Dmitry Markov is not a judgmental person. His smartphone camera reaches all the way to the dregs of human existence, penetrates the worlds of the homeless, beggars and alcoholics in distant and disconnected reaches of Russia, and wherever it goes it’s equipped with the filter of compassion and empathy. But one thing drives him crazy: People who insist that Russia has no future
“I’ll start with the main thing, because it seriously annoys me,” he says at the start of our conversation about the photographs that will be on display in his exhibition at "PHOTO IS:RAEL," the Sixth International Photography Festival, which opened this week in Tel Aviv (and will continue through December 1).
“I see that people seize on the main triggers in the photos - the homeless, the disabled and such things. As though that’s all that my pictures convey. That saddens me of course. Recently I had an argument with a woman - from Israel, incidentally. At the end I shut her up because these interminable arguments are already intolerable. She was born in the Soviet Union and then moved to Israel. And she sits and looks and says, ‘Yes, that’s Russia, so that’s it, it’s all screwed up, it’s impossible to fix anything.’ For her it’s a question that has already been decided.”
In recent years, Markov’s photos have garnered fame on social networks and success among those in the know. He has 220,000 followers on Instagram and his work makes the rounds of the various social networks, sometimes without his being credited - as strong testimony regarding the lives of real people in the remote corners of Russia, those who aren't displayed to the world in coverage of the World Cup or the Olympic Games. Early this month he exhibited his work at the world’s largest and most prestigious photography fair, Paris Photo.
But Markov’s strength - as he replies when asked how he is able to photograph downtrodden people, sometimes people who look dangerous, in intimate and embarrassing situations, without arousing opposition or anger - lies in the fact that he himself is not all that different from the subjects of his work. “If I display a picture of a man who’s drunk, that’s a sign that I’m drunk and we’re friends,” he said in one of his interviews.
In a phone interview, Markov says that for years he considered photography no more than a hobby. To be more precise, a lifesaver. He was born in 1982 in an worker colony near the city of Pushkino, northeast of Moscow. His father is a metal worker and his mother is a laborer. He was an adolescent in the 1990s - a period of economic and systemic collapse in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union or, as Markov puts it, “The time when children used to lie in a train station with bags of glue [for sniffing].”
Markov gives a gloomy description of his school years in Pushkino. “I was in a class in which riffraff from all over the region was concentrated. Our graduates couldn't even get accepted into a trade school in our town," he says, describing children who would come to school neglected, sometimes after being beaten at home. “Once a boy came with a crushed face. The teacher pursed her lips and said to him: 'Go to the bathroom, clean yourself up.'”
At the age of 16 Markov did go to study at a trade school, but he didn’t last long there. Later he bought a forged matriculation certificate, and was accepted to a college, to the literature department, because he was interested in writing, but he soon was kicked out of there too. “There my behavior was really disgusting, I did drugs,” he explains.
A few years later, he had the good luck to be hired to work for the weekly Argumenti i Fakti (Arguments and Facts) - one of the most popular newspapers in Russia. “I came from the street,” he says. “I think they took me because I was a male, and I was very energetic. I wrote about friends who shot up drugs. It’s doubtful that a girl, even if she had studied journalism, would have written something like that. It’s unlikely that she would have been able to delve as deeply as I did into the world of the protagonists.”
You were simply writing about your own life.
"Yes. About my surroundings. I had a girlfriend who had a brother who was a heroin user. He was part of a huge gang, and the drug use there was scary and chilling. People were dying every day, they would shoot up in front of their children and wives. So my first article was about that.”
But work in the highly regarded newspaper, and covering burning social issues, didn’t prevent Markov from continuing to go downhill himself. When I ask him which drugs he used, he replies simply: “All of them.” He continues to use today. “In recent years I’ve been going to a group of Addicts Anonymous. It's generally thought that a person who’s an addict can’t be a ‘former’ addict. He’ll always remains an addict. It’s just that the remission can last a year, or it can last until the end of your life. In short, everything is complicated.”
At some point, Markov resigned from his job, left Moscow and moved to a small town. That didn’t help, however – the drugs followed him there. And then he took up photography.
Where were the teens?
By the middle of the first decade of the millennium, Markov was totally absorbed in photography. He doesn’t really remember how he made a living and how he lived at the time - apparently at least part of the time he crashed with friends – but he was taking pictures incessantly. In 2005 he won a prestigious prize from the Moscow municipality for photos of Gypsies at the Moscow’s Kazansky train station, and soon started a new chapter in his life - volunteering.
“A very strong movement of volunteers began at the time,” he says, describing a trend that attracted thousands of people in Russia - a country where for decades, people were ambivalent toward volunteering, because “volunteering” was usually imposed from above, by the government. After the turn of the century, however, “People simply organized in communities on the internet and started to circulate in areas near Moscow and to help in children’s homes, prisons, orphanages, hospitals.”
In 2007, after traveling with other volunteers for about two years among children’s homes and shooting pictures, Markov realized that there were almost no teenagers among his subjects. As compared to young children, the older children and teenagers in the children’s homes avoided contact with volunteers or with strangers in general. “I had a kind of internal mission - to photograph them,” says Markov.
He became a counselor for members of the older group at a summer camp that operated out of a children’s home for the intellectually disabled in a small village near the city of Pskov in western Russia. He ended up staying for three years.
Not all of Markov's charges were disabled.
“At that time children with serious brain damage could stay in the same institution with children who were simply neglected in the pedagogical sense,” he explains. “Many would arrive there from ordinary orphanages: A kid would run away once, run away a second time, everyone was tired of it, and they'd write that he was ‘intellectually challenged,’ and send him there.”
Markov describes the grim conditions he encountered in the home. ”There was nothing. When I came in 2007, all the children there were considered ‘unfit for studies.’ And that was despite the fact that some of them knew how to read and write. They weren't studying at all - they just sat in the game room and watched ‘Maya the Bee’ [on television.” There were no teachers in the children’s home - only caregivers, some of whom tried to teach the teenagers something, out of the goodness of their hearts, and in their free time.
When Markov left the children’s home after several years, the situation there was already significantly different. “Under pressure from human rights activists, they had all begun studying. Even those who were incapable of counting to three. And it didn’t happen only there,” he says, explaining that this was one of the achievements of activists and volunteers all over Russia.
In recent years, Markov has been living in Pskov - the small and ancient town (its first mention in texts goes back to 903 C.E.) near where he worked with the abandoned teens. He says that after the years he spent in the village, without running water or indoor toilets, and with heat coming from wood-burning stoves, he found it difficult to return to the hubbub of Moscow. His Instagram account is flourishing as he travels all over Russia, documenting its people in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow. But in spite of that, he says that he can’t make a living from documentary photography alone, and he supplements his income with other work.
Even in Pskov itself he finds quite a few stories. The most famous, what has become almost a trademark for him, is the story of Ruslan and Vitya - a disabled father who lives from begging, and his intellectually challenged son. When Markov published his documentation of the family’s life, in 2014, he raised enough money overnight for a new wheelchair for Ruslan, and even helped to prevent Vitya's removal from his father’s custody. But in his interviews he says honestly that crowdfunding didn’t solve Ruslan’s problems - that he continued to beg in his old and ruined chair.
And yet Markov believes in Russia - first of all in its spirit of volunteering and its ability to influence the system. He tells of the “Teacher for Russia” project that he photographed recently - in which young graduates of leading universities go for three years to teach in schools in remote villages.
Markov is very familiar with the Russian periphery and has no illusions about it. But he refuses to makes predictions about its fate. After all, anyone who lived through the late 1980s and the 1990s in Russia knows that people can survive in almost any situation. And after the fact, he even recalls this wild and neglected past with nostalgia.
“I constantly shoot pictures of children jumping between garage roofs. I wondered to myself - why do I do that? Because I spent my entire childhood among those garages. That was the only form of entertainment during perestroika - garages and construction sites where work had been suspended after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That’s why whenever I arrive at the outskirts of cities, these sights arouse moving memories for me.”