But Don't Ask A Photo To Prove That
This is Igor Mihailovich Shalayev. He was born in 1887 near Moscow, worked as a carpenter on a collective farm and was arrested by the soviet authorities in November 1937. He was sentenced to death (on unknown charges) on 19 November 1937, photographed on 26 November and executed the day after.
It’s a funny thing to do isn’t it? You photograph someone and then you shoot them. You condemn them to oblivion and at the same time you create a memorial to them. Only the NKVD (the Stalinist secret police) presumably didn’t mean it as a memorial. They took this and thousands of other photographs like it to prove that they were doing what the Central Committee had told the Regional Committees to do – to root out counter-revolutionaries. They were recording their own efficiency.
We don’t know if Igor Mihailovich was a counter-revolutionary but I have always been struck by his look in this photograph. He seems curious – as if maybe this is the first time he has ever had his photograph taken. He doesn’t look scared and he doesn’t look guilty. I find it a rather beautiful image.
The NKVD process was to take two shots at a time, giving full face and profile on one negative. The photo was then marked with the prisoner’s name, placed in the file with their confession and stored in a secret archive: a negative, in a closed envelope, in a closed file, in a closed archive, in a closed room. Obviously this archive had to be guarded because that is what secret police do: they create secrets which they then guard.
Fast forward now to the late nineties when Igor Mihailovich’s image emerges blinking into the daylight as the Soviet Union collapses and interested researchers start to make inroads into those archives. Eventually there is an exhibition here – firstly in Paris and then London.* An exhibition is the very opposite of a secret archive. Now the people are invited to look at the images which previously had been forbidden to them. But these images – look how they have changed! Now there is a completely different crime. In 1937 they were evidence of a crime by an individual against the state. Now exactly the same photographs are evidence of a crime by