Russia has dominated the news cycle for the last 50 days under the Trump administration. From Russia’s alleged hacking and influencing of the United States election, the sanctions former President Obama had put on the country in December, to key members of the Trump team having meetings with the Russian Ambassador, the U.S.’s relationship with Russia couldn’t be more awkward. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February of this year, 30% of Americans have a favorable impression of Russia and 65% unfavorable. American’s views of Russia spiked unfavorably in 2015.
Getty staff photographer, Spencer Platt, travelled to Russia for 10 days to document the daily life of Russians during this turbulent time. This 17-year Getty veteran has covered breaking news from all over the world but had yet to photograph in Russia.
While the election gave him a reason to visit the country, politics were not involved in his assignment. “Show me life on the street,” he said was his unplanned assignment. He went into the country with the intention of documenting Russia’s deep cultural heritage. But as a street news photographer there was some concern about what to expect. “I didn’t know if I was going to be treated with derision, suspicion, and I was a little apprehensive about what I would get.” He was able to be discreet when photographing the locals. “They were surprisingly indifferent to me kind of being in their face with a camera.”
After spending a few days trying to understand the culture, he gave up and decided to just take photos and experience it. “The city is extremely, visually clean in the sense that you don’t see a lot of advertisement. So there is a very austere kind of aesthetic appeal to it that totally blew me away.”
As a photographer, he studies people, their clothes, and their mannerisms. One of the biggest contrasts to Americans he noticed was that people were not glued to their phones as they walked the streets. Even at a few art museums he saw that nobody was taking selfies. “They seemed generally interested in the art.” He also noticed that the locals dressed in a way that he says he can only describe as “something you see in America in the 1940s-50s.”
During his travel he went to the outskirts of the capital where he found a group that helps homeless Russians. “A lot of the homeless men that I met were former military at some point in their lives.” Quite a few also came from came from Siberia searching for work that just didn’t pan out. At a market place on the outskirts he noticed people were in the woods trying to sell clothes they hung on a tree. “It was definitely really shocking how desperate the people were.”
A few people he talked to told him stories about the past, of their grandparents and what they went through with their homes being taken away during the Soviet era with Stalin. But then walking the streets you see monuments and pictures of Lenin and Marx, the hammer and sickle.
Many Americans only know about Russia from what they read about in the papers and see on the news. “I expected this more negative, draconian, suspicious society. But I never felt anyone watching me or someone bothering me.” While the locals were friendly to him, after talking to people, he knows there is another side to the story, especially for the people in the media.
Despite the controversy, the country to him is a lot bigger than the politics and this left him with a deep respect for the Russian people.
Spencer Platt is a staff photographer at Getty Images