Roman Demyanenko: «Documentary photography can be a powerful weapon of social justice»

By  | 2023

Vorkuta is an extreme town in many ways, with a troubled history and an uncertain present. Almost inaccessible, located on the edge of the Arctic Ocean in the northeastern tip of Europe, Vorkuta grew due to its mining deposits at the beginning of the last century, when it housed a terrible Gulag labour camp during the Stalinist era. In the 1960s, the camp was closed, but not the Vorkuta coal mines, which survived until the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the 1990s, however, the profitability of the mines came into question, which is why many of its inhabitants — including documentary photographer Roman Demyanenko, born there in 1984 — left Vorkuta during the decade. Today, the city has ended up becoming —in the words of Demyanenko himself— «one of the fastest dying cities in Russia».

How does Vorkuta’s life trajectory continue to influence the daily lives of those who continue to live there — against all odds? In the winter of 2018 and in the summer of 2019, Roman Demyanenko returned to his hometown to carry out a documentary photography project around that premise. A documentary that includes the photograph with which he became the first winner of the CitiesToBe Photo Award, in 2020, and which has been published in media such as The Washington Post, Forbes, The Moscow Times or The Calvert Journal. Days before revealing the winning author of the second edition of Anteverti’s international urban photography contest, we at CitiesToBe are pleased to speak with him.

‘Vorkuta’, by © Roman Demyanenko. The winning photograph of the CitiesToBe Photo Award 2020. All rights reserved.

You describe yourself as a documentary photographer. What motivated you to decide to become one?

Since 2013, I worked for four years as a staff photographer for a news agency based in Voronezh (west-central Russia). Then, I got tired of creating the same news boring footage, and I wanted to create deeper and more personal stories rather than just «pictures for newspapers». If you work all the time in the media, you can’t be free in the artistic expression of your creativity. You use the same photographic techniques in similar situations, you can’t go beyond these limits — and after a few years, this kills the artist and his creativity. A documentary photographer always works deeper than a photojournalist for news. The personal documentary history is an expression of the inner world of the artist. A documentary photographer creates and promotes his own product himself, he decides what he needs and what he doesn’t need. Of course, it gives you complete freedom in your work. Absolutely.

In a world saturated with images and messages, what do you think should be the role or mission of the documentary photography?

First of all, we need to work on the depth and visual quality of our personal photo stories. Nor should we get carried by modern superficial trends in photography.  A well-done documentary project is like a good wine — only gets better with every year —, while most of the visual information in social networks becomes trash, and lives for a short moment before disappearing into oblivion and emptiness. The line between a professionally done project and digital trash is not immediately visible to the layman. Therefore, we should raise the level of visual culture promoting good editions — like the old Life magazine, for example —, quality exhibitions, professional curating and editing. Perhaps it is a utopia, but I believe in this. Very well done documentary photography can be a powerful weapon of social justice and hits the viewer right in the heart, leaving him in thoughts for a long time — and does it even better than the movie.

©Roman Demyanenko. From the series ‘Kiev after revolution’

— According to its etymology, photography captures a given reality («a light») at a given moment; it is ephemeral by nature. Since cities are living, dynamic, changing organisms, what can a medium like photography help us to understand about them?

It seems to me that today the concept of «photography» is more complex and broader than just its narrow technical sense («light painting» — the artistic term of the XIX century). Nowadays, good photography is rather of a comprehensive research than just the technical fixation of some objects with the help of light and your camera. A modern documentary photographer must also be a journalist, a writer, a researcher. He or she must also be able to see the problem. Cities and their reality rapidly change, that is true, but we can easily capture this through the camera to show these changes. We can create a project for five, ten or more years, and then turn it into an interesting, thought-provoking book. The true documentary photography are long-term projects, where the photographer himself plans his sessions and dedicates all the time he wants to carry out his ideas.

— In your projects, the relationship between people and the urban environment has a very strong weight. In them, we see people not only inhabiting cities, but also defending them, using them to express themselves politically, resisting. Why are you interested in emphasizing this?

A certain urban environment forms a certain society. For example, ‘Vorkuta’ is the product of the history of the Soviet period. There, many people remember and keep this memory in themselves. They dream of the return of this past and are ready for the political struggle. I’m interested in this phenomenon, because our official media don’t talk about it much — and this is by no means fiction. I like to talk about the undercurrents of our society.

A statue of Vladimir Lenin near Vorkuta’s Palace of Culture. From the series ‘Vorkuta’, by © Roman Demyanenko.

— Let’s talk, precisely, about the project in which your winning photo of the CitiesToBe Photo Award 2020 is inserted. What is your personal and vital link with the reality of Vorkuta?

I was born and raised in Soviet Vorkuta. My grandparents came to this city from central Russia and Ukraine. I remember the Soviet shop signs and the 1st of May demonstrations. Hard times came after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The Soviet planned economy was transformed into a market economy in an extremely crude and clumsy way. This caused social and economic difficulties for the people. Many Soviet coal mines were closed, the workers did not receive wages, and so it was with my father. Since then, crime has increased, and the standard of living has fallen. Then I left this dying city, but I often remembered a happy childhood there.

How did you come up with the idea of making the documentary? What were you trying to inspire?

