I was taking photographs of young convicts at the young offender institution in Saint-Petersburg. These centres take kids from 14 to 18 years old. Paradoxically, many convict boys want to be in prison because it is considered prestigious. Today, the criminal way of life is gaining wide acceptance and even gets glorified in the media.
There are boys who have committed various crimes including hooliganism, rape and murders. The conditions of detention in such institutions are much better compared to a regular prison in Russia. The prison’s personnel are more like caretakers rather than wardens. For many of the boys, who grew up neglected, life in prison is more comfortable than it was outside. Instead of a chaotic street life, prison community offers established ground rules, protection and stability. There is a secondary school, an orthodox church and сentres of excellence.[a]
Many of them have more opportunities for development in prison than outside.
However, when they are released, they return into the same criminal world and dysfunctional families. This is the main problem with assisting prisoners. Many of the boys are sentenced to long prison terms. Therefore, when they turn 18 years old, they will be transferred to an adult prison. For many, prison functions as a prep school for the criminal world. It offers a glimpse of a rigidly structured autonomous community where every member has their specially designated place and function. I was investigating their lives in this closed facility as a life in a closed community. The boys are like one single organism that lost their youth.
Prisoners and their children
This is a story about people who are in prison and about families who are waiting for them.
I photographed the convicts in prisons and their children at home. I wanted to create a parallel reality of their existence.
I started to visit various prisons as a volunteer in Russia at the age of 18. Now I'm shooting a photo project about parents who are serving their sentences in places of detention and children who are waiting for them at home. I'm investigating relationships and looking for connections between them. I photographed the inmates in prisons and their children at home. I wanted to show a parallel reality of their existence using photographs to help children and adults see each other's lives, which they will never see themselves. I asked the children to take a picture for mother and show me what they like to do or what they play, so that I can then transfer the pictures to their parents.
Also, I shot meetings in prisons and captured the moment when prisoners and their families were waiting for the meeting and the moment of their meeting itself.
Yana and little Katya
This story is about Yana and little Katya. When Yana was 14 years old, her mother was imprisoned. The girl was left alone in a 4 bedroom apartment. At that time the girl made new adult friends, and they taught her how to use drugs. Nobody from child protection organisations[b] showed up. After one year her mom got out of prison but Yana had changed a lot during this time. Yana graduated from a vocational school, her trade being seamstress, but she began to work as a seamstress only in the colony. Yana is 35 years old, and she has a daughter Katya. After Yana's arrest she moved to her grandmother.
Katya is 11 years old, when Yana comes out of prison her daughter will be 16 years old.
After Yana's arrest, Katya comes to the windows of the colony almost every week to wave to her mom. In this photo Katya expects the first meeting with her mother. They have not seen each other for 10 months.
The first meeting of Yana and Katya during the Christmas holiday with clowns and competitions.
Christmas [c]holiday in the Sablinskaya correctional colony
Olya and little Katya
Katya is 7 years old, she lives with her grandmother. Mom has been in prison for 2 years for distributing drugs. When Olya comes out of prison her daughter will be 12 years old.
“I'm warmed by the thought that the child is waiting at home, there are no more thoughts.
Probably, I would have done many things differently. I want to go back in time, I would not have made this mistake.
I understand that I can lose my family. I really do not want this. She understands that this is not for long, that this is all over, everything will fall into place and we will be together.
Support from my family is very important for me. I am expected at home. It helps me resist disappearing”.
I tried to give up drugs many times. I was at rehab centres. But I myself am guilty, probably, I did not really want it. When Katyusha was born she did not change anything. Now Katya is my salvation.
Mother and her twins
Daniil and Delphina are 11 years old, they are twins.
Their mother has been sitting for 2 years for distributing drugs. She was sentenced to 6 years. During this time, the children have never seen her. The colony is far from their home, and it's hard for their grandmother to go there. I took pictures of children on the way to the Christmas holiday, which was held in the colony. Almost the entire holiday children were sitting with their mother. When they saw it[d], they were very surprised, they thought Mom was shorter.
Natasha and Kostya
Kostya was convicted of drug possession and trafficking and he was sentenced to 10 years. According to his words, his friend framed him. Since he did not have any money for the lawyer, he did not win the court case. His daughter Sofia is 2.5 years old at the moment. He saw her last time when she was 10 months old. Kostya is 32 years old.
Meetings in prisons
Every year prisoners and their children meet at Christmas in the colonies of Leningrad region. For many, this is the first meeting with their relatives during their prison term.
