Review: 7 Rooms by Rafal Milach


Book Reviews, Photobooks


There’s a wonderful, sad story in the essay that comes with 7 Rooms by Rafal Milach (you can see many of the images from the book here). A couple visits Moscow, at some early stage after the end of Communism. On Arbat Street, people are selling painted nesting dolls, samovars, and old icons, but they’re also selling Komsomol membership cards, war medals, and red banners. The wife, incredulous, calls a policeman over who “explains to us bumpkins: ‘Objects from the era of totalitarianism… may be sold… We only make arrests for narcotics and pornography…’” How do you react to that, as a bumpkin? Here’s how the wife reacts to it: “What? A Party membership card for five dollars? Isn’t that pornography?” Only about one page into this essay, I was already scrambling to find where that essay was from, given I had seen a reference in the book to something else. Written (compiled) by Svetlana Alexievich, it is from Zacharovannye smertiu (Enchanted with Death), published in Moscow in 1994, which hasn’t been translated into English (there’s a German translation entitled Im Banne des Tode). (more)

I don’t want to pretend I understand what’s going on in Russia. I’m pretty sure it’s not quite what we get to see in the usual photographic essays, though, or maybe in most photographic essays, where it’s all about poverty, drunkenness and obscenely rich people (not always in that order and with all these components). There’s no way that that’s Russia, much like the US is not a place only filled with ill-educated cowboys, and Germany is not a place only filled with fat automatons who drink too much beer while wearing Lederhosen. I could talk more about stereotyping, about photographic stereotyping, which, depending on the circumstances, can become quite noxious (think about how Africa is usually portrayed).

Thankfully, I don’t have to talk about this because 7 Rooms is not about that at all. The work was produced over the course of many years, and it portrays the lives of quite ordinary Russians, living in Krasnoyarsk, Moscow, and Yekaterinburg. They are Gala, Lena, Stas, Mira, Vasya, and Sasha and Nastya. We get to know them a little by seeing the photographs, and by reading some of their thoughts, which come with some of them. Their experience is not all that different from our own, their ideas and thoughts aren’t that different. The circumstances of their lives are, and it’s probably hard to imagine what growing up under one regime and then living under a very different one must be like - unless you did the same (which, lest we forget this, is true for parts of Central and most of Eastern Europe, for example).

So there are stories in 7 Rooms, real stories. Those who read might notice some similarities with what Studs Terkel did, except here it’s mostly done photographically, in what I want to call a wonderfully subtle emphatic way (this is one of the things, btw, what irks me so much about photographic stereotyping: There is no real empathy). Of course, personal stories are always just that, personal stories. Take several together, though, and an image might form. And that’s what the book will give you, an image of Russia that probably will confuse you because it’s not just black and white. And it’s stories involving people who only have a first name - instead of those black-and-white ones where people only have a last name.

7 Rooms, photographs by Rafal Milach, text by Svetlana Alexievich, 152 pages, Kehrer, 2011

(find my presentation of the book here)