exploring the intimacy of russian sisterhood

Russian photographer Masha Demianova’s new project explores sisterhood, the female gaze and the shifting ideas of what it means to be a woman in Russia today.

by Anastasiia Fedorova
13 May 2016, 7:35am

Sisterhood has always been a powerful idea: it's not just about the blood relations but also a secluded world of trust and empathy, a pure, unconditional connection. Today sisterhood is also culturally empowering: artists explore its symbols and rituals to tell stories of change and formation. Free from sexual objectification, it's a perfect territory for female gaze, an opportunity to challenge the commercialised image of adolescence. Russian photographer Masha Demianova has been working with the topics of body, sexuality and identity for over five years, and she explores sisterhood in a very special location - a sunlit family house in her native Moscow. For the series House of Virgoshe captured three sisters and their close friend in the intimacy of their domestic settings - which at the same time lose all the traces of the everyday, just as the sisters here become an allegory of adolescence and spiritual connection.

Could you tell a bit about the idea for this project and how it emerged?
I work quite a lot in fashion photography, and during last year, when I lived in Moscow, I started working with stylist Stacey Batashova. We were trying to find and develop stories which would have deeper ideas and atmosphere than regular fashion shoots. She introduced me to the Cheltsov family, which has seven siblings, four brothers and three sisters. She suggested we do a shoot with the sisters from the family -- Varya, Sonya and Masha -- and their friend Valya. The family has quite a contemporary intellectual lifestyle yet once you enter their house you see them following very ancient Russian traditions such as endless hospitality, you can turn up at their house any time and you'd feel the welcoming homely atmosphere.

When you enter the house it's like entering a separate universe completely isolated from the world outside. The world the family created is free from disappointment and grief. It's like a very tender female Arcadia, very pure in its innocence and openness.

Sisterhood is a very powerful and empowering idea. Is it something you can relate to and have you felt it while working on this story?
I never had a sister, only two younger brothers, so I've always dreamt of having this kind of connection, perfect girlfriends who are always there, next to whom you would never feel alone, with whom treachery is just not possible. Creating this story I immersed myself in their world with great pleasure, particularly considering that they let me in so easily. I was very touched.

Your photography is often very intimate -- what is your secret in terms of creating a connection with your subjects?
In my work I like exploring hidden things, something which isn't obvious, something left unsaid. I'm always looking for the things that are concealed, and whilst looking, I always come across wonderful intimate details.

You have been working around topics of female identity and the female body for quite a while. How do you approach these subjects?
I can't say I was thinking about female identity in particular, my approach was shaped by working in fashion which is usually aimed at women. I've always been interested in photographing women because, firstly, women are unbelievably beautiful creatures, and secondly, they have dual and twisted nature. I no longer separate womanhood into stereotypical images of Madonna and whore, of the motherly and the sexual. Real woman is a combination of both, and I am attracted to this duality. Working with women for me is a therapeutical experiment; any shoot means building a sort of mirror relationship between you and the subject.

What do you think of contemporary feminist trends in photography?
I think the worst thing which can happen to any movement is exploitation, and today feminist ideas are often exploited. I don't find it amusing that you can photograph your ass in a G-string, post it on Instagram and call it a feminist statement -- it is what it is, your naked ass. On the other hand, it's just a side effect you have to tolerate, because overall there hasn't been a better time to be a woman than now.

Do you the idea of what does it mean to be female are changing for the young generation of Russians and how?
Russia is a very traditional country and it's hardly possible for it to have the same mind blowing freedom of a city like New York. In Russia feminism and the female gaze are still perceived as western trends, and a lot of people just copy it without thinking. I think that the young generation of girls raised on the ideas of equality should first of all know about responsibility and the fact that every possibility should be used for personal development. The key idea of feminism is first of all the right to choose, it's about making decisions and taking responsibility for them. 


Text Anastasiia Fedorova
Photography Masha Demianova

the female gaze
masha demianova