New East Digital Archive

Flesh of flesh: the photographer shaping a new reality through ancient Russian rituals

24 August 2021

Flesh of Flesh, Maria Ermolenko’s photo story inspired by the cult of Mother Earth, has a curious obliquity. The topic of its focus is clear, yet its subtle and nuanced visualisation evades analysis. “I didn’t aim for the images to match, stage, or interpret any particular rituals, beliefs, or superstitions,” Ermolenko says. Instead, the photographer and independent publisher worked to create a series that would look like a visual incantation.

Ermolenko shot the project across the Leningrad region, and in Kronstadt, an island near St Petersburg where she is based. She allowed her local landscapes to define her narrative, rather than vice versa. Once an idea took root, she would go through the exciting and exhausting journey of working with a medium format film camera: taking images, developing the film, and checking her shots before going back to the original landscape, returning time and time again to repeat the process until she had found the perfect angle and light.

But despite this strenuous process, there is still an element of luck. “Magic and serendipity come together. I still can’t figure out whether it’s my mood, the circumstances, or even the Moon, but I do feel a certain flicker in the air when I take the right shot. The sheer beauty is like that of birth,” Ermolenko says. The intensive, intuitive nature of the shooting process was often difficult to navigate. At one point, Ermolenko abandoned the project for half a year before picking it up again. She is still working on it now. “I know I still have something to say,” she says.

Ermolenko refers to a particular folk proverb as inspiration for Flesh of Flesh: “nurture as the Earth does, teach as the Earth does, love as the Earth loves.” As a result, the series is essentially a photographic documentation of her deep synchronicity with nature and the Earth as a source of life. “It is said in the Bible that the flesh of a human is that of the Earth. In many cultures across the globe, there is a strong concept of Mother Earth,” Ermolenko says. She believes that the way we treat the Earth — in our own actions, in rituals — can allow us to feel part of humanity as a whole, rather than connected to a particular group of ancestors.

But most ancient polytheistic beliefs are centred, in one way or another, on agriculture and the natural cycles of the Earth. With most of us now living in towns and cities, our natural bounds with the Earth have been loosened. Ermolenko does not see any way for old Slavic rituals to be performed by modern Russians based in cities — although she does feel sad about some traditions slipping away. “In the past, they used to bury people in the foetal position, which symbolised death as homecoming, the tomb as a womb. People used to carry soil from the home inside a medallion when they travelled, and if someone died abroad, they tried to throw a handful of their native soil onto the grave. If a person made a promise, and swore on the Earth, they would not break that vow.”

Such reflections on nature and its mystic power may appear forced or staged in the modern age. But Ermolenko’s work feels otherworldly rather than out of place, embracing a natural world that delights in mystery in itself — not simply as a canvas for human myth. Fire, geysers, and surreal fauna are pictured in balance with familiar flora, tender twilight, and seemingly unassuming places. It invites the viewer simply to indulge in a visual incantation, rather than deciphering a crossword of tribal rituals long past.

Ermolenko, meanwhile, still dreams of a house in the countryside, and planting an entire forest of her own. She also says that if she ever moves away from Russia, she will carry a fist of soil with her.

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