Through her haunting digital collages, the young Belarusian photographer explores the boundaries between exposure and censorship and the fragile relationship between artist and subject.
Not long after Masha Svyatogor photographed a female acquaintance in her home in Minsk, the woman demanded that Masha give her the negatives and destroy all prints. "She had become deeply religious," explains Masha, "She said the existence of such nude pictures was a crime against God and man." The model believed she had every right to the images, despite having signed a contract giving her consent. Caught in a bind, Masha decided to find a resolution both she and her subject could live with. Instead of showing her intimate series of portraits (of friends and acquaintances) are they were, the photographer "depersonalized" them. She chose classical heroines and saints from paintings by masters including Sandro Botticelli, Rogier van der Weyden, and Lucas Cranach the Elder and used their faces to protect the modern women's identities.
The resulting digital collages combine modern representations of women - raw and unidealized, captured in clear natural light in contemporary clothing-strewn bedrooms - with centuries-old icons of "feminine virtue" and "moral purity." "The series 'Masks-show' explores the question of continuity in the history of arts, of forms of representation of feminine images," Masha explains. "We have an opportunity for an alternative reading of the famous female characters once they're placed into the present-day context, the opportunity to reinvent and re-interpret them."
When and why did you begin taking photos, and did you study photography at university?
As a child I dreamed of making movies. After I watched Ingmar Bergman's films, something happened to me. His films gave me a taste of mystery, something innermost and inconceivable. I got interested in human nature. So I took my camera in hand. I started taking photos during university, where I studied literature. It was important for me to overcome apathy and indifference towards the outside world. Photography, as it seems to me, makes you involved in life and develops your vision - external as well as internal. I never received any formal photography education.
What was the original context in which you photographed the models included in this series?
These are just portraits of my friends and acquaintances photographed at their homes. I've always enjoyed interacting with people through photography. Sometimes I suggested that they should appear naked in front of the camera, because I was interested in vulnerability and defenselessness. I had no plans for how I would use the images. Many of the portraits depicted a rather exhausted state of mind, body, and soul. More than one of the girls shown in these photographs have passed away since the images were taken. I don't think it was a coincidence that among the variety of female characters I chose for "Masks-Show," I included Lucretia, a Roman woman who is known to have committed suicide.
What do you think is the ethical agreement between photographer and subject?
This is a very delicate and complex issue. I think some ethical agreement is effective, but a person is able to break such an agreement - nobody can be insured against that. You are both exposed to risk. But in any critical situation one can choose to act in an ethical manner with due respect to the other's rights.
Do you think it's ethical, or even possible, for subjects to take back their consent?
That's an even more complicated issue. It's definitely a must to get a written consent. You can't depend on trust alone. Especially when it comes to personal relationships.
What do your subjects think of the masked versions of their portraits?
I assigned eminent, honorable female characters to all the models - faces of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Saint Godebertha, Judith, Lucretia, and others. So, today's girls joined the muses and inspirers of the past, which made me feel really delighted. The models who worry about the response to their images can relax because their faces aren't recognizable.
How did you match specific paintings with specific subjects?
It took me a long time to find the right female characters. On the one hand, I searched for characters to suit contemporary models, regardless of all ideological and stylistic differences. On the other hand, I particularly liked the sense of dissonance and inconsistency arising in the result of photographic manipulations.
You explain that you selected paintings that expressed "universal femininity and spiritual purity." What ideas do you hope your collaged images express?
I deliberately used the female images strongly associated with certain functions and forms of representation in the artistic tradition. I like the way Madonnas' faces, with their innocence and chastity, go together with today's girls, posing naked and representing corporeity in a natural way. For me they seem to be some kind of new self-contained female images, inspired by tradition and modernity. I am interested in the way new images of femininity interrelate with the preexisting ones.
How have your images been received? What's the general attitude towards representations of female nudity in Belarus in 2016?
My works are neither shocking nor provocative. But I did get some feedback from Russian-speaking internet users, who made a lot of offensive, obscene comments. My models were called prostitutes, their bodies were called ugly, flabby and dull, and I was called a worthless idiot with disgusting taste. Interestingly, the negative comments have come from men.
What's the creative scene like in Minsk? Are there good schools, funding, and opportunities for young artists?
I might be biased but I believe that Belarus provides very few opportunities for young artists. Prospects must be found elsewhere if you want to keep up with the world. But I'm glad that a "Month of Photography" is being held in Minsk for the third year running. It's maybe the most outstanding cultural event in our country and gives people a chance to become aware of current projects, get acquainted with new artists, share experiences, and a lot more.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Masha Svyatogor