Experience

10 Favorite Photographs of Sergey Maximishin

Bird In Flight asked photographer Sergey Maximishin to choose his favorite photographs from his forthcoming book and share the stories of their creation with our readers.

Sergey Maximishin, 50

Studied at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, Department of Experimental Nuclear Physics. From 1985 through 1987 did military service (was a staff photographer of the military club of the Soviet Military Experts’ Group in Cuba). In 1988 resumed his studies, working part-time for the Laboratory of the Scientific-Technical expertise of the State Hermitage. From 1996 through 1998 studied at the Photojournalism Department of the Saint Petersburg House of Journalists. 1999–2003: worked for Izvestia newspaper. Since 2003 he has been a contributor for the German agency FOCUS. He has twice been a laureate of World Press Photo, and is the winner of numerous Russian and international photo contests. His works have been featured in Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, Stern, GEO and many other publications.


Goldfish vendor, Baghdad. 2002.

We arrived in Baghdad in September 2002, six months before the war. At that period of time only Russian journalists were allowed to work in Iraq. One was strictly forbidden to walk around the city taking pictures. It was mandatory to be accompanied by a “guide.” Russian-speaking guides were very few and nearly all of them worked for TV crews. Yury Kozyrev and I had a Hasan assigned to us both. We made an attempt to protest and were offered another guide — a Portuguese speaking one. That was a problem since we were officially working for Izvestia and Ogonyok, but in reality it was TIME and Newsweek, their counterparts and main rivals. We were afraid that at a certain point similar pictures would be published in our magazines and we would be ashamed in front of the whole world. We hired Mundyr, a guy who spoke some Russian, but had no accreditation with the local “Ministry of the Truth.” So this is how we acted: we would come to a place and work in pairs — one of us would be with Hasan and the other with Mundyr, trying to keep close to one another. As soon as the one who was with Mundyr had a problem (problems came up ever so often since every single place had a watcher), Mundyr would run to fetch Hasan, and the latter — we paid him really well — would fix the problem.

Our objective was to photograph everything that came in sight. We realized very well that the war was imminent and that everyone was interested in Iraq. So one Saturday we went to a pet market. We had agreed that in order not to be in one another’s way taking similar pictures, Yura and Hasan would go to photograph birds and Mundyr and I would concentrate on fishes. Usually I chimp through my images while shooting but that time I became aware of an image back at the hotel. “Yura, have a look,” I said “Isn’t it a wonderful image?” Kozyrev glanced and said, “Little birds, little fish, is this what we are here for? Art photographers, for Christ’s sake!”

At that time we were using Canon D30 cameras, which is, to my thinking, the company’s worst product ever. After three to five shots the camera said “busy” and would’t work. It was impossible to tell how much time it would stay in that “busy” mode. The size of the digital file is 2160 x 1440 pixels (3,1 megabytes). Nowadays a camera from the most unsophisticated cellphone produces a bigger file. That circumstance, though, is a hindrance for the picture to get published until the present day, and to be on sale in many galleries worlwide. Sometimes the size doesn’t really matter.


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Bank workers celebrating their colleague’s birthday at “Hali-Gali” nightclub. Saint Petersburg, 2002.

Ogonyok weekly magazine wanted to interview Roman Trakhtenberg, showman and TV presenter, at “Hali-Gali” nightclub, notoriously popular in the early 2000s as “the dirty aestheticians” favorite hangout. It had a relaxed atmosphere, a lot of inexpensive vodka and large portions of filling food, coarse and occasionally funny jokes. On request topless waitresses would dance on the table, and on further request provide further service. To put it shortly, the atmosphere was close to the one described in François Rablais’s literary work. Sheer medieval culture interpreted the Soviet way.

I was at the club with a writing journalist who had come from Moscow expressly for that assignment. We had interviewed the showman before the show ,but stayed to watch it. Since it was hardly bearable for sober people, after a while we found ourselves on the same wave as the party-makers. There was a group of bank workers at a table next to ours, celebrating their colleague’s birthday. They were ahead of us by some 150 grammes, as far as I could fathom.

