Russian photographer Elena Anosova's work in penal colonies began from a deeply personal interest stoked by her childhood. Growing up, she had spent a few years in a remote boarding school and wanted to explore the more extreme cases of her own experience: lack of personal space, loss of privacy, and isolation.
She headed to penal colonies in rural Russia to photograph its female inmates: women who exist on the fringes of society and were rejected, forgotten, and invisible. Anosova realized straight away that her main interest was not the environment or its living conditions, but the women and their lives—captured in static and piercing portraits. Anosova has photographed about 200 women, although not all the portraits were used in the project.
Section exposes the painful paradox of Russian society: Anyone can very easily end up in prison, but those who do are stigmatized for life, and it is much harder for women to shake off the stigma than men. Her heroines span social backgrounds and generations, and are captured with their treasured possessions of books, photographs, cats, and houseplants. In Anosova's photographs, their isolation is broken—and as the viewer's heart inevitably aches with empathy, they are made human again.
In an interview with Broadly, Anosova talked about her work, how she gained the trust of the female prisoners, and her desire to expose society's prejudice towards ex-convicts.
"One of the key things I wanted to capture is living under constant surveillance. An ordinary person, when he comes home, can just hide under the duvet and feel safe. In the colony 50 people sleep in one room, which means any moment the duvet could be snatched from your bed and everyone would see what color your underwear is and what you look like.
"I talked to psychologists, and if this kind of situation lasts for more than two years it certainly causes mental deformation. Whatever you do, everyone would know. There is always a camera on, and if there is no camera, you're surrounded by people. Women in the colonies are very careful because this is a kind of world where if you make a mistake you have to live with it. You can't move, leave or stop talking to someone; there is no escape.
"Quite often, a colony is the only place to work in small remote villages. A colony for 900 people could be in a village with only 400. There is this contrast—inside the colony the inmates lead a very crammed existence and outside there are wast landscapes and hardly any people.
"There are a lot of women in the colonies convicted for excessive self-defence; cases related to protecting themselves, their families or children, [and] standing up to domestic violence. There are educated women convicted for fraud [and] former owners of companies or businesses. There are a lot of drug addicts and drug dealers because sentences for drug related crimes are quite harsh in Russia—often eight years, three to five years for something minor. I met a woman who's had four convictions, each for about a year. She has nowhere to go—she used to live in a shelter but it closed, and she probably commits minor offences to get back to the colony.
"Women who are in the colony for the first time hope to get out and resume their lives; the ones with multiple convictions have much less hope for future. They've come through the trauma of being completely rejected by society when they left the colony for the first time.
"Statistically men with long sentences—nine to ten years—are more likely to have their partners waiting for them than women. For women it's mostly just parents and children who wait. In the best case scenario, a husband takes care of [the] kids, otherwise they are sent to the orphanage. Imagine a woman who lives in the colony with only the dream of hugging her child again. But to take her child from the orphanage she has to prove that she is able to support it; she [needs to] have a place to live and a certain income.
"She ends up in a vicious circle because no one wants to hire her. It's slightly easier for men as they tend to work more with their hands as drivers, mechanics—there are more places for them in small businesses where there are less strict with checks on ex-convicts. After coming back from colonies, a lot of of women move to small villages because it's easier to find a job there with a criminal conviction.
"In Russia there is no governmental program helping women who were released from colonies to reintegrate in society. But the worst thing is that society and ordinary people don't see [them as] people anymore. Any woman—particularly when it comes to self-defence—could end up in the colony. Even some my friends (althugh they are not my friends anymore) asked why I was getting involved with this 'human waste.'
"In our country with its troubled history of prison camps, the colonies and convicts are romanticized but also rejected and stigmatized. People who leave prison often don't even have any clothes. Imagine a woman who was imprisoned eight years ago in December, and she's released in September in the same winter coat.
"There are a lot of women in the colonies with HIV and hepatitis. Sometimes I used to spend all day with them, eating the same food, sitting with them, drinking from their mugs. Some of them were asking, 'How is that you drink from our mug, what about HIV?' I just explained that I'm fine, and it doesn't pass through drinking from the same mug anyway. They said that even their family members are less tolerant; our society is just so ignorant about these questions.
"As I was getting to know the women I asked about their possessions, and a lot of them brought letters and photos of their families. People get attached to things in prison. This is actually one of the differences with male colonies: Female inmates paint walls [and] can even decide on what colour [or] look after plants. They keep diaries, write poetry—the simple things like this reminded me of the boarding school. In the colony for women with just one conviction, almost everyone had something: a book, a watch, jewelry from home, a plant, something dear to them. In colonies for women with multiple convictions they often said that there is nothing here they are attached to.
"I made a book of the project, and when you open it there is no description, just the sequence which starts with portraits of young beautiful women. The viewer usually doesn't understand where was it shot—maybe it's a factory, a hospital? Only around page 20 they realize it's a colony, and almost every second person who looked at the book couldn't believe these young beautiful women from the start of the book exist in prison. Towards the end of the book there are damaged women, with obvious signs of suicide attempts. Often they have nothing in their hands, nothing to hold on to in this life anymore."