Tatiana Bondareva (Saint-Petersburg, USSR, 1983), graduated from the British Design School in Moscow and the Docdocdoc School of Modern Photography, Saint Petersburg. She is interested in the effects of social isolation, both forced and voluntary, on peoples’ behaviour and lifestyle. She seeks and identifies the borders limiting the freedom of a person or of a group. Bondareva’s works have been published in Russian Reporter, Colta, F-Stop, Fotoroom, Society, and C-41. She has participated in the group exhibitions Field of Vision at the Lumiere Brothers Gallery, Sprouts at the RuArts Gallery, and Young Photographers of Russia, as well as the international competition Point on the Map in Uglich, Russia.
I first visited this prison as a volunteer, fifteen years before I started shooting this series. At the time, the boys and I were of almost the same age and I found myself unconsciously comparing their lives with my own.
The prison administration asked me to organise an orienteering day trip. It is a common practice in Russia, for prisoners who maintain good behaviour to be let out for special events. For a whole day my fellow volunteers and I joined thieves, murderers, and rapists running through the woods, cooking on open fires, and sharing stories. We joked about whether everyone would return from the woods, but no one escaped. That evening, one prisoner who looked very good-natured confessed to me that he had killed a person, and asked what I thought about it.
Years later, when I returned to the prison, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Though, by this time I was a stranger, and at least twice as old as the boys. They explicitly ignored me, they averted their eyes and turned away. As it is a secure facility, many activities are performed by an entire wing; no-one can go to the canteen, school, or laundry alone. The prisoners can only move through the prison as a group. As each boy wears a similar uniform and a blank, expressionless face, they appear like a troop of robots.
When I first arrived, I thought I’d be capturing scenes of loss and suffering, but I now think that many people have found themselves here, as beforehand their lives were even more difficult. Many of them say that here, at least, they eat regularly. The main problem in Russia is the absence of guidance in the post-prison support. Some of them committed horrible crimes. Many of the boys will go back to their dysfunctional families and criminal neighbourhoods. Many more of them are sentenced for a long time, and will soon be transferred to an adult prison, where all the best that was instilled in them will be lost.
I saw this prison both as a place of limiting freedom and some sort of new home, where the prisoners adapt to the rules but also get to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to, a place to leave their youth behind. Many of the boys come from problem families, here they go through the stages of life that they never experienced; going to school regularly, attending art exhibitions, visiting church. I was surprised how nervous they were while learning poems before the parents’ day, how they were showing their stuffed toys, and bragged about what vegetables they managed to grow. It seemed to me that they were compensating their childhood. Therefore, I dubbed the series Boys.
Text edited by Jacob Charles Wilson