New East Digital Archive

Cardinal sin: a photographic exploration of sexuality and religion

2 July 2021

For Irina Shkoda, the concept of sin has a special significance. The daughter of a priest, the photographer grew up in a strict religious environment. The emotional intensity and cultural isolation she experienced prompted her to look for her own interpretations of faith, purity, and deviation from moral norms. “As an atheist, I intend to investigate how we can split the concept of sin and the religious paradigm that gave birth to it. The logical development of that work led me to the topic of sexuality, corporeality, and the boundaries associated with sexual practices. I am curious as to how desires correlate with inner prohibitions, and what causes them,” she explains.

Shkoda started her creative career as an actress, and first picked up the camera as a form of “self-therapy”, and an attempt to construct more complex narratives than those she was offered on stage. Having immersed herself in photography, she is now working on incorporating performance in her practice. Although Shkoda’s work stems from personal lived experience, it transcends boundaries by creating a powerful image of body and spirit in the framework of a contemporary patriarchal society.

For The Calvert Journal, the photographer talks about her project MISERERE: a visual exploration of trauma, gender, and power based on the biblical psalm 51.


I shot this project surprisingly quickly, in just three months. It started in May 2020, when I went to the seaside for three weeks to live in a cave. There, I had these long conversations with a friend and finally worked out what exactly I wanted to shoot. My project, MISERERE, has become a kind of first chapter for a bigger story I want to tell. It is deeply rooted in my personal story, and is based on real events. I grew up as the daughter of a priest, and my upbringing was quite strict. I spent most of my time in the convent where my dad served.

Sin is a key point in my practice. The word has purely negative connotations in a Christian context, and the idea of sin has become a salvation for me. Having abandoned Christianity, I now see the possibility of committing a sin (read, an unorthodox sexual act) as a call to a non-existent God.

Read more CH4RM: the brand reinventing Russian provincial glamour for the post-internet age

Sin is a lack, a hole, a wound, a plea for love. Sin is the Lacanian splitting of fatally sick animals, a futile attempt to reach the Other. As an atheist, I realised that all the revolutionary spirit of Christianity is contained in the single phrase: “I came not to the righteous, but to the sinners.” This is what captivates me, along with the weakness and vulnerability of a doubting, humanised God.

I grew up in isolation, without access to the Internet or television, or the ability to communicate with my peers. It had a strange impact on me. For a long time, I almost lived in the past, and then I was abruptly and deeply plunged into modern culture. One way or another, my deepest inspiration comes from classical Catholic culture. All of these Madonnas, the martyrs pierced by arrows, the sculptural folds of fabric, are my background. In my photographs, there is also a lot of static, central composition, emphasised on occasion by staging and symbolism. From time to time, I turn to my dreams and memories from childhood, in which there was a lot of disturbing, unconventional beauty. This is where my work with flash takes roots.

The sound of sexuality: capturing goosebumps, touch and freedom in music
Read more The sound of sexuality: capturing goosebumps, touch and freedom in music

When I was working on this story, I didn’t mean to follow the canons of religious iconography. But when I was choosing a colour palette to visualise it, I was drawn to two colours: blue (to symbolise innocence and chastity) and red (the colour of martyrdom and the apocalyptic serpent); Mary Magdalene is usually depicted on icons in a red robe. There are also symbols for those with a deeper Christian knowledge: there is a frame covered in hyssop, a plant mentioned in the psalm that says: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” In Biblical times, hyssop was immersed in the blood of a sacrificial animal, and that blood was sprinkled in rituals. In this way, the shot is actually about sacrifice, violence, and archaic traditions which imply a person’s sinfulness.

I also decided to recreate some significant events from my life in the project, to look at them from the outside in, as does the God in which I don’t believe. Each frame corresponds to both a traumatic memory and a line from Psalm 51 . Ideally, I would like the viewer to find their own personal connotations in that story.

I will give only one example: the shot where a girl’s mouth is opened by male hands in medical gloves. The hands may belong to a doctor: as a child, I was often tortured by dentists who corrected my bite. But this meaning is overshadowed by the overall symbol of violence. It’s a symbol of patriarchal religious pressure (I remember how they forcefully opened my mouth during my first communion. The efforts of the priest to put the body and blood of Christ in my mouth made my first milk tooth fall out, and I later tried to gnaw it, thinking it was a nut), and sexual abuse. I experienced my first sexual assault when I was eleven. Although I wasn’t raped, it traumatised me — not directly but through the reaction of my father, who chose not to believe me. In the psalm, this shot corresponds to the line: “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.”