New East Digital Archive

Crime and punishment: what really goes on in Russia’s prisons?

An ambitious documentary series that goes behind bars and prison tattoos

12 October 2016

The Russian penal system has been the centre of countless books and headlines since the first harrowing accounts by the survivors of Stalin’s labour camps. For the Western world, the mystery of Russian prisons has fuelled an obsession with gangsters and Soviet prison tattoos and cemented the view of Russia as an Other. The 2012 arrest of three members of feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot put the topic back on the international radar after Nadezhda Tolokonnikova penned a four-page open letter detailing the mistreatment of prisoners at Russian penal colonies which had gone unreported until then. It was in 2012 that Yekaterinburg photographers Denis Tarasov and Fyodor Telkov were invited by the press department of a local penitentiary service to spend two days photographing inside IK-10 prison and use the material to put on an exhibition about what it’s like to work there.

“The local federal penitentiary service were eager to show that the correctional system was changing, wanting to somehow dispel the pre-existing perception that’s struck in the minds of people from the time of the Gulags,” Telkov explains. However, as Tarasov reveals, “it was clear after a few hours that the tour wasn’t the best opportunity for a serious project about this totally unfamiliar and usually closed off environment. It amounted to just a couple of decent pictures but that was it. There was no depth, no real understanding of the psychology of the place. And since the topic of Russia’s penal system is always relevant, it was tempting to investigate further.” Disappointed with the experience but still deeply curious, the two photographers offered to continue photographing the federal penitentiary service in the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals, home to the largest concentration of penal colonies in Russia. Their offer was accepted.

The two photographers have dedicated their careers to recording the many faces of Russia: Telkov has previously documented the vanishing Mari community, while Tarasov investigated the patriotic education offered to children by the Russian Cossacks. So, it’s not a surprise that The Other Side of the Wall, which took three years to produce, is equally ambitious. The series is ethnographic in proportion, comprising interior shots, still lives of prison objects taken from a museum adjacent to one of the penal colonies, portraits of female ex-convicts, and rare footage inside Russia’s strictest prison. “Each of us photographed what we saw. That was one of the most interesting aspects of the project, that mine and Denis’s approach and style is slightly different which gave a variety to the photos. If we had done two separate projects they would have undoubtably been different,” Telkov reflects.

The scale of the series reflects the photographers’ commitment to showing the many-sided reality of the place and avoiding any cliches. “I had images of the Gulags going round and round in my head, or scenes from the TV series Gangster Petersburg. But the reality ended up not being anything like that, and the system seems to have really changed,” Telkov describes. Still, Tarasov notes a feeling a “heaviness” immediately on entering the walls of the prison, that only increased inside.

“The process of shooting changes the view of the world in one way or another,” Telkov says. One of the biggest challenges the photographers discovered was not so different to any other project: the question, what are we doing here? “We decided to discount the morality problem and reveal more about what it’s like for a person in this particular situation in life, and the world which is hidden from everyone behind barbed wire,” Telkov continues. Spending any time alone with the prisoners was difficult or nearly impossible at times. To not leave out the convicts’ experience from the series, the photographers asked them to complete an assignment. “We asked them to write an essay in response to the topic ‘What is a prison’”, Telkov explains. These were written by the students, of various ages, on the grounds of the colonies and exhibited alongside the photographs at March Centre of Photography in Yekaterinburg earlier this year.

Telkov and Tarasov are aware that there are some aspects of prison life that are still hidden from prying eyes. Among all the documentation of every prisoners’ living quarters and workplaces, is an abstract and enigmatic set of photos, captioned under the name “fear”. With some taken in total darkness, much of what is captured remains in the shadows. “Fear”, Tarasov says, ”is the feeling we subconsciously experienced and which we wanted to convey to our audience. At the end of the day, it’s a terrifying place, and the fate of the people there is equally unpleasant. What they are doing time for is also, at times, pretty scary. That’s why the images with this psychological charge, were given this overarching name. It was exactly these images that opened our exhibition The Other Side of the Wall in Yekaterinburg. Entering the room, the audience were deliberately scared into experiencing a feeling similar to that which a person faces behind bars.”