Mary Gelman – Svetlana, Newcomer 2018

Mary Gelman – Svetlana, Newcomer 2018

Svetlana, a community created by the Camphill Movement, lies 150 kilometres east of St. Petersburg. It is a place where people with disabilities can live and work, independently and far from prejudice and discrimination. Mary Gelman visited Svetlana many times over two years, capturing everyday life there in gentle and poetic images. The series earned her the 2018 LOBA Newcomer Award.

At the end of the eighties, the Russian population began to acknowledge that there are people with disabilities living in their country. During the Soviet era, a stubborn ideological concept existed that under communism people with disabilities do not exist. Every effort was made to continuously reduce their number. Everything possible was done to avoid the birth of handicapped children. Parents were under great pressure to put existing children with handicaps into state homes; so-called boarding schools.

“I tried to investigate questions of human boundaries and possibilities. I saw that people are capable of much, if stereotypes and labels are put aside. Every human being has the right to live a happy life and shouldn’t be discriminated against.”

After the Soviet Union fell apart, followed by a breakdown of the old system at the beginning of the nineties, a new democratic constitution was established, which guaranteed that all people have the same rights. This encouraged many parents in their struggle for the future of their children with disabilities. Slowly but surely, increasing numbers of remedial centres were founded: Svetlana is one of them. The community was set up by the Camphill Movement, and is based on the principles of anthroposophy. Svetlana is home to adults with disabilities who are nearly self-sufficient. Supported by tutors and volunteer helpers, they grow their own vegetables, and produce milk products that they sell to neighbouring villages. This self-sustaining community is one of the few facilities in Russia where adults with disabilities are offered a professional future.

“The most important thing, when taking pictures, is to give yourself time. I think my main approach to photography is to investigate and observe before starting to shoot.”

Inspired by a first visit to Svetlana, Gelman spent two years working on a photo project at the remedial community. “I was really surprised by my desire to return to the same place so many times.” The outcome is a photographic approach at the interpersonal level: hesitant portraits and cautious insight; situational images that reflect an everyday life that, at first, seems foreign. Yet it is an everyday life with rituals that celebrate a fascinating normality. The sensitive pictures are a testament to the photographer’s talent for precise observation and a sociological impulse that is quite immersive. Gelman explains, “I didn’t want to show the otherness of a person, their disability. I wanted the viewer to feel something clearly original about the person.” Her pictures transcend any such categories as ‘normal’ or ‘handicapped’; and they reveal how free and capable any person can be, when not surrounded by stigmatization and discrimination.

(Text updated 2020)

Mary Gelman

Born in the Russian town of Penza in 1994, Gelman first completed a degree in Sociology, before turning to Gender Studies and Photography, which she studied at DocDocDoc School in St. Petersburg and through attending international workshops. She works as a photojournalist and teacher. Her projects combine a strong personal approach with documentary and conceptual practices. Gelman focuses on issues of gender and body, boundary and identity, discrimination and the relationship of humans to the environment. Among her clients are The Washington Post, The Village, and the European Photography Magazine. Her multi-award-winning work has been exhibited around the world. Gelman is a member of the VII Photo Agency and lives in St. Petersburg.

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Portrait: © Vika Bykovskaya