Photographing the Children of Russia's Nouveau Riche
Dec 9 2011
Look at this snuggly-wuggly little chickaboo. His name is Vladim, and his parents are very rich. When photographer Anna Skladmann visited Vladim at his house, he asked her how many pictures she was going to take. “Not more than ten,” she told him, unpacking ten rolls of film and getting to work. After the tenth click of the shutter, he confidently got up, went to his room, put on his pajamas, sat in front of his television, and ordered the maid to bring him a tea.
Vladim was five at the time. I don't know how old he is now, but I imagine it's still just as easy for him to have you killed.
Anna has many similar stories to tell about the time she spent in Moscow photographing the children who'll be strangling the British economy with arctic oil in a few years time. Which I guess is why she decided to turn her Little Adults project into a book.
I called her up and we had a chat about it.
VICE: Hey Anna, what’s up?
Anna Skladmann: I’m on holiday in Bali at the moment. It’s beautiful and sunny and such a nice change from Moscow, which is freezing cold.
I read that you were born in Bremen. How did you end up in Moscow?
My parents are Russian émigrés, who lived in Germany for 30 years. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She used to work in the Bolshoi Theatre before emigrating, and so she taught me a lot about Russian culture. She’d talk about the music, the plays, the ballet... I had built this extremely colorful and nostalgic world of a grand Russia in my mind, but when I first visited Moscow, on a vacation in 2000, what I saw was a little different from what I had imagined.
I felt that everything was really grey on the outside, the colors I imagined were nowhere on the streets. Nothing is happening; it’s all cars and bad weather. But when you enter someone’s house, that’s when you find all the light and the warmth. So, when I moved to Russia after my studies, I was very interested in seeing the way people lived. And I took my camera with me everywhere.
Nikita and Alina at the Italian Embassy in Moscow.
Is that how this project started?
Maybe, it had started a little earlier. You see, on that first trip to Moscow, I was about 14 and my parents took me to a masquerade ball. That was the first time I had any encounters with Russian children, and it struck me how different they were to the children I knew in Europe. They weren’t dressed the way little kids do on carnival, they were dressed like adults. And they all acted so grown-up. They sat together at a table, talking and behaving in such an urbane manner. I was really young myself, but the impression stayed with me. I think that was the first time I started thinking about social phenomena, putting things in a social context.
Did you move to Russia to work specifically on that first impression?
Not necessarily, but I had already spent some time working with Annie Leibovitz in New York, and after that I felt it was time to work on my own projects. So, I went to Moscow in 2008, but having not lived there before, I didn’t have many friends and ended up hanging out with my mom—a lot! One day, her old childhood friend who is now married to someone really wealthy invited us to a tea party. And that’s how I met Nastia, the 8-year-old girl who basically became my muse for this project.
Aw. Did you document the whole thing?
Yep, I started photographing her right away. And I think she enjoyed it as much as I did. It was very much a dialogue because she liked the attention, and she knew very well I needed her, too. I was going through this phase, where I didn’t really know what I was doing, and she was giving me the time of my life. She called the next day and said she had a new idea for a photo shoot, so I went to her house and she’d already thought of how she wanted to be photographed.
So when was it that you thought this could actually grow into a whole series?
I briefly went back to New York, and started printing my work for my Diploma and thought there must be something in there. There’s a whole generation of children born in this kind of environment.
Nastia's younger brother.
What is that environment like, then?
This is a society that is still developing, still drawing inspiration from a hodgepodge of sources. It’s not fully Westernised because they have such a rich history, but I think it’s going to take many years to really shape them. Everything is so new to them that they are extremely impressionable. For example, when I was photographing the children, it was obvious that most of them had been looking at magazines like Tatler and Vogue. You could tell by the way they posed, the things they chose to wear and the reasons they had for posing.
There’s quite a few slightly sexualized poses in there. Which made me wonder, how did the parents react to that sort of behavior? Would you say they encouraged it?
Well, they never objected. Maybe they did not encourage it, but they certainly harbored it. I mean, if you just took a look at the children’s closets—filled with dresses and shoes and makeup… One day I was asked to photograph these two girls at their mother's jewelry shop. They also had a baby sister, who I begged the mother not to bring because I was working with lights. I arrive at the shoot, and not only is the baby there, she's also wearing this huge, heavy necklace on her head!
That must have been hilarious. How do you explain this need for excess?
I think it’s because they themselves grew up in such desolation, they didn't get to have a proper childhood. They are trying to provide their children with a childhood by giving them everything they didn’t have growing up. But they get a little confused along the way.
I guess that’s what you call a vicious cycle.
That’s what happens when there are no traditions to hold a nation. It can’t control itself. They have to re-create their own understanding of themselves before they can maintain a sensible lifestyle. I remember I went to boarding school in England, and the opposite happened there. The wealthiest kids never had any money, and would take the train and the bus everywhere. In Moscow, they have a throng of servants following them at all times. Drivers, nannies, sometimes even bodyguards.
What kind of careers did the parents of the children you photographed have?
I didn’t photograph the oligarchs. I photographed the newly-formed upper class in Russia. So, there’s a lot of people working with raw material, from the privatization in the 90s. Also, the parents came from the fashion industry, the restaurant business, film, real estate, politics… I had some who were part of the intelligentsia too, but do not confuse them with old money. There wasn't any money 20 years ago. I guess you can call them the old kind of new.
I can’t imagine it’d be easy to get access to this kind of people, and get them to allow you to photograph their children.
I got a lot of rejection but I think the main reason I was able to enter that world with my camera was that I was still very young, and so I did not pose a threat. I think the families did not really take me seriously as a photographer. I was more like an older sister, or a family friend.
Seems to have worked pretty well for you. Thanks Anna!