First of all, I wanted to show the difficult history of the Soviet city through living images, and that even in such a dying place, life goes on.

But I also wanted to show that that life suffers from phantom pain and is traumatized by history. It seems as if that reality was frozen at the end of 1989-1991, somewhere, a minute before the collapse of the Soviet period. It can even seem like a bit of an unsettling reality, like it does in time machine movies — like «Groundhog Day», for example. Vorkuta lives entirely in the Soviet past, and mentally too. I noticed this social phenomenon a long time ago and decided to make a documentary story about it.

A museum in Vorkuta. After the starting Joseph Stalin’s mass political repressions in 1937-1938 known as the Great Terror, in Vorkuta was formed one of the most cruel Gulag system camp, called Vorkutlag. From the series ‘Vorkuta’, by © Roman Demyanenko.
David Dorn, a 95 year old ethnic German, was deported by the Soviet government in 1943 to Vorkuta for forced labor, working in the coal mines. From the series ‘Vorkuta’, by © Roman Demyanenko.

Do you think that universal lessons can be drawn from a reality as remote as that of Vorkuta?

I think that even the most ambitious projects cannot be built on slave labor and violence, human grief and tears. Vorkuta was the classic product of Stalin’s Gulag system — more than 200 thousand prisoners died in this place. My great-grandfather was also repressed and sent to Vorkuta by NKVD [the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the interior ministry of the Soviet Union] directly from German captivity. History shows us that such projects are short-lived and crumble as quickly as they were built.

At the same time, the rapid liberal economic reforms and the transition to a market economy after the fall of the USSR in 1991 were shocking. People could not quickly adjust to this new reality and were confused. I don’t think we should have reformed so quickly. We needed to move into that new reality more smoothly, without jerks.

A common street of Vorkuta. From the series ‘Vorkuta’, by © Roman Demyanenko.
Alexander, 30 years old. He works as an electrical fitter. Alexander likes rock music and to be alone. He lives in the Sovetskiy neighbourhood, 15 km from Vorkuta city centre. From the series ‘Vorkuta’, by © Roman Demyanenko.

In the two calls of the CitiesToBe Photo Award, the global region from where we have received the most works has been Eastern Europe, with a very clear predominance of, above all, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. In the 2023 call, many of the images received from that region tell us about the complex geopolitical situation it is going through. Do you think that documentary photography can be a tool that helps to ease this situation, to build bridges?

I am sure that documentary photography can be a tool to build bridges in our region. But first, photographers should move beyond aggressive political propaganda, stop being soldiers, and look at the situation independently. It’s almost unimaginable now, but we have to do it sooner or later. We need to stop helping politicians incite hatred towards each other. Photographers and artists take a certain side in the conflict and do not even try to look at the situation from the other side. In such a scenario, documentary photography will only serve to incite more hatred and serve as propaganda for unscrupulous politicians to further divide us.

©Roman Demyanenko. From the series ‘Anti-corruption protest in Moscow, 2017’
©Roman Demyanenko. From the series ‘Anti-corruption protest in Moscow, 2017’

The main objective of the CitiesToBe Photo Award is to generate new reflections on contemporary urban challenges through the power of photography. From your perspective, what are the main challenges cities face?

The first is ecology and megacities, the undoubted overpopulation. The development of our comfort creates many problems for ourselves — for example, the excess of plastic or exhaust gases. I am not an expert on urbanization issues, but I believe that these problems can be solved somehow in the near future.

— And from the other side: do you think that documentary photography faces challenges?

It’s a difficult question. Today, documentary photography is very dependent on political movements’ organizations. The provision of grants from various organizations is often ideologically motivated. Photographers become loyal and adjust their work to receive such funding — they just get addicted. This also affects the choice of topics for their projects. And this is how photographers are manipulated and drawn into political games.

©Roman Demyanenko. From the series ‘Kiev after revolution’

— What value or role do you think global contests like the CitiesToBe Photo Award have?

Such specialized contests are very important, I think. They expose problems and crystallize them in one visual place. One photo affects a person more than a thousand words. The whole world has the opportunity to see many good works that have not been published anywhere before.

— To conclude: where are your current photographic projects headed? What would you like to do, in the next few years?

I would like to create other projects about the Russian north, especially Siberia and the Arctic zone. Next year I hope to shoot a story about Kazakhstan, where my wife was born. But we live two hundred kilometers from the front line in Ukraine, so it’s hard to plan something now.

Interview by Sergio García i Rodríguez, Head of Communication at Anteverti & CitiesToBe Executive Editor.

Header image by ©Roman Demyanenko, from the series ‘Kiev after revolution’.

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About the authors

Documentary photographer | + posts

Roman Demyanenko, born in 1984, is a freelance documentary photographer based in Voronezh, Russia. He graduated from the Academy of Documentary Photography and Photojournalism “Fotografika” of Saint Petersburg (Russia) in 2019.

Since 2013 he started to work as a staff news photographer for newspaper Molodoj Kommunar. In 2017, Demyanenko started photographing events for the TASS news agency. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines including The Washington Post, Forbes, The Moscow Times.

In 2020 he was awarded the first prize of the CitiesToBe Photo Award for his photograph 'Vorkuta', becoming the first winner of this international urban photography contest organized by Anteverti.

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