a deeper personal history, too. That they’ve had a hard life, possibly, or maybe even they have a story I don’t know about, something important or serious to them.”

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He photographs them in natural light only, veering away from commercial aesthetics, “because in the moment everything is already there.” He mentions the way the afternoon light is falling over my face at that moment then, half in shadow -- “That’s beautiful. I wouldn't want to spoil that by shining a flashlight.”

Bogdan documents both vast landscapes and the smallest of details, whether it’s a riverbank or a scar across a shoulder. His art focuses not on any subject, but a tangible, almost inexplicable feeling. He doesn't focus on specific colors, but soft blue light ricochets through his body of work.

“The sky -- by that I mean, the blue sky that we see when we lift our head up outside on a sunny day -- is a poetic image you can use to distract yourself when you’re down, whether you’re in Moscow or St. Petersburg or Siberia. You look at the ground and you feel sad, but you look up at the sky and you don’t think about anything, you feel good -- it’s like looking at water or something. I think it’s like some kind of yoga for the eyes,” he explains. “When I look at the sky, the sky itself is important for me. I think it’s the light, the color of the sky, with these white clouds forming this white-blue, non-contrasting shade. It’s just pleasant for me to look at it. It’s certainly special -- and this color seems to appear regardless of my efforts to capture it.”

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Bogdan’s photos -- whether in editorials for publications like Fucking Young! or posted for his thousands of social media followers -- show a softer side of Russian youth, distinct from the typical aggression that so frequently dominates imagery from the country today. I ask Bogdan what he thinks about the way Russian culture is depicted across the world, and what misconceptions might exist.

“I think that the media, popular magazines and television, are trying to show and focus on the political side of Russia as an aggressor -- and many people that this is an aggressive country. Many people in America or in Europe do not want to, or are not willing, to try to figure out how to understand how it actually is,” he says. “It becomes possible to not look beyond politics, and think that the Russian people in general have this kind of aggression… And I don’t know, but I feel this is absolutely not the case. I think that if we just talk about the mentality of Russian people, rather than art or politics, then I think it’s in reality something softer, and lighter.” He laughs, as he adds: “Kind of like the color of the sky I so like to look at.”

Yet there are challenges in expressing new viewpoints, too. “In Russia, photography is often seen just as a hobby -- it isn’t taken very seriously at all as a real art form.” He continues, “It’s not an easy time in Russia, and there are many problems that need to be solved.” Homophobia, as it is in a lot of places, is prevalent. It’s also difficult for young creative talent to financially support themselves, as it’s rare to find a benefactor or institution to support them. Yet also, Bogdan articulates that young people today are free from the trappings of former Soviet ideology -- they can speak freely, impartially, purely, even if there is also nonetheless the pressure of censorship from society around you.

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In the future, Bogdan looks forward to creating a group exhibition in Moscow, but also outside of Russia, to tell a different stories of his home country. And no matter where he is, he wants to still constantly look back to Russia for inspiration: “I probably don’t want to talk about anything else yet.”

In Bogdan’s work, whether on the plains of Georgia or in the bedrooms of Moscow, his young subjects can be anything. The sky is blue, and they’re nothing but free.

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This interview has been translated from Russian.

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Bogdan Shirokov