He pays his subjects to strip, then exposes their naked dereliction to the chattering classes of the west. Sue Hubbard asks the controversial Russian photographer Boris Mikhailov if he’s just a voyeur?
Boris Mikhailov is 63, has dyed black hair, a white moustache and a young wife. He was born in Kharkov in Ukraine. He has recently exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery in central London, has just been awarded the Citibank Photography Prize, and the Saatchi Gallery is now showing his work Case History, which consists of more than 400 photographs taken in Ukraine. Anyone with a taste for postmodern irony will find plenty of it here. Mikhailov takes pictures of the bomzhes, the homeless down-and-outs, victims of the economic and social collapse in the former USSR. But Mikhailov is no Bill Brandt or Don McCullin, capturing life’s gritty realities with a clear humanist agenda, nor is he an objective eye simply documenting what he sees from behind the lens. Rather, he is a director, a creator of mises en scene, who seeks out the alcoholic, the drug addict, the ill and the dispossessed and then pays them not only to pose for him, but to expose themselves – genitals, scars, menstrual blood and hernias – to his scrutinising gaze. This is the ultimate market exchange: the sale, for a few kopeks, of these people’s only resource, their bodies. Like all capitalists and entrepreneurs, they sell what they have for the best offer, in this case to a photographer who takes their pictures, which will then be consumed by the international art world. The irony is brought full circle, in a game of signifiers and signs, with Saatchi, the advertising guru who gave us 18 years of Thatcherism, who is playing host to these photos showing some of the world’s most abject people. What, I kept wondering, would these subjects make of the private view, where the likes of Tracey Emin quaffed champagne in the latest Agnes B while surrounded by their exposed and blistered penises, black eyes and filthy bodies? And what does it say about us who look at them?
When I met Mikhailov, he insisted that his aim was to act as a witness to a particular moment in history, that he wanted to show the bomzhes as “normal” people, as a “class”, a “clan”, with its own structures and psychology, before its members became what he called “hardened”. But unlike the work of, say, Diane Arbus, who came upon her subjects in all their weird and idiosyncratic individuality, Mikhailov encourages (though he would probably argue that he “facilitates”) those he photographs to act in ways that turn them into objects. Arbus’s “freaks” were simply being themselves – however odd – and did not act for the camera. The same is true of the work of the British photographer Richard Billingham, who takes pictures of his tattooed and drunken parents in the domestic squalor of their northern tower block. Billingham documents what he actually sees and, although it’s often shocking, there’s a sense that it has been recorded with a sort of love. But one cannot escape how many of Mikhailov’s subjects seem to be “performing”. Perhaps for a new coat, a few coins, for their 15 minutes of fame – who knows? He claimed, when I asked, that he had their consent, but just what they thought they were consenting to is impossible to know. Tom Wolfe once famously wrote of the symbiosis between the glitterati of New York and Jackson Pollock. Cash was exchanged, not just for a painting, but also for an appropriated slice of life in the fast lane. Pollock had the street cred and they had the money, and the contract allowed the well-fed and the well-bred to go back to their bourgeois apartments, their maids and their offices in Wall Street feeling oh-so-very hip for having purchased the work of such a cutting-edge artist.
And yet, it’s too simple to dismiss all of Mikhailov’s work as opportunistic or voyeuristic, because there’s a huge charge to many of these life-sized colour photographs, an unsentimental pathos. The images of street children glue-sniffing have a raw and terrible beauty. The inflated pink plastic bags from which they inhale noxious fumes echo, with a shocking aestheticism, the pink of one of the young girls’ T-shirts. Many of the children are blond and beautiful, if somewhat scruffy, and pose and smile, half out of their minds, with their bottles and cigarettes. As with so many street children around the world, the pathos and the pity lie in the hope and innocence still visible behind their world-weary, brutalised faces. These children sleep, eat and rob in gangs, which is the nearest many of them will ever know to a family. Their early sexual activity is not only a way of earning cash, but all too often a substitute for other forms of communication and warmth. The images of crumbling, rusting factories; of a newly installed Coca-Cola sign poking incongruously out of a drift of dirty snow in front of an old Soviet building; of men carting filthy animal ribs, flapping with a few ribbons of meat, through the potholed streets; of the broken and bruised faces of the drunks and the drugged – all speak of social disintegration, anarchy and decay.
And perhaps it is this that provides a clue as to how we might read the seemingly “amoral” positioning of Mikhailov towards his subjects. When I tried to push him on the issue of ethics, he was evasive and talked only of making work that was new, of showing things in a way that had not been seen before. For him, ethics were “not special”; anything that was legal was “OK”. Although he did claim to be concerned about what his subjects felt, it was hard to establish – as he hid, somewhat disingenuously, behind his lack of English – whether this stemmed from compassion or from a desire to create a photographic charge. Yet maybe it is this lack of empathy, this “amorality”, that most truly reflects the condition of social breakdown that has resulted from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it is this harsh vision – of life as cheap and expendable, and of how individuals can rely only on themselves and their wits – that mirrors a reality which for us, in the west, is more shocking than the poxy penises of Mikhailov’s subjects displayed like pastiche Mapplethorpes. Whatever we feel about the injustices of the old structures and systems, this exchange between the have-nots and the photographer-who-has is a product of capitalism, not communism. The shocking truth implied by these photographs is that compassion itself is a liberal luxury.
Boris Mikhailov Case History at the Saatchi Gallery, London from 13 September to 25 November 2001
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999
Images © Boris Mikhailov
Published in New Statesman