Late one night in 2008, Russian photographer Irina Popova (b. 1986) wandered the streets of St. Petersburg on assignment for an online workshop: photograph 'feelings'. She stumbled upon Lilya, a young mother pushing around a baby stroller, who was either drunk or high, or possibly both. Popova asked whether she could take some photos, and Lilya, having once dreamed of becoming a model or porn star, obliged and even invited Popova back to her home to meet her boyfriend Pasha. The photographer ended up staying with Lilya, Pasha and their 18-month old daughter Anfisa for a week, capturing their lives together in a complicated setting of alcohol, drugs and childcare. The resulting series of images is collected together in the captivating yet controversial book Another Family.
Beyond merely a photobook, however, Another Family is a multivocal story, told from different angles using emails, online posts and diary entries, and reading much like the screenplay of a real-life drama. Beyond the inflammatory images of the family's unsettling home-life, the drama of the book is extended to include the story of Popova herself, who took some flack for her photographic participation. Divided into acts and built up chronologically over 200 pages interweaving photos and text, each act tells a different part of the story, starting with Popova's initial assignment and her stay with the family, and then moving to the events after Popova completed the project, exhibited the work and published it online.
In the first act, we see a photograph showing Anfisa from behind, crawling towards the window. It looks like she could fall out of the window any second. Another image shows Anfisa playing around with a cigarette, putting one in her mouth just like her mother Lilya, who is lying next to her. These are the sorts of images that many people have reacted to negatively, as illustrated in the book's texts, expressing the perspective that Anfisa was neglected by her parents. Popova includes their reactions along with her own explanation that there is much more to the story. In one of her included diary entries, she writes: “the longer I spend with them, the less I see them as 'horrible', 'outcasts', 'fallen'". She writes that she feels that Anfisa is genuinely loved in this (albeit dysfunctional) family. In the last photo of Act I, a slightly blurred image shows Pasha holding Anfisa's feet and kissing them. This image, Irina explains in a printed e-mail to her teacher, documentary photographer Oleg Klimov, is important to her, as “I'd like to keep some love in it all". Lilya and Pasha's struggle between care and love for Anfisa and their drug and alcohol use is constantly present in the photographs as well as the text. “Anfisa is growing up here like a flower in a field… they either kiss her to pieces or don't pay attention to her," Popova observes.
In Acts III and IV online discussions are featured, mainly in a critique of Lily and Pasha's roles as parents, but also directed toward Popova. One person writes that, “what I see here is not courage but irresponsibility of the journalist," while another says, “love for the child shines through". Among the topics under discussion are parental rights as well as a journalist's right to withhold information. There is also a blog entry written by Klimov about the rights of children and photographers. Throughout the criticism, Popova maintains that this was not simply a story of failed parenting, because that would not tell the whole story. With both image and text, she addresses not only the difficult situation of this family and their problems with drugs, but also essential questions that any photographer may be confronted with, about their role and responsibilities in witnessing or trying to solve the problems. Another Family is overall both powerful and haunting, asking viewers to understand that, even within such a difficult situation, there might still be something good.
Another Family is for sale via the publisher Dostoevsky Publishing.