“To me, a different family means people living on the edge of society. These people may have no home, no jobs. They may be doing drugs, their neighbors may hate them, and they may be banned from entering a theater because of their inappropriate looks. But within such families, love and caring relationship still reign [...].”
This is how Irina Popova, a Russian photographer, describes (RUS) the subjects of her “Different Family” project, currently on exhibit in St. Petersburg – and also available online here (23 photos) and on PhotoPolygon.com portal (15 photos).
However, since the series is centered as much on a toddler named Anfisa, the daughter of Popova's marginal adult subjects, the photographer's interpretation of her own work has caused harsh criticism from those who saw it online.
Below are some comments from PhotoPolygon‘s audience – as well as from Irina Popova (popovaira) herself.
Apart from the photo series’ content, “And still, they love each other and their daughter, perhaps even more than someone who is going to condemn them can imagine” – such love is worth nothing. As for the photo series – would be good if it moves the city authorities to deprive them of their parents’ rights or, at least, provide special care for this family. Because, for example, looking at the picture where the girl is crawling on the window sill, you understand that she is truly endangered.
Irina Popova (popovaira) responds:
I knew it. The barrier “we are good and they are crap!” Didn't get it, it turns out. The girl was not in danger – there's a net there. The next shot has the mother's hand in it. Animals are those who'd stick the girl into some orphanage.
If you wanted to show that the girl was not in danger, why did you include this shot? In general, the photographs are good, but I think there is quite a discrepancy between them and the text – that is, in your text, you're saying everything's good, but you pick photos where everything's bad. The work you've done is interesting and complex.
I've also been thinking about it – what exactly can we do for this girl – I think that the most correct reaction would be to go to the patronage department and give them the address of this “family” and insist that [they] visit this family daily to check if the child is not hungry, dressed, and whether anyone is watching over her. Otherwise, again, this social reportage isn't worth anything – we've seen the beautiful pictures and forgot about it. I feel sorry for the girl and can't think of what I could do for her.
[...] I was such a girl myself, only older – I was 12 when my parents died because of drugs, and I can't condemn them, they loved me, but it just happened this way…
BUT! I wish I could adopt this girl when her parents die.
To live like animals is a personal choice of these people (most likely). But to raise their daughter in this bedlam – it's not love, it's outright meanness. Love isn't limited to kissing [a child's] feet, it is also a responsible behavior of parents towards their child. You yourself write: “Meanwhile, the 2-year-old girl is on her own and relies on occasional care from the guests.” This already is the reason for the social services to get involved with this “family.” She is unlikely to be worse off elsewhere than she is in this family. If there are still some people who can admire the “idyll” in this family, in three or four years, when the girl grows up and her parents completely burn out their brains with drugs, the picture would be significantly worse.
Irina Popova (popovaira) responds:
I hope I'll have a chance to observe the life of this family for a long time. Then I'll report on what becomes of them in four years. For now, it is too early to make conclusions. Better think of what's going to happen to you.
The emotional content of the series is horrifying, but the execution is excellent. As can be seen from the comments, not a single photo can leave anyone unmoved. Irina, I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to work there, when you had to see it all. Wishing you luck in the future. P.S. Still, I have some doubts about the presence of love in this family. Or perhaps I can't understand and accept this kind of love.
Irina Popova (popovaira) responds:
Thanks a lot! It was indeed difficult to photograph them, but not that difficult. It's just that I sympathized with the subjects and was on their side – and only because of this they allowed me to shoot, otherwise there would've been no story, and instead there would have been a black eye or a broken camera )) By the way, the subjects came to the opening of the exhibition, ended up very happy, were laughing )) I think they still don't realize that someone can condemn them for all this.
Russian photojournalist Oleg Klimov, who is also the curator of the “Different Family” exhibition, wrote this on his blog (RUS) in defense of Popova and her work:
I can put it this way: I was an immediate witness when Irina Popova was shooting this series. I still remember her emails, which she was writing during breaks from an internet cafe in St. Petersburg, and I remember all her doubts [...].
“Just go and shoot, don't buy them drugs and alcohol, and don't give them money…” – this was the only practical advice I could give her from a distance. She lived in their apartment and photographed.
When Irina first published some of these photos as part of an educational photo program in the “documentary photography” section, a flurry of criticism followed, aimed primarily at her as a person and a photographer. She was accused of propagating “punk lifestyle,” glorifying “a family of bastards” who should be behind bars and not on pages of newspapers and magazines… [...]
The conclusion was obvious: no one ever wants to know that there are sick people, invalids, drug addicts, alcoholics in our country… [...] They do not exist for the majority, regardless of whether they are bad or good. They aren't there. “No person, no problems.” And when someone one day shows to us that these people do exist, or when we run into them in the street, we act like fascists. And at the same time, we are for some reason sure that we are better, more honest, more correct, better off and more successful. These illusions lead to the lack of compassion, lack of respect for one another as humans rather than members of some social hierarchy. [...]
I don't want to say a single word in defense of the subjects of this series. Here, they are the way they really are. This is the fact and the only argument in defense of their existence, their proximity to us, in defense of the fact that they have children and a whole specter of feelings, from love to hatred, to despair and indifference.
The only thing that I want to say are words in defense of photographer Irina Popova. She really has the courage of a journalist, something that is [virtually absent] from today's journalism and photography. The courage and the ability to say what you saw, felt and told, without distorting and torturing the reality that surrounds us and which we'd rather not see. This is her “presumption of innocence,” which has to exist in any civilized society.