This picture was the most innocent one of that shoot. The strip dancer was hot and burning. Ogonyok [translated into English is “Little Flames”] refused to publish it though.

Table dancing was a gift for the birthday person. Encouraged by my exuberant drunk subjects, I was shooting in a nearly blindfolded mode, since it was very dark. I flashed (at that time I was still using flash) upwards into the ceiling. The ceiling was padded with black velvet, below it there was some kind of grille made of wooden planks, with obscure lamps attached to it. Film is not the same as digital, it is impossible to see the result and make sure that you’ve got something. And I must admit that at that moment I was more interested in the process than in the result.

In the morning in a photo lab it turned out the film was okay. This picture was the most innocent one of the whole shoot. The strip dancer was hot and burning. Ogonyok [translated into English is “Little Flames”, translator’s note] refused to publish it though.


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Alexandro-Svirsky monastery. Leningrad region, 2002.

I was on an assignment from Izvestia to shoot the Alexandro-Svirsky monastery. I don’t remember exactly what it was I was supposed to photograph. It was the Great Monday (the last Monday before Easter). Renovation of the cathedral that had recently been given over to the Orthodox Church was in full gear. In the Soviet time the monastery housed a first a prison, then a psychiatric hospital. From the prison time it still retained brass plates with cell numbers. The monks were in a hurry – the Easter mass was to be celebrated in the renovated cathedral.

I had given the exposed film to the journalist who had to return it to the editorial office and decided to stay at the monastery for Easter. By Clean Thursday construction work was finally over and the cleaning began. The monks started carrying the icons from the residential building to the cathedral. I was shooting from a low angle in order to have the gloomy textured grey sky as the background for the graphic figures of the monks.

On Easter eve together with the monks and the regular church-goers I attended the festive mass. Towards morning the church doors suddenly flung open, a gust of cold wind blew out the candles, hovering shadows danced across the walls and the ceiling. Some people, dressed in long black coats entered and stood by the walls. It was very surreal, like in a film.

When the mass was over, we went to have a festive meal. The church officials and honorable guests (I was also invited) were feasting separately from the brethren and noviciates. As I entered the refectory, among other guests I noticed the people who had surprised me in the church, were also among the guests. Their coats were already on the hanger, serious-looking men in black uniforms were sitting down to the table. On their sleeves there were dressings with the swastika-like symbol of the Russian National unity. At that point I left to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection with people of a simpler kind.


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Theological college. Makhachkala, 2008.

In the mid-1980s a bride kidnapping epidemic broke out in Dagestan. Deepening social disparity, ethnic conflicts and offences that reappeared as if right from the Middle Ages — all that contributed to the fact that for so many young men it became next to impossible to find a spouse by legal means. Things had come to the point where the Head of Spiritual administration of the Muslems of Daguestan had to make a televised address to the dzhigits recommending that they resort to explicitly peaceful and legal means in their search for brides. Russian Reporter weekly magazine decided to feature this theme.

It is next to impossible to photograph an abduction without breaking the boundaries of the penal code. I wouldn’t risk making a sequel to “The Caucasian Hostage” [a popular Soviet film of comic genre; translator’s note]. So we gave up the idea of direct illustration of the text and decided to do a small essay on the life and fate of an average Daguestani woman.

At first I went to a settlement called Mughi to photograph the school where half the girls in their final year had already been kidnapped. In Makhachkala I photographed in the maternity ward of a hospital. The building didn’t have a blank spot on it, its outside walls were crammed with graffiti of this kind: “Gulzhanat has produced little Ramazan for Murad!!!”, “Ali and Khava have become happy parents of little Dolgat!!!” Allegedly, following the publication of the picture of the maternity home in Russian Reporter the building was whitewashed. So you may say that sometimes even photographers make some practical sense.

The embankment in Makhachkala, densely overgrown with plastic palm-trees is a place of romantic promenades, I took some pictures there. I dropped in to get a look at a ballet show rehearsal. Performances of the ensemble at night clubs (girls dance wearing bathing suits) is the most erotic entertainment legally allowed in Daguestan. Many girls taking part in rehearsals are not allowed by their parents to perform publicly.

It was really scary business to photograph a Daguestani wedding. Picture this: a tender pink limo with the newlyweds is closely followed, right on the dividing line, by a cortege of 20 speeding ramshackle Ladas. The sounds of lezginka are deafening. Hanging from car windows up to their waist, relatives of the newlyweds yell and swing sabres through the air. And those without sabres shake scabbards. Cars going the opposite way scatter out of the cavalcade’s way in panic.

Abreks in ancient “Zhiguli” are waiting in the side streets. Their mission is to block the way for the cortege by suddenly jumping out of their “ambush.” If they succeed, the dzhigits will have to pay a redemption. I shoot through an open back door, lying on my belly in one of the “ladas” of the cortege. I make a query as to how often the bride and groom manage to make it to the registration office in one piece. The answer is that they nearly always make it. The wedding I am invited to is a modest one — only 550 guests have turned out. At the entrance to the ceremony someone from the bride’s family is sitting and putting down the guest’s name and his gift’s worth in roubles, or foreign currency, into a special journal. It looks like the newlyweds will have something to read during long winter evenings.

I made a visit to the philological department of the Makhachkala University. It is reputed to be the place to go if you want an emancipated bride. I decided to search for a place where brides confessing traditional values can be found. Some nice people had recommended the theological college. To be more exact, the humanitarian-pedagogic college under the aegis of the Institute of Theology and International Relations named after Mammadibir ar-Rochi. I had to wait until the end of the lecture on Muslim law as I was waiting for the moment where the girls would stop looking at me. But it was rewarding to learn something new – that, for example, if you own less than five camels you are not supposed to pay “zakyat” (a special tax in favor of the poor). If, however, you happen to have five to nine camels, you pay one sheep a year.


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Vrindavan, India. 2013.

Vrindavan is one of the world’s major religious centers. It is the city where Krishna was born. Indians don’t particularly like the inhabitants of Vrindavan, considering them haughty and arrogant. It is believed that people born in Vrindavan will spend the next life in Paradise (for Indians Paradise is not the happy end of the film but only a kind of a sanatorium, a short-term leave, given as a reward for kind things one does in one’s life). Vrindavan is also notorious for some of India’s angriest and meanest monkeys. One of them jumped on my companion’s shoulders and snatched a pack of sweets from his hands. Later on someone explained to us that Vrindavan’s monkeys are special — the souls of brahmans who have abused the trust of their disciples are reincarnated in them.

I guess the five years spent at the Hermitage have left their mark, and I subconsciously react to classical compositional schemes. I am afraid I am totally incorrigible that way.

Vrindavan is an incredibly photogenic place. This image found itself of its own accord. I was just walking down a street, looking around and managed to take three shots before the people became conscious of my presence and started smiling at the camera.

Sometimes I am reproached with excessive picturesqueness of my photographs. There was even a time when I developed a kind of a complex because of it because photography is not “painting for the poor,” it has its own aesthetics while painting has its own. But I guess the five years spent at the Hermitage have left their mark, and I subconsciously react to classical compositional schemes. I am afraid I am totally incorrigible that way.


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A ferry across the Irtysh. Tobolsk, June 2005

A friend of mine, on seeing this picture, said, “The smile of Sauron.” However, there is nothing demonic about this guy, his name is Sasha, he was working as a driver for the Culture Committee of the City Council of Tobolsk. Sasha and his “bread loaf UAZ” were assigned by the mayor to assist me while I was working on a story about Tobolsk for GEO magazine. I took this image while journalist Alexander Mozhaev and myself were taking the ferry across the Irtysh in the evening. We went out to have a stroll of the ferry deck, and Sasha stayed in the car — it was next to impossible not to notice the triangle of the teeth, the church and the cross. The ferry was going very fast. The church was quickly going out of sight, and there was no film in the camera. Actually, there was no film at all, not just in the camera, but on me either. I had used the day’s stock of film rolls. Only one roll, an ISO 800, still remained (it was a miracle I remembered I still had it in my bag). For that period of time ISO 800 was an exotic thing. While I was loading the film, the church had shifted to the left side of the window frame and nearly disappeared, I barely had time to do a few shots. And, as it always happens, with any number of shots, there is only one picture that is just right.

Besides his shiny smile, I remember Sasha’s proverb: “Only dogs will eat their meat without vodka!”

One fairly good photographer wrote on my [fb] page, “The style of the picture on the cover (meaning the cover of my book The Last Empire: 20 Years Later) is that of a surprisingly crazy stupid staged image. That has nothing to do with reportage photography.”


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The window of a circus bus. Saint Petersburg, 2000.

Right at noon a cannon fires from the wall of Petropavloskaya fortress. It is believed that the Admiral drinks a thimble of vodka while the fortress still resonates with the boom. Sometimes the honor of doing the shot is granted a VIP guest. On that day the honor of firing the cannon was entrusted to a popular circus artist. To show his gratitude the circus artist brought other artists with him and together they made a performance right in the fortress front yard. While everyone was shooting the performance (I don’t like photographing what is shown), I was walking around. I saw clowns in the window of the circus bus. You don’t have to be too smart to take such a picture.

It is the only photograph in the book with proportions different from the default 2:3. I don’t like cropping images, consider cropping a creative failure, because to me photography is a game of capturing life into a rectangle with proportions 2:3. When I have to crop, I always try to retain the original proportions of the frame. In this picture, though, I had t


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Field kitchen. Alkhan-Kala, Chechnya, 2000.

Izvestia newspaper had quarrelled with the Ministry of Defense and the editorial office feared that even with an accreditation their photographer wouldn’t be left alone to work as he pleased. That’s why I went to Chechnya with an accreditation from Smena, Saint Petersburg based newspaper for young people. The most difficult part of the work trip to Chechnya was getting to Chechnya. Hundreds of journalists besieged the military press center in Mozdok, North Ossetia, but it only had one helicopter. As a rule, only crews of federal TV channels had a chance to get there. The others had to rely on pure luck.

Yury Kozyrev and I were fortunate enough to run into general Shamanov. In response to our request for help the general said that the next day he was going to fly from Vladikavkaz to Argoun. If we wanted to fly with him we had to be on the runway at 5 a.m. How we were to get to the military airfield by five in the morning, we were too intimidated to ask.

There are two options for getting from Mozdok to Vladikavkaz. One road, a straight and fast one, goes across Ingoushetia. It is a scary road to take because people very often get abducted there. The other one goes across Kabardino-Balkaria. It is a long way but considering that period of time and given circumstances, fairly safe. We hired a Lada with a Chechen registration plate. As we are about to take the long road, right at the first cross-roads drunk officials of the military automobile inspection motioned us to stop. As if for no reason, they didn’t let us go right and sent us via Ingoushetia. “You have a Chechen registration plate you’ll be OK there,” they tried to reassure us. The taxi driver was visibly nervous, and tried to get the maximum of speed out of his Lada. He said that the main thing was to get across the 30-kilometre stretch of the road that goes through the wood.

And exactly on that stretch of the road we were stopped by some people in camouflage. They were not Russian, not wearing any insignias, and they didn’t answer our questions. The taxi driver was taken away somewhere, we were locked in a room and told to wait. From time to time the door opened, someone looked inside without saying anything and left. I am now trying to reconstruct in my memory the interior of that room, the faces of the people and realize that time has erased those things from my memory. Fortunately, I do remember my own tales of how it was and what was happening. Better than the actual events. I was certain we had been abducted. The door opened again. A man stared at us and said to me: “Any chance I could have seen you on TV?” “Yes,” I said, “probably.” “Get out!”

We got into a car. For an hour or so we waited for the driver. He reappeared, accompanied by two military, pale like whitewash. He didn’t answer any questions. We were driving in total silence. Who the people were who had detained us we were never to find out.

We checked in at a hotel but didn’t go to bed, we drank vodka in the empty hotel restaurant. At 4 in the morning we took a taxi and went to the military airfield. In a friendly way we asked the frostbitten sentry to let us go to the runway. The young boy asked for cigarettes. We gave him two packs. “Do you have anything to eat, guys?” We only had an apple.

By the helicopter we met photographer Maxim Marmur. He was with a major, a correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda. We talked a little. When we were in Argun, the major rushed to the general and started telling him something, glancing at me from time to time. Shamanov called me to come up. “Who are you shooting for?” “For Smena” “Why do they say then that you are from Izvestia?”

So I had to tell him the truth. Shamanov cut me short. “Fuck you. Go shoot. But if you shoot crap, I’ll put you into a zindan.”

in an armoured vehicle together with a few fighters we went to our positions by the Lakha-Varandy settlement. For two months the federal troops had been trying to get into the Argoun gorge, a positional war, of the likes of WWI, was going on. But I am going to talk about it with another photograph. And on that day we arrived nearly by lunchtime. The field kitchen was enveloped into a cloud of smoke. And smoke, just like fog, makes a guaranteed nice picture irrespective of the theme.


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Afternoon snack at a Cadet corps. Sysert’, Sverdlovsk region, 2008.

For Paris Match magazine I was doing a story about Yekaterinburg. Made an arrangement to photograph the cadet corps located in a town called Sysert’, not far from Yekaterinburg.

I am intolerable to any blurring in a picture. Sometimes I even think that putting accent on the main part by blurring out the minor (to the photographer’s thinking) details is an act of creative weakness, the photographer’s inability to organize a harmonious coexistence of parts of an image. Very often photographers are afraid of “excessive” details only because they don’t know how to or are too lazy to make them work for the image.

I had an exhibition in Italy once. Local TV people came for the opening night and the correspondent, among other things, asked, “What is time for you?” I had never thought about it, but I said that for a photographer time is the object of conservation. We put time into jars, the same way that housewives put tomatoes into jars and pour hot marinade over them to keep them for the winter. It is our mission. And time is in the so-called “trash. . It is in the buttons, in slippers, in a picture on a wall, in the view behind the window.

This picture is the only picture with a blur in the whole book. I just like it too much.


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2008

When I was a boy, the Caucasus was not at all associated with the war. Of course I had read Lermontov and Tolstoy, but I always considered Khadji-Murad to be a mythical character rather than a real person. The Caucasus was the “come in, dear friend, we are going to stab a lamb, eat some shashlyk and drink some wine” place with no war. And then the fire started. The Caucuses became a war ground.

A Saint Petersburg photographer Dima Gusarin suggested doing a workshop in Kabardino-Balkaria. I thought it was either a joke or irresponsibility. But Dima, who knew those parts very well, kept saying that the Balkarians living in the Cheghem gorge were still managing to stay away from the war.

From Nalchik to Ul-Tebe (one of the two small auls located in the gorge) a ramshackle PAZik goes once a day. I arrived one day before the the participants of the workshop who were to come. The aul is really tiny — there are 70 houses and 300 inhabitants. I walked around the whole day without taking a single picture. I even got scared that the students would get disillusioned with me.

But everything turned out OK after a while. Having ascertained that photographs don’t grow on trees, the students started trying to get inside the houses. In next to no time there were even some hurt feelings, “Why did you only have three meals with us, but five meals with our neighbors?” some of the villagers reproached one of our girls. After a week in the gorge we started feeling like we had been born and raised in the Cheghem.

About the photograph: I had asked permission to come early in the morning in order to photograph the girls’ preparation for school. I had bought something sweet for tea, and arrived at seven. We had breakfast and started waiting for the school bus. The bus was late and there was a pause of pure waiting.

The woman is a black headscarf is the girls’ mother. By her side is their aunt, their late father’s sister. In winter he had fallen off a cliff in his tractor. As the elder of the family, she assumed the role of its feeder. She works a lot and the work she is doing is considered hard work. She buys cognac by small wholesale in one place and sells it in another. As a muslim she is well aware of the fact that it is a sin to sell alcohol, but thinks that the all-seeing Allah knows everything, among other things, that she does it without mercenary motifs but in order to feed her family.

We were all crying as we were leaving the aul. At least one of the workshop participants, Marina Makovetskaya, became a real photographer. Also, I was extremely proud when Russian Reporter magazine used this picture for the poster of its jubilee exhibition.


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Unabridged text was taken from the author’s book «100 Photographs by Sergey Maximishin» that can be ordered online by August 31.

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