If you google ‘Russia’ and ‘Bear’ you’ll likely be presented with the infamous image of Putin demonstrating his most manly of pursuits. It’s a surreal and perplexing image; it’s absurdity rooted in it’s pretence of realism – as well as the President’s insistence on showing off his abs.
But scroll on and you’ll find images of Russia’s most beloved, domesticated bear, Stepan. Abandoned at birth, Stepan was raised in the circus. Too domesticated to be released into the wild, he’s starred in numerous films, and most recently became the focus of Russian photographer Olga Barantseva.
In a striking series of photographs, Italian Vogue photographer Olga has used Stepan (along with other animals such as wolves, foxes, geese and cows) to conjure the ethereal, surreal stories of Russian fairy tales, using costume to imbue them with a contemporary edge. Photographed using natural light, Barantseva’s images offer light escapism from everyday reality.
‘My love for fairy tales and faith in unicorns appeared in my childhood and grew into a magical world with its own atmosphere and harmony, which I’m trying to show in my photos. I’m trying to fit the whole story in one photo,’ she said in a recent interview.
This surreal style of photography is part of an ongoing movement in Russia, where creatives seek to revive traditional tropes in majestic natural settings. In some Barantseva’s images, the use of traditional costume also emphasises these nostalgic narratives, combining with the subjects in the photograph to promote a sense of national pride.
You can check out all of Olga Barantseva’s photographs on her Instagram page.