Jana Romanova: Photographing Contemporary Russia
One of the most promising names in European photography, Romanova has already established herself with a number of collections, not least her much-talked about ‘Waiting’ in which she photographed a series of Russian couples in the various stages of pregnancy. Born in 1984, she has been greatly influenced by her first-hand experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her artistic concerns revolve around recurrent questions of community identity, and the impact of the continuing process of change still at work in contemporary Russia. Romanova specialises, then, in uncovering the personal identities that are part of a larger political story. Her photographs often foreground a single subject or a couple, who look directly into the camera and whose stories are in some sense illustrative of a wider political issue. In two of her earlier collections, ‘People of the Land’ and ‘Citizens of my Country’, Romanova exhibits this extraordinary technique for capturing an individual face and making it tell a common story.
Of all her recent projects, however, the one to generate the most discussion was ‘Waiting’. The photographs, taken in the early morning while the couples were still asleep, grew out of changes within Romanova’s own social circle. Initially she was photographing her pregnant friends but her project soon expanded to include 40 couples, mimicking the 40 weeks of pregnancy. It was important for Romanova, however, to capture them without any affectation. Her preferred method for achieving this was a little unorthodox, even unsettling for some, and she had to contact hundreds of couples to find the final 40 who were willing to take part. In order to photograph them while they were genuinely asleep, Romanova would stay over the night before or else arrive very early in the morning to take her pictures around 5 or 6am.
The project took Romanova a number of years before it was ready to exhibit, but in the end it is the sincerity of these images that is one of their most striking features. It accounts for the unusual intimacy of the portraits. Not only are we privileged to witness the private world of these pregnant couples, we have done so without their knowledge. Each disturbance of the shared blanket is a genuine detail, each overlapping body part captured by Romanova’s camera is proof of genuine affection and it makes this series a pleasure to experience.
The political dimension to Romanova’s work, however, is nevertheless powerfully apparent in ‘Waiting’, perhaps because here it contrasts most sharply with the ostensible focus of the photographs which is the family unit. Although Romanova has said that the age range of her couples was entirely accidental, the majority of those photographed are in their 20s and 30s. As the project developed this unintentional detail grew to enrich the overall significance of the series. Romanova began to realise that she was documenting the last generation of Russians to have been born before the fall of the Soviet Union, the last who would have experienced that state while their unborn children would learn about it from history textbooks. Her photographs became a contemplation of contemporary Russian identity, of the changing face of Russia after the collapse of Soviet rule and the new generation of children who would grow up in a country free from its shadow. In these sleeping families, the parents form a touching counterpoint to the children, the former born before the fall of Communism, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the eventual dissolution of the USSR while the latter will live in its aftermath.
‘Waiting’ progressed, then, from an idea sparked by the pregnancies in Romanova’s own social circle to become a confrontation with the events of recent history, juxtaposing the intimacy and privacy of family life with the political development of contemporary Russia. Whether intentionally or not, Romanova’s photographs once more become an illustration of her own primary concerns: questions of collective identity, community and culture. The ‘waiting’ of the title, therefore, becomes more than that of the couple awaiting their baby; it is the anticipation of cultural and communal change, as well as Romanova’s own coming-of-age. According to Romanova, it was only when everything began to change around her that she realised her youthful days of late-night drinking and hitchhiking were over. The long wait for adulthood has come unexpectedly to these young parents, cradling each other on sofa-beds or single beds, more used to sleeping alone and only slowly adapting to the routines of family life.
In her most recent project, ‘The Alphabet of Shared Words’, Romanova has framed these questions about communal identity in relation to the crisis in Ukraine. Romanova’s idea, which has an admirable conceptual beauty, was simply to explore notions of commonality between the two countries by means of a shared vocabulary. Taking each letter of the alphabet, Romanova illustrates the overlap between the Russian and Ukrainian languages by choosing words that are the same in both countries.
Some of these words are intentionally evocative of the recent conflict, such as ‘victim’ (жертва), beginning with the Cyrillic letter ‘zhe’. A number are distinctly military, as demonstrated by the words for ‘helmet’ and ‘grenade’ while others are more prosaic, such as ‘water’. For each letter there is an accompanying photograph in Romanova’s favoured style: a single subject directly addressing the camera while foregrounding the object being described. The subtlety of Romanova’s shared alphabet, however, is that it does not simply aim to dissolve differences between the two nations by means of a common language. Instead she deliberately highlights small details of differing pronunciation or spelling, captioning each picture with observations from the subjects in her photographs. ‘The Alphabet of Shared Words’ thus becomes a moving meditation on similarity and difference, an attempt to appreciate what sets Ukraine apart from its larger neighbour while focusing on a common language that links them together.
Jana Romanova’s ongoing project, however, is ultimately herself. As she develops into artistic maturity her concerns about identity are ways to question and interrogate her own sense of self. Working not only through photography but also by means of installations and videos, Romanova’s art shows the ways in which identity is constructed and construed by society itself. Her work always explores in some sense her own relationship to contemporary Russia and the influence of political changes upon the personal lives of young Russians. She has already had her work exhibited all over the world, from South America to Europe to New York, but as she turns 30 this year you sense there is still much more to come from this unusual and unusually talented photographic artist.
By Helen Olley