While making the 30 minute walk one summer evening in 2013 from my Moscow office to my apartment, crossing Red Square, I passed three people wearing shirts with ‘Brooklyn’ written somewhere on it.
I had also seen another person wearing a shirt with ‘Brooklyn’ on it earlier that day when I stepped out of the office for lunch.
It was on that day that the idea rose to start photographing people wearing ‘Brooklyn’ or any ‘New York City’ themed shirt.
Being from Brooklyn, it was hard not to notice the greater number of New York City themed shirts I saw around the city.
But it was probably more noticeable to me as well because it was becoming more fashionable at a time when US-Russia relations were really souring.
At this time, I started what would eventually become my ‘Shades of Russia’ (www.shadesofrussia.com or @shadesofrussia) portrait project capturing everyday people around Russia.
Taking photos of strangers isn’t easy – especially when you are doing it in a foreign country that has bad relations with your government.
However, it is easier to approach people for a photograph in that foreign country if they are wearing a shirt that represents your home town.
”Hi, I am from New York and I noticed you are wearing a New York shirt,” I would tell people. ”Can I take your portrait for my project?”
As I began to take street portraits for ‘Shades of Russia’, I often focused on those wearing New York City-themed clothing.
As I approached 30 or 40 such New York themed portraits by the autumn of 2014, I thought it could perhaps result in an exhibition in New York.
Unfortunately, relations between Russia and US had become even worse then when I started my project. The image of Russia – not just its government, but the country as a whole – was very poor in the US.
Art is a good way to unite different cultures. Why not a photography project that showcases random, ‘everyday’ people from Russia that are connected by their New York-themed clothing?
Russia-related news in the US is almost always about politics. The ‘everyday’ people I meet in Russia rarely feature in it. I thought the photography project would be a chance for me to show a different, human side of Russia.
After all, if I could get all these people to pose, it would show that relations between everyday Russians and Americans isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be.
When I went home to Brooklyn in the autumn, I saw a series of photos at an outdoor exhibition of people from around the world wearing Superman-related clothing. That gave me hope that an exhibition of my New York-themed street portraits wasn’t a pipe dream.
Over the course of a 15 months, I would gather about 150 portraits from 19 different regions of Russia, including Sakhalin Island off Japan, Ulan-Ude in Eastern Siberia, Chita on the border with China and Kalmykia and Dagestan on the Caspian Sea.
While going through my photos from 2012, I found a portrait of a Khanti girl from Salekhard peninsula in Russia’s Far North wearing national dress and a ‘I Love NY’ winter hat. I have included that in this series as well, bringing the regional representation to 20.
The people in the photos include pensioners, professionals, couples, friends, sisters, twins, parents, migrant workers, students, Russians, Belarusians, Ossetians, Kalmyk, Tatar and Buryat. In other words, the individuals represent a wide spectrum of people living in Russia.
The New York shirts and hats are sold at popular, global chains in Russia such as H&M, Zara, New Yorker and GAP, so that partially explains why many people are wearing such clothing. It is simply fashionable …. in Russia, in the former Soviet Union in general as well as in other countries.
I though have asked many people why they bought the New York-themed clothing. Some say they simply liked the design or were given it as a gift. Quite a few have said that one of their dreams is to visit New York.
When I ask why it is their dream, the most common answer people give – usually people under 30 – is that they fell in love with the image of New York they see in TV serials like ‘Friends’ and ‘Sex in the City.’
Others cite hollywood movies that they have ‘grown up on.’ It underscores the influence of Hollywood far from its borders.
This series is not about geopolitics or patriotism or the lack of it.
Just as Americans love for Chinese food has little relevance to their image of the Chinese government, Russians wearing New York-themed probably has little relevance to their image of the US government.
While this street portrait series is very much about how New York City has become a ”global brand” just like Adidas and Gucci, for me the series is more about the people of Russia.
I plan to continue the project and appreciate people’s willingness to take part in it.
Hopefully, it will result in an exhibition that opens New Yorkers’ eyes to the non-political, personal side of Russia that I have come to appreciate over the years.
To see the growing gallery of images from the New York-themed series, click here.