Photo project

I and Thou, and the Holy Spirit: The Search for Spirituality in the Series by Nikita Pirogov

Russian photographer Nikita Pirogov took nude portraits of his friends, and through nudity showed how the divine unveils itself in humans.
Nikita Pirogov 27 years

Photographer and poet. Born in St. Petersburg, currently based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Exhibited his work in Russia, US, Europe, and Asia. Published his work in The Telegraph, Lens Culture, Dazed and Confused, Photoword, Eikon, European Photography, 1000words magazine, and many other media outlets. Pirogov’s photographs are in private collections in the US, Germany, Russia, France, Denmark, and in the collection of the State Russian Museum.

— In 2015, after reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou, I came to St. Petersburg wanting to create something free and easy, and at the same time, be as honest as possible. I wanted to see the reality (Russia) free, full of life, having overcome the conventions and external circumstances, apathy, frustration, and impotence. I was longing for communication with the people I love, I wanted beauty, love, and the presence of something from above that helps us open up in the direction of each other and believe in life. I wanted to shift the focus: even at that time, everybody around was already tired and started to get angry, sinking into the routine of insurmountable circumstances.

This is a story about my friends, the people I love, each of them in their own way. It started with me taking a series of nudes that concentrated not on the physical, but on some kind of essential nudity. I was looking for a spark that ignited between me and those people. And at the same time, this is not a story about my friends, it is a bit more general than that: it is also about how we see people close to us in general, regardless of labels attached to them or their characteristics.

This is a story about how we see people close to us in general, regardless of labels attached to them or their characteristics.

Every person in the series are friends of mine and they knew I do both photography and poetry, and that we will be looking for some kind of light coming from inside. In addition, at the time I kept retelling Buber to everyone: if we learn to see each other regardless of the external, material circumstances, if humans learn to communicate only with their souls, then the external world will change, too. Then, the true reality will enter this world, where people will be truly free, real, truly alive, and full of God. And there will be God in the world, and in the Human, and in God himself. There will be prosperity, and there will be no need for wars, every person will be happy to do something for the others. Just the endless gift-giving and welfare.

Each of the shoots was something like a story of us happening in front of each other. Here is me, and here is You — and what is born between us in the process of the shoot. I didn’t want to stage the photographs, I tried to avoid it. These were rather talks, conversations, a very simple evidence of nudity — both spiritual and physical, but rather spiritual, nudity here was a mere technique. The acceptance of human nature, the unveiling of the divine through an ultimately frank act of trust with each other, the release of the Spirit.

It was difficult in a sense that I tried to capture my heroes without attaching any evaluations or projections to them, without making up anything about them. It was difficult to select from the photographs that I have taken, because each shoot, from the start to the end, was an individual journey to opening up. Photography was just an instrument that accelerated the search.

Each shoot, from the start to the end, was an individual journey.

The work on the project continued, the times were troubled, so our ‘laboratory’ was a haven for the Spirit for me at the moment, rather than a full-time photo project. We talked a lot, exchanged jokes, discussed compassion, the time that we live in, the lack of attention of people to each other, caring, and some kind of warmth of the soul. It was summer, the white nights. I almost finished shooting everybody, whom I wanted to see in this series, and I had a dream that I need to find a color for each of the heroes. In a dream, it was cardboard, and I used it to make a color halo for each of them. When I woke up, I had the idea to do not cardboard collages, but stained glass windows. Find color glow ‘auras’ for each of my friends, as I see them in color. At the same time, this was a metaphor of light, refraction and reflexion — that the Divine light in us carries individual harmony that is inherent to it only.

I almost finished shooting everybody whom I wanted to see in this series, and I had a dream that I need to find a color for each of the heroes

This technique with cutting and attaching color to each of my heroes, on the one hand, meant accepting my work as something separate from me — something that I will be able to share. On the other hand, it was something that allowed me to capture this moment of openness between me and each of my heroes through personal color experience.

I wanted to see light, hope, some kind of transformation of reality. Of course, I had doubts about whether I have the right to do such things, especially when there are more and more problems in life, more and more mistrust and aggression. But something made me believe that this gesture, this kind of alternate reality is necessary, that I need to strip all the outside layers and reveal the essence of our attitude to each other.

It is very easy to love humanity as a whole and be faint-hearted when it comes to people who are near you here and now. It is equally easy to love people who are close to you and not give a damn about anybody else. There are lots of problems in the contemporary world: injustice, inequality, hatred, greed, obsession with the material thing — all of them poison our lives. But where do they come from? Isn’t this because we can’t accept ourselves and the others? That we are constantly accusing somebody of something? That we want more?

If we acknowledge ourselves and everything in this world as a part of the Divine Light, we will have no more reason to hate each other.

In reality, we have nothing in this world, we don’t even have a body really. Everything that we really have is our will and soul that is always present before the Divine Light, God, is always naked and aspiring either ‘from’ or ‘to — light or dark. I believe that if we acknowledge ourselves and everything in this world as a part of the Divine Light, we will have no more reasons to hate each other. But only an open heart can understand this. Nowadays, everybody is occupied with abstract notions that do not influence real life in any way, or with themselves. There is too much that is superficial and cynical. As if people are made to accept the world for what it is. However, in reality, change is happening — slowly, but surely, and the current crisis is only more evidence that change is necessary and will happen, whether we want it or not. It is in our power to choose the path that this evidence will use to come to the world.

One time, I was walking down the street and thinking that God had left us, that we lost something, that we are not thinking about God in a true way, we are hiding behind some conventions and rituals, and don’t see any real life, we don’t see each other. And there I was, walking with a heavy heart, looking for some kind of confirmation that it all had sense. At some point, I stop and look up for some reason — and a drop of water falls on my forehead from above. And then I realized that it was not that bad, and this series was the evidence of Truth, although silent and personal, but still real.

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