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Henri, Tanya, Nadhezhda, Oleksandr and Olena, Kryvyi Rih
Thinking on how I should give an account of my encounters with Henri, the most vivid image that comes to my mind is of his often very strong and intense gaze, and the controlled and self-directed posture that he assumed in front of the camera. As I navigate through my notes and memories, I have this mental picture of someone who was very aware of how he wanted to show himself. I had interpreted this as something that comes from his public work as an activist and human rights educator. I still think so. During our photographic encounters, I remember noticing how he was always paying attention to small details, both symbolic and scenic.
I wanted to represent him. To take his pictures, to record him. My actions, gestures, my operation of the camera, were my movements towards my desire that in that encounter some pictures would bring together a statement that would tell something of his story – to know something of him through representing him. But I also felt he was very deliberately presenting and representing himself. Very shortly after we started photographing, I already had a sense that he was aware of his own posture in relation to the style and characteristics of the image that would be produced at any moment, to the background. As we were photographing, he would comment on this as he posed. “This will be a good sitting portrait,” he said at one point, facing the camera with his body at an angle, one hand on the cup of tea, the other resting on the table. He gestured me to wait while he placed and adjusted a wristband with the pride flag colours. This was very interesting for me. I wanted participants to take as much control over these events to themselves as they were willing or able to.
The set of agencies and power relations that produce and characterise the environment of an encounter are some of the factors. What control a participant feels they have over the material conditions of their representation?
An ongoing self-narration towards their perceived idea of how they appear to others.
I met Henri and his mother, Tanya, through Nadezhda. Our first encounter was at Nadezhda’s home. She had told Liliia, my interpreter, that she had invited them over. It was better we met them there because they had been having some renovations at their house and they would not be very happy to have someone taking pictures there at that time. I felt disappointed to hear about this though. I did not want to photograph them at Nadezhda’s place.
Our second encounter was later the same day. He had gone to put up a small tent booth at the park in front of one of Kryvyi Ryh’s shopping areas. He was doing some public surveys for his organisation and had asked if I would be interested to photograph there. I imagined doing some reportage style photography, picturing his work. He was already working when I arrived. It was a very cold end of the afternoon, with a harsh freezing wind. But our discomfort was not just due to the weather. I felt quite uneasy. There were a few people standing at a small distance, observing. A woman he was talking to when I approached became very angry when she spotted the camera. She spoke no English, and my Russian was inadequate, so Liliia had to assure her I was not photographing her. There is great hostility to lgbt issues and activism in Ukraine. Henri asked me to take a photo just of himself and his mother, and afterwards invited us to his home, which was in an apartment block 5 minutes away. Walking along the backyards behind the buildings heading to his place, he told us that he has a keychain he ordered online with a panic button that emits a very loud alarm if he ever finds himself in some trouble. He had already had to use it before.
Because of the renovations at their apartment, the kitchen was the only place where we could photograph. It was very small, so I hardly had any place to move. I just huddled in one of the corners. He prepared some very fragrant herbal tea, telling us that he had been learning to cook and was becoming pretty good at it. He joked that since he was not going to marry a girl that would cook nice food for them, he might as well learn to do it himself. He went to pick up a pride flag to hang behind him and sat with his mother while we talked.
His identity as a lgbt activist is very important to him, and one that he wanted to state, to reaffirm, and to project as a fundamental part of how he was represented. Also, his relationship with his mother. He told me that my selection was “quite good, I would say even excellent.” But the picture he called my attention to was one I had not included in my first selection, his portrait with his mother holding his arm.
Nadezhda was the first person I met in Kryvyi Ryh. The time Liliia and I spent with her did not always involve the presence of a camera. Neither did it carry the expectation of a photograph. On one occasion we met Henri at her home.
She is the central figure of a local group of mothers. When we met her, she was extremely welcoming and seemed glad to see us in her home. She laid a table with tea and biscuits and brought out photos of her sons and several of their certificates and diplomas to show us. She talked about them as she went through the photographs on her lap. I photographed and filmed her. It was an experience that touched me deeply. She lost her two sons to homophobic violence. One was gay, the other was not.
She talked to us for quite some time about her sons. I was not quite expecting the account she gave and the very visible grief it entailed. I remember becoming very self-aware of the camera in my hand. Of my posture. But specially of what my role there should be. What, and how, should I photograph. Or if I should simply put down the camera. I pictured her holding photographs of her sons and their friends. She appears in the pictures, her gestures are seen and her voice is heard in the videos, but at the same time her face in front of me is hidden from the shutter.
Later I took her portrait outside, in the empty playground in front of her home. I think this has been the encounter that questioned me the most in my position. Several times, I could not hold the camera up to her.