I was doing research on some private gardens through the prism of somebody’s micro space, a hiding place and a different form of environment. I was mainly interested in small cottage plots of lands, vegetable and fruit gardens. Different generations of one family have been cultivating the same piece of land for decades. As a result, their family history was imprinted in that garden, making it distinguished and belonging to that particular family. I was looking for the synthesis of old artefacts and garden sheds, traits, footprints and marks of the first owners, how it all blended together with the time, earth and other signs of human activity. But most of all I wished to find loopholes or backdoors in the barriers and fences, which people built around their gardens to insulate themselves from the outer-world.
In Nigeria, the main reasons for human trafficking mostly selling women and children for commercial sexual exploitation are poverty, social inequality and unemployment. Almost all international trade in Nigeria is concentrated in Benin City, the capital of Edo state. Lots of Nigerian families send their daughters in Europe to escape poverty.
A Nigerian girls [e]decided to go to Russia to earn money for her education but was tricked into prostitution by a local gang. When girls refuse to serve clients, the pimp beats them up till they obey the orders. If they still refuse to obey, the pimp kicks them out without passports and money to live. As girls are far away from their homes and families without any support, they usually give up all attempts to run away.
IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT BUILDING
Russia ranks 5th in the Global Slavery Index as a country, where people are being sold to. Nigeria has been ranked number one as a major source country for trafficking. Widespread poverty, high levels of social inequality and unemployment in Nigeria are among major push factors for women’s forced labour and sexual exploitation. International trafficking is mainly focused in Edo state with its capital in Benin City. For many families the only way to get rid of poverty is to send their daughters to Europe. The girls we are going to talk about are all from Benin City.
BLESSING IN THE SHELTER
In Russia girls will experience hell: up to 20 clients per day and a $45,000 debt to a pimp. Very few manage to escape. This is a simple but terrifying story about those who were lucky to get their freedom back.
JULIETTE, BLESSING, BLESSING AND PRESHES
Nigerian girls were rescued by a charity organisation. The organisation provided an accommodation in a dormitory and paid for the girls’ new passports. The majority of Nigerians who unwillingly become prostitutes in Russia don't know the local language and are afraid to go to the police. The only way for them to survive and don't starve to death is to submit and do whatever their pimp orders. I met Blessing and other rescued girls several days before their departure to Nigeria. Blessing is already at home with her family.
JULIETTE IS A 24 YEAR-OLD GIRL. SHE IS FROM BENIN CITY. SHE LIVED IN RUSSIA FOR 6 MONTHS.
"The first girl I spoke with is called Juliet[f]. She is from Benin City, Edo State. According to Juliet, her neighbour who was later revealed to be working for a gang, suggested to Juliet’s parents to send their daughter to study Economics at a Russian university." Here is her story. "I’d just finished school and my parents agreed to send me to Russia after they had been convinced by a neighbour that it would be best for me. The neighbour helped to get a student visa for me. When we landed at Moscow airport, her friend met us and took me to Voronezh, 543 km away from Moscow. In Voronezh, the neighbour told me I owe her $45,000, being what she spent on me and I must become a prostitute so as to make money to pay off the debt. She took away all my money and passport and with life being so difficult for me, I had to join in the sex trade because the woman and her friends were beating me everyday for disobeying them."
BLESSING, 24 YEARS OLD, LIVED IN RUSSIA FOR ALMOST 2 YEARS.
A young Nigerian prostitute in Russia who identified herself as Blessing, has narrated how she was beaten by Russian clients to force her to have sex with them. Blessing disclosed that she had always been beaten by her pimp any time she refused to have sex with a client. Blessing, [g]“Who told you there was other work for you here in Russia? Prostitution is your only option”, my future pimp told me on the first day of arrival. My friend from Nigeria, who brought me to Russia, suddenly disappeared. Later I found out that she had died. I was told I owed money for airline tickets and other expenses – $45,000 in total – and I had to pay it off. I refused. Then they started beating me. See here, it has been 18 months since then, but the marks are still there. It will never go.
GIRLS HAVE DINNER IN THE SHELTER
Girls say they are usually being beaten till they accept to serve customers. Should any girl refuse, she is thrown into the street without money and documents. Since they have nowhere to go, lots of them submit to their destiny and leave all attempts to escape back home. Blessing, “I was told I was going to be killed should I refuse to work. I had to be a baby sitter, a cleaner, a prostitute and still I owed $45,000 to my pimp. I didn’t like to do it. Why I had been promised education but instead I had to become a prostitute? If I wanted to be a prostitute, I could do it in my home country.”
