I’ve always heard that photographers capture beauty everywhere they go, and as a photographer with a fashion background I’ve heard one to many times on how lucky I am for working with “beautiful models, beautiful locations and beautiful clothes” but…what is beauty really? I think I found the answer here in Russia, more than 10,000 km from home while working on something entirely different from what I do back in Guatemala… How did I find it? Just bear with me for a couple of paragraphs.
We arrived in the village of Demyansk located in the region of Novgorod, about 350km away from St Petersburg. During WWII, Demyansk was a key point, located on high ground in the middle of lots of swampy terrain, and it was also the place of one of the longest encirclement battles on the Eastern front. The Germans found themselves at one point, during winter, under attack from three different sides. A total of 100,000 German troops were destroyed by the Soviet winter counteroffensive.
Here we met Evdokia, we arrived at her house and she was already waiting for us at a table with an umbrella, full of colours, placed in the middle of her beautiful backyard. “Zrasboyte” she greets us and then invites us to sit with her. She looks calm, staring and nodding at each one of us as we are being introduced. I notice a table on the side, beautifully prepared, it seemed taken out of a magazine, with different types of fruit I have never seen before, beautiful colors! Perfect composition for a photo. I don’t lose time and start taking photos of the set up, before the interview begins. All of a sudden, the daughter of the witness notices me taking the photos and approaches me, saying in English “Present, for you” with her hand pointing to the plates, she grabs them and moves them to the table where the whole team is setting up. “Thank god I had time to take the picture!” I think. She takes Dario and me to her yard and shows us the trees from where she took the fruit. She speaks English very well and starts explaining to us everything about the harvest and the season. She cuts one of the berries straight from the tree and gives it to us, “You like?” she asks- “Ochin fkusna!” I answer (one of my counted Russian words I know) she smiles and asks in Russian if I know Russian, “Nie gavariu parusky” I answer and add “Chut, chut,” making a sign that I know just a little, she then answers “Like my english!!! Little little!” And mimics my hand gesture, I wish I could speak as “chut chut” Russian as she speaks “little little” English. We all smile and the interview is about to start, so we go back. The light is perfect, is such a beautiful day! Is this beauty?
Evdokia talks about the town of Tarakanitsa, and how she was evacuated with her family and the whole town was burnt down and erased from the map. She told the team about how all the men and some of the women were brought into the forest and shot. As she speaks, I shut down completely and focus only on her eyes. As she speaks she looks at me, I don’t know if she knows or not that I do not understand a word she is saying, that I will understand only after the interview has ended and I will start asking thousands of questions to my team leader. She moves her hands and points to different directions. As a photographer, words can be distracting, so I focus only on her expressions, looking for a glimpse of her past coming back to her. She was only 13 when all of this happened, did she manage to find beauty at the time? Despite everything? Her father and brother were killed at the front. The question pops in my head: at 88, after everything she’s been through, what is her concept of beauty?
Days after, we go looking for the place of execution and mass grave mentioned by Evdokia and of course the disappeared town of Tarakanitza. When we arrive, they tell us it is about 2km inside the woods and that we should go only as few members of the team as possible because of the snakes and mud, so it’s going to be complicated for our guide to keep track of all of us.
They give us boots that reach up to our knees and we go, but beforehand, we cover ourselves completely with mosquito repellent and put as many layers of clothing as possible, even on our faces, to protect us. Leaving only the eyes uncovered, I wear sunglasses even then. Mosquitoes are already flying around and biting us and we haven’t had set foot in the woods, I can only imagine how it is going to be inside.
Everyone is looking at us as we were getting into some “I don’t know-what-kind-of-danger type of situation” that I’m not aware of. Wishing us good luck like we are not coming back, Hanna, one of the translators, is covering her mouth, looking at us with an expression I can only interpret as feeling bad for us. I’m like, “We’ll be back in no time, come on!” I’ve been in situations like this before, getting wet, walking a lot, looking for mass graves and Jewish cemeteries. So, why should this one be any different? It’s not going to be so hard!!!… I was wrong.
We enter the property of the family that knows how to get to the cemetery from that point. Boots and all we depart. Andrei, one of our drivers, gives me a reassuring wink as if he’s telling me, “Everything is gonna be alright, you got this.” We pass by some goats and on to a bridge that wiggles too much, especially if someone else is walking at the same time as you. ”Don’t fall Cristian,” I think to myself, “We are just beginning.” As we pass over the bridge, you feel like you’re going into the unknown, you see grass that reaches your waist and lots and lots of trees. I see a river on my left but the color is sort of red, Why? A branch almost hits me and brings me back to reality. You have to watch every step you take, following the person in front of you. I don’t know where we are or where we’re going. I left my cell phone with Dario just in case it started raining, now I really regret it, if I get lost I don’t know what I am going to do.
After 10 minutes of walking we see a “road”, if you can call it that, it’s made for tractors, definitely no car could pass through here. Thank God for these boots, the terrain is so unstable and random. We have to cross the “road” and it’s full of mud, you can see the remains of where the tractor passed by. Everyone starts moving lightly and carefully, except our guide and his dogs, two Siberian huskies full of energy, they just cross it without hesitation. I give it a try and start with my right foot and it sinks a little, it feels like removing a sticker off the ground, I feel like I’m going to lose my boots, they are way to big for me, it’s hot and mosquitoes are flying all around us, this is just beginning…
We walk through some parts of the road where there’s wood scattered all over the road, so the tractors won’t get stuck. It doesn’t feel safe at all but it’s better than walking through the mud. We arrive where the partisans’ bunker was located, you can see remains of it, grass growing all around it. You cannot walk through here and not think about how the partisans survived in these conditions. Can you imagine the winter? What did they do for food?
We’ve been walking for almost an hour (this was not 2km at all!) and we haven’t even reached the cemetery, reaching it is our goal today. Despite the mosquitoes, and the mud, the day is beautiful, the sky looks amazing, with touches of orange and yellow, like a painting. I take out my camera and start taking some photos of the team walking in front of me trying to capture it all. How can I make people feel like they’re here? How to transmit what happened here 70 years ago? Is this beauty? The thought pops in my mind and I don’t know why.
Again we find a crossing, this one is longer and it seems deeper. Our script, Pierre Jerome, seems to manage pretty well, one of his feet slips but he manages to recover really fast and everything is ok, now it is my turn… I have all my camera gear with me on a special vest with around 5 lenses and my camera, why did I decide to take them all? And why did I leave my cell phone behind? “Ok let’s do this,” I say to myself and I take my first step, this time my whole foot goes deep into the mud almost up to my knee, I put my left foot in front and I push forward with my body and I guess my mind kept walking but not my right foot, that one got stuck in the mud, so I lose my balance and fell straight into the mud, on my way down I’m trying to grab something with my hand, but there’s nothing to grab on to, my left hand grabs the vest so I don’t lose my all of my camera equipment in the mud, “Oh no!” I think, “I cannot lose the photos of today, and I still have to reach the cemetery.” My right hand goes straight for the mud and goes all the way to my elbow, I cannot move, I’m stuck!