When Misha Friedman started the photographic project that led to his newly-published book, Lyudmila and Natasha—Russian Lives, life was different for Russia’s LGBT community. That’s because he started shooting Natasha and her partner Lyudmila in Saint Petersburg in 2011, two years before Vladimir Putin signed article 6.21, the infamous “anti-gay propaganda” law. Banning the promotion of “non-traditional relationships,” the law created, through its vague wording, a grey area in which displays of affection or public statement related to same-sex relationships could lead to fines. In specific cases, banned behavior could even be penalized with jail time. Although homosexuality has been legal in post-Soviet Russia since 1993, article 6.21 had an immediate chilling effect on gay rights, creating an atmosphere of homophobia and even open violence against the LGBT community.
It was against this backdrop that Friedman began shooting his subjects. “This was a project about a relationship,” he explains, noting that his initial intent was not to portray a specifically gay relationship. But the anti-propoganda law was impossible to ignore, and as the project progressed, the sexual orientation of the couple became more relevant. As the two women witnessed friends being victim of discrimination, losing jobs, and feeling threatened, it became clear that whether they liked it or not, life for Natasha and Lyudmila had become intertwined with state politics.
Friedman’s book—which contains portraits taken from 2012 to 2014—is a meditation on the lives of these two women as they live, love, break up, and get back together. Certainly, there is also always the looming presence of a society that rejects them.
Yet at the same time, there is a comforting atmosphere of intimacy as they go about their daily lives. Under the unobtrusive eye of Friedman’s camera, the women handle the mundane details of life as a couple, dealing with Lyudmila’s children (from an earlier marriage with a Lebanese man), working through strains in their romantic relationship and ultimately reconciling. ”The story happened there,” says Friendman, “but it would be the same here [in the US].”
The photographer says the project evolved organically: he would spend a few days or a week at a time with the women in between other projects, slowly developing his relationship with them—something visible in the progressively more intimate pictures he takes. This unhurried process also affects the medium: Friedman’s pictures vary in format and color depending on what camera he used in the moment. Although arbitrary, this gives the viewer a sense of the power specific formats hold when framing a story.
The book, explains Friedman, does not represent the end of the project, which he sees as ongoing. ”They are part of my life,” he says of Natasha and Lyudmila, “to me this is just a start. It’s a good start.” The pictures below are indicative of this larger project: while some have been featured in the book, others are outtakes, and a few were even shot after the book went to print.