Blessing kept posting on Facebook when she lived in Russia. But she managed to escape only two years later.
WALKING BEFORE THE DEPORTATION HOME
Through the volunteers' help, Blessing was able to get a new passport at the Federal Migration Service after she agreed to be deported to Nigeria. “I’m afraid to come back home as my pimp called my mother and said I owed them a lot of money,” Blessing disclosed several days before she came back to Nigeria.
THIS IS ANOTHER BLESSING. SHE IS 23. SHE LIVED [h]IN MOSCOW FOR 2 YEARS.
Narrating how she was forced into prostitution in Russia, Blessing, 23, who spent two years in Russia as a prostitute, disclosed that she was deceived by her best friend who took her to Russia on the promise of securing a good job. “I had to leave school as my family is very poor. My father works as a driver, and my mother sells in the market. I put my braiding skills into practice to earn some money, but I still wanted to get an education. My best friend told me about an opportunity to study for free in Russia. However, when I arrived, my friend sold me to a Russian woman and her Nigerian companion. They used to beat me and leave me outside without clothes to freeze when I refused to serve clients. I even begged my clients to help me, but they did nothing. When my father found out about my sex slavery in Russia, he said I should blame myself for becoming a prostitute.”
IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT BUILDING
These are new documents for Blessing. Now she has the right to go home. Blessing, “I am very nervous. Even now as we speak the pimp is calling to my mom and asking for money. I am afraid of these people.”
PRESHES IS 22 YEARS OLD. SHE LIVED IN RUSSIA FOR 2 YEARS.
I have been studying in Nigeria, but one time I had to leave everything, just because I ran out of money. My friend told me she had a very good highly paid job in Russia. I came to her to Tula but there was no job for me there. After 3 months she told me I had to sleep with men for money. She took my documents. I argued with her and ran away. But I had to live somehow and I became a prostitute. I am an accountant, you know. There were a lot of black people in the streets of Tula but I never communicated with anyone. I was contacting my friends in Nigeria via Facebook, but they couldn’t help me out.
PRESHES IN THE SHELTER
I was being beaten here; I was always being scared. Scared of going to the police because my passport was taken from me. Policemen are perfectly aware of everything. I was crying a lot without any hope to escape.
IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT BUILDING, FINGERPRINTING
It is a routine for them to do fingerprinting after every police raid. All the paper work for voluntary deportation including the court procedure takes up to 3 weeks. But this is only in Moscow and with the help of charity organisations. Girls say in the regions it can take years should they try to do it on their own. Without the Russian language, without documents and passports[i], girls from Nigeria have no other choice but to become prostitutes and save their lives.
THE LAST RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH SHELTER FOR NIGERIAN GIRLS
Blessing, “Sometimes clients can beat you or even kick downstairs. You can’t do anything. They will kill you or cripple – your family won't ever see you again. But now they can’t force me anymore. I would rather die”.
Almost 2 weeks of freedom in Russia the girls spent in the Russian Orthodox Church shelter. Within this time staff of the International Migration Organisation and volunteers have recovered their documents, paid all penalties and purchased new tickets back home for girls.
GIRLS COOKING DINNER IN THE SHELTER
Preshes, “I couldn’t have imagined what I was going to work as. We are Christians, I am coming from a faithful family. My mom begged me not to do it and come back to Nigeria. I had to respect both her and God. But she truly did not understand how serious my situation was here and that I really had no one to help me”.
BLESSING AND BLESSING
It was the first trip in my life. Blessing, “ I don’t want to travel any more. Even if someone calls me and tells me he wants to make me happy, I will reply – make your family happy first, but I will stay. I no longer want any trouble. Going back home means going back. I don’t want to go anywhere anymore”.
LAST 24 HOURS IN RUSSIA
The staff of the International Migration Organisation says Nigerian girls take care how they look like. They are taking big suitcases of clothes back home. It is kind of a shame to come back from abroad without gifts and empty handed.
AT THE AIRPORT[j]
And that's it. The last time I met with the girls at the airport, and then their track was lost. They don’t respond to my messages, however, judging by their posts on social networks, everyone safely returned to their home country.
Preparation for the New Year
The boys decorate the room for the New Year.