This Russian sense of national unity is almost impossible to define and yet despite this, and despite Russia's enormous size, Roberts set out to do just that in a year-long photographic project. Travelling from the country’s familiar Western provinces to its most obscure Eastern regions, Roberts photographed a dazzling variety of people and places, from shyly beautiful young men to aged babushkas, and from Soviet-era markets to idyllic green islands. The resulting body of work is a cornucopia of images, but all of them, he says, illustrate the concept of the Motherland.
‘Everyone knows about St Petersburg, everyone knows about the Trans-Siberian Express. I wanted to move away from those places,’ he says. ‘In places like Chechnya , for example, you will find both Babushkas working in bombed out shells and glamorous women in the reconstructed part of town. I didn’t want to gloss over the problems, and I suppose politically you can say that Russia isn’t in a very good place. But this project was very much about a more spiritual concept of Russia, about the idea of the Motherland.
‘The portraits are almost anthropological,’ he adds. ‘I was almost cataloguing the people I met, so you’re kind of reading what they’re wearing, what’s in their faces and appearance, and the environment they’re in. The landscapes I wanted to be mostly quite wide, to provide a sort of context in which to read the portraiture.’
The project has been gathered together into a book called Motherland, published by respected photography specialist Chris Boot. It’s proved successful enough to catapult the young editorial photographer from everyday newspaper work to art photography and galleries, but he’s using it as a springboard for more long-term personal rather than sitting back and enjoying the ride. ‘I didn’t become a photographer just to earn money,’ he says. ‘I did it because I felt I had something to say.’
Currently he’s planning a trip to the United States , another country which is infused with a strong sense of national pride and which is often portrayed through only limited, stereotypical images. ‘ is one of the most photographed places in the world and yet I think there are misconceptions and misrepresentations of it,’ he says. ‘I’d like to go there to challenge them in my own way.’
Motherland, by Simon Roberts, is published by Chris Boot (ISBN: 078-1-905712-03-8). For more information, visit www.chrisboot.com.
Diane Smyth is deputy editor of the British Journal of Photography. She has held this position for the past three years. Diane originally studied English and Philosophy and holds an MA in 20th century literature from the University of London. She lives in sunny Lewisham, south east London.