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Intimate portraits reveal the details of life as a lesbian couple in Russia

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. Whether they like it or not, life for Natasha and Lyudmila is intertwined with state politics. 

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.

Natasha at a friend's apartment (Saint Petersburg, May 2012).
Natasha at a friend’s apartment (Saint Petersburg, May 2012). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Natasha getting a haircut from a friend who specializes in LGBT clients
Natasha getting a haircut from a friend who specializes in LGBT clients (Saint Petersburg, May 2013). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Stairwells is where most important conversations are held
Stairwells are where most important conversations are held (Saint Petersburg, May 2012). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
In a rare decision, Natasha participates in an LGBT event: the release of rainbow-colored balloons.
In a rare occurrence, Natasha participates in an LGBT event: the release of rainbow-colored balloons (Saint Petersburg, May 2012). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Dinner with Lyudmila's sons who split time between Saint Petersburg and their father's relatives in Lebanon
Dinner with Lyudmila’s sons who split time between Saint Petersburg and their father’s relatives in Lebanon (Saint Petersburg, May 2012). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Natasha after a fight with Lyudmila
Natasha after a fight with Lyudmila (Saint Petersburg, June 2102) (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Natasha with her mother
Natasha with her mother (Saint Petersburg, June 2102). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Natasha going home on a commuters train (Saint Petersburg, June 2102).
Natasha going home on a commuters train (Saint Petersburg, June 2102). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
lyudmila getting ready to go out
Lyudmila getting ready to go out (Saint Petersburg, July 2012). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
underground lesbian rave
An underground lesbian rave party (Saint Petersburg, October 2012). (Photo by Misha Friedman)
Lyudmila at a nightclub
Lyudmila at a nightclub (Saint Petersburg, May 2013). (Photo by MIsha Friedman)
underground lesbian rave
An underground lesbian rave party (Saint Petersburg, July 2013). (Photo by MIsha Friedman)
Lyudmila and Natasha
Lyudmila and Natasha early in the morning after an night out (Saint Petersburg, July 2013). (Photo by MIsha Friedman)
Natasha and Lyudmila taking tje metro to go home after a night out (Saint Petersburg, July 2013).
Natasha and Lyudmila taking the metro to go home after a night out (Saint Petersburg, July 2013). (Photo by MIsha Friedman)
Natasha and Lyudmila look at the book for the first time (Saint Petersburg, January 2015).
Natasha and Lyudmila look at the book for the first time (Saint Petersburg, January 2015). (Photo by MIsha Friedman)
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