New East Digital Archive

The help: At home with Russia’s newly rich, and their servants

27 October 2016

Russian photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan is interested in the way our identity is shaped by various social factors: she photographed the inmates of the only Armenian female prisons, analysed female make-up customs and traced the owners of particular kind of Armenian vans.

Yet Li-Mi-Yan’s most celebrated work is Masters and Servants, a series of portraits of Russia’s new rich with their service personnel — maids, butlers, cooks, gardeners — a strangely intimate study of Russia’s contemporary social order.

The series touches on the huge economic disparities that were brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For Masters and Servants, Li-Mi-Yan contacted a wealthy circle of acquaintances in Moscow.

Each portrait was shot in the employer’s lavish homes but the series goes beyond simply showing how the elite live, by exploring what these roles mean to their subjects.

“I didn’t make them swap places, instead I wanted to show their daily life. I wanted to lift the veil, putting into foreground the questions, ‘Who are these people?’ ‘Where are they from?’ ‘Where did they study?’ ‘Do they have a family?’ ‘Why are they here?’,” she writes in her introduction for the series.

Before taking each photo, she spent time getting to know the employers and employees, using her knowledge of their relationship to stage a more authentic photo.

There is still a stigma in Russia attached to hired help. Working on the series, however, Li-Mi-Yan learned that in many cases the “servants” had past careers as teachers, engineers and doctors, sometimes unbeknownst to their employers.

“He or she will have their own life, and the ability to hide it is an important element of their professionalism,” she explains, adding that this “allows them to keep their distance.”

The series and its title purposefully tests our own presumptions about who is the “master” and who is the “servant”.