New East Digital Archive

Hey brother: how Skype and analogue photography fused a long-distance sibling bond

Based in Italy, Anna Malgina felt worlds apart from her brother in Russia. When she couldn’t photograph him in person, she resorted to Skype to continue her series Reconnection.

23 June 2020

Anna Malgina’s series Reconnection started on film, which is why it stands out from many other webcam-inspired photo stories. The protagonist is her younger brother, who lives in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where Malgina herself was born. After studying cinematic history in St Petersburg, then working at a film archive in Moscow, the photographer moved to Pordenone in northern Italy, an hour’s drive from Venice, where she now lives with her husband and son. “I had always wanted to dedicate a project to my younger brother,” she explains. “We have a 15-year age gap between us. Since I moved away from home so long ago, I’ve missed out on watching him grow up.”

She set out to bridge this distance with her camera, starting the project during one of her brother’s visits to Italy with their parents in 2019. Between catching up and sightseeing, there was not enough time left to shoot a meaningful story about their relationship. On her family’s departure, she gifted her brother a camera in the hopes of continuing the project remotely. “I asked him to shoot everything he liked, so that I could learn more about the things that caught his eye and reconnect with him.” But nothing came of the exercise.

Fast forward to 2020, when Italy became one of the first countries in Europe to enter Covid-19 lockdown. Millions of Italians were ordered to stay home. During this time, Malgina had the chance to return to the project: this time guiding her brother on how to take photos via video call.

“I asked him to walk me around Sochi — on his phone — and show me some of his favourite places, our school, his friends,” she explains. Instead of taking screenshots over Skype, Malgina would photograph her screen with a digital camera because she liked the resulting pixelated effect, something which reminded her of the texture and grain of analogue film.

In some cases, you can spot the photographer behind her camera in the bottom corner of the shot. “If there was a landscape or a building that I had a connection to, like my school, I would leave myself in the photo.”

As a photographer, how do you convey closeness at a distance? This question goes beyond lockdown and touches on the fundamentals of image-making. Remove the word distance, and the task is one and the same. Many photographers have made their careers in trying to capture the manifold ways that humans show love and the changing, covert bonds that tie us. There is little difference in what technology you use: whether it’s a fancy SLR or your standard webcam, cameras have always existed to bring us closer to people, to nature, to reality. Those that study intimacy through the camera lens will tell you, like relationships themselves, the key is being patient with the process.

For the photographer and her brother, the photo story panned out as an exchange: Malgina taught her brother about photography; he, in turn, opened up to her. “He stopped being so shy, and started taking an interest in photography. Now, he understands the basics — how to frame a shot, and how to find the best light. During these shoots, he started sharing with me things we’d never spoken about before: about his friendships, his relationship, his future, and politics. We are closer than ever.”

Malgina also decided to include moments when the video call quality was poor or there were troubleshooting issues, to stand in for the unpredictable nature of relationships. Had the photographer made the series using the photos that her brother had made in her absence, she might have still presented the project as a series of composites — but she would never have had that same opportunity for closeness. This is where the video calls were crucial: “For a whole month I was always right there with him, via his phone.”

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