Century of smiles

Century of smiles

A Danish artist has created a new image of the Russian nation.

Published: June 13, 2012 (Issue # 1712)


Georgy from Sinegorye dreams of taking his daughter to see polar bears.

In the 1860s, a Scottish-Russian photographer, William Carrick, became one of the first artists to go out onto the streets of Russia and capture images of everyday life. One hundred and fifty years later and in the same gallery where Carrick’s work was exhibited at the start of last year, Danish photographer Keen Heick-Abildhauge presents his take on Russian people through the same medium.

Aiming to dispel the stereotype of Russian people as “sullen and unfriendly,” Heick-Abildhauge, who is based in St. Petersburg, took to the streets and captured the faces, smiles and dreams of Russians born in 50 different cities, aged 1-100, to create an exhibit titled “One Hundred Years. The Russian Portrait.” Almost exactly a year ago, Rosphoto hosted “Terry O’Neill and His Shining Stars,” showcasing the dizzying heights of celebdom. Now, hanging in the same exhibition hall, are a host of newborn celebrities: The real faces of the Russian people, radiant and untouched.

In an interview with The St. Petersburg Times, Heick-Abildhauge explained where the inspiration for the project came from.

“I had some friends who asked ‘Why Russia?’ and they came up with all the stereotypical things, and I thought, ‘How can I show it?’ I’m terrible at writing, I’m terrible at speaking, but I like to take pictures, so I thought this could be my way of telling what I see when I go out on the street.”

Walking through the halls of the exhibit, visitors get a glimpse of the Russian nation. The image is one of hope and diversity and it’s captured not just by the images themselves but also by the captions that accompany them. Heick-Abildhauge outlined the process as a very simple one: A snapshot and three questions: Where were you born? What do you do? What do you dream of?

According to Heick-Abildhauge, the last one was a difficult question for some.

“Especially the older people. They thought a lot about what they were saying and one of the ladies — she was very beautiful — she started crying afterward because, first of all, I had taken her picture and she’d just got married, and was so proud. I wished the best for her and her new husband, and she’s 80 plus, which is so cool. But it’s not a normal question to ask, and it’s a big question, so sometimes it was a moment of ‘Wow!’”

The project aims to present Russians not as the cold, indifferent people that stereotype holds them to be, but as warm, friendly and hopeful.

“Simply, I want people to leave the exhibit with a smile,” said Heick-Abildhauge.

“That’s extremely important for me because there is barely one picture in which people are not smiling, even though I didn’t really do anything [to make them smile].”


87-year-old Maria from Torzhok.

The photographer found people by word-of-mouth, social networking sites and advertising in St Petersburg In Your Pocket magazine.

“I was very impolite for at least a year because every time I met anyone I said, ‘So are you Russian?’ and, if so, ‘How old are you?’ and this was with girls, women, men, boys, everybody. My wife said, ‘You can’t ask that as the first question!’ but I needed to know how old they were… Suddenly the news spread and people would call me up and say, ‘Are you still looking for this person?’”

Out of 240 pictures taken, only 100 could be used in the exhibit. The process of selecting the final photos was agonising, according to Heick-Abildhauge.

“Every time we had guests I would ask, ‘I have a question: Which do you like best, this one or this one?’ I sat up many, many nights looking at all of these pictures… [The other 140] are in the back of the book [that accompanies the exhibit] and I haven’t decided what to do yet because I actually want to tell their story.”

Heick-Abildhauge has already published one book of photographs titled “Street Walk,” and is currently working on another project under the working title of “The Big Russian Book,” which he said may later be called “Spasibo” (Thank You) on account of the gratitude he feels for being able to live in Russia, and especially for the project.

“I was so honored, but [the participants] said, ‘No, we’re honored.’ But I was like, ‘No, I’m honored,’ so we were just discussing who was more honored!” he laughed.

Anastasia Mironova, number 26 in the exhibition, met Heick-Abildhauge at a party, where he took her photograph. “[The project] shows that life can be so long, and it doesn’t stop at any age,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to be part of.”

When asked what he has gained from the project, Heick-Abildhauge replied, “I’m not afraid of getting old anymore. I’m always afraid of dying, but when you talk to these people and they talk about getting married and living until they’re 100, you ask them why they’re not scared and they say, ‘When the end is there, it’s there — you’ve got to live your life.’”

“One Hundred Years. The Russian Portrait” is on show through June 30 at Rosphoto, 35 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 314 1214. www.rosphoto.org

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