Photographer Vlad Zorin on his first powerful book, “With Love from Russia” – COOL HUNTING®
Moscow-based fashion and fine art photographer Vlad Zorin has released his first book, With love from Russia, in December 2021. Across 256 pages, through intimate portraits of queer men and correspondingly deeply personal text about their sexual awakenings, the photographer explores the questions “What is sex?” and “What role did he play in defining me as a person?” Zorin, whose first photographic exhibition, Hare, took place at Cube.Moscow in 2019 – uses his artistry to subvert stereotypes and break down barriers in a country with no protections for the LGBTQ community. He has traveled hundreds of miles to profile the role models he calls his heroes. Altogether, the artist shines a light on humanity’s identity, isolation, honesty, grief, and beauty, as the book provides unified voices on an often suppressed topic.
How did you come up with the idea for this book? How does it align with the photographic work you have exhibited?
The idea for the project was born in Paris in September 2020, inspired by the question “Why do Parisians talk about sex so easily and why can’t Russians do it?” and “Why can’t I?” was added to my return. I remembered my childhood and adolescence, in which there was no place to talk about sex, and the answer became clearer. In the author’s foreword to the publication, I formulated the feeling that guided me when creating the book: “This project began with the desire to overcome an internal barrier.”
When I realized that I couldn’t talk freely about sex, I also realized that my photographs were a kind of understatement, attempts to express what worried me in the absence of an appropriate vocabulary. After listening to the 17 stories of the heroes of the project, for the first time I gathered my courage and spoke for myself, said what was important for me to say since the beginning of my creative career.
How did you go about finding the subjects and photographing them?
There was no one system to find these heroes and I like that. I looked for collaborators for the project on Instagram and wrote to guys from different regions of Russia. It was important for me to join other people with similar social experiences in these different regions. Among these heroes of the book, there are also acquaintances with whom I shared the idea and who volunteered to participate. I call this group of people who have been united by the pages of the book “non-random strangers”.
How did you put them at ease to tell their stories?
In the beginning, I taught myself to feel comfortable. I grew up in the working-class town of Chelyabinsk and, unfortunately, I absorbed a lot of taboos and acquired complexes growing up, so working on the subject of sex I needed points of support that would help me to feel bolder and not get lost during the interviews. I came up with quizzes, with prompts like “favorite color” and “favorite song.” They turned into “favorite sex position” and “brightest fantasy”.
I went to the first meetings armed with these questions. To my surprise, I realized there was absolutely no need for them. As soon as I indicated the topic of conversation, the guys easily told their sexuality story from A to Z. Later, I realized that I was giving them some kind of safe space and that was enough. Sometimes, at the end of the conversation, they would say: “Vlad, for me, it was like a confession. Thank you.”
Your images and words are all very intimate. What intrigues you about sex, sexuality and sexual identity? Why is it important to think about it?
With this book, I want to help de-stigmatize conversations about sex, sexuality, sexual identity; become freer; and overcoming the taboos associated with it all. Undo the circumstances that force people to hide their sexual identity, as well as the lack of understanding and inability to establish communication about sex, encourage people to be aware of their sexuality and undo the circumstances that cause psychological problems, anxiety and even prevent pleasure. It’s important to talk about it.
In this sense, sex and everything related to it intrigues me, as one of the areas in which our freedom is still limited, and my job is always to overcome the limits, to
In this sense, sex and everything related to it intrigues me, as one of the areas in which our freedom is still limited, and my work is always about going beyond limits, about freedom! Moreover, I am convinced that this topic is overloaded with talk of power and politics, especially in this time of pandemic. I would like the general attention to shift towards love. Love, by the way, is the subject of a future project, which I hope to show in February in Moscow.
This is a bilingual book and the layout and design are very thoughtful. Can you explain to us how you structured it and why?
The idea for a bilingual edition came soon after my team and I saw all the transcribed texts. We have seen two potential impacts. First, it was important for us to give the Russian male audience the opportunity to see their ideas about sexuality from the outside – with all the problems that are present in our experience, which is why the book contains the Russian language. Second, to allow foreign audiences to broaden their ideas about sex and sexuality in post-Soviet Russia, which is inheriting, but actively surpassing in some quarters, the status of a country where sex does not exist.
Finally, the main message of the book goes beyond national borders. Therefore, English as the language of international communication was chosen for the translation of the stories: With love from Russia is a book that invites you to reflect on your sexuality, listen to yourself and your desires, confront them with my experience, draw parallels and write your own history of sexuality, following guys whose reflection on sexuality and experiences sexual relations arises before the eyes of the reader. There is a place for the reader’s personal story on the last pages of the publication.
As for the conceptual work for the layout and all materials, project curator Andrey Lopatin helped me. Besides the sequential alternation of texts in Russian and English, one of our solutions was to separate the visual narration from the textual narration. Photographs of the heroes and their stories are mixed in the book – we tried to make the book encourage the removal of the heroes’ masks.
Can you tell us about your photographic style and how you developed it?
I almost never say what pose to take or what emotion to show; honesty in photographs is important to me. This intention is not contradictory even if you apply these words to my projects Hare and God. Their brilliance, in particular Hare– was only acceptable through honesty, which is very hard to come by on camera.
Recently I wondered why I like to use blue and white colors in my photography – and remembering my childhood, I assumed that the Urals, which is close to where I grew up , is still reflected in my memory and in my work. In Chelyabinsk, most of the year outside the window is snow-white winter and bright blue sky. All this I apparently unconsciously reproduce in my works now.
Another recurring element of my work since childhood is play. As a child, the neighbors’ children and I put on my mother’s clothes, built huts with blankets and offered theatrical performances. Hence, I think of the masks that arise in my projects.
What do you hope your artistic legacy will be?
Even if it is not easy for me to answer questions relating to a long-term vision, I can tell you one thing with certainty: I try to listen to the present, to explore what resonates with me now and time will put everything in its place.
Images courtesy of Vlad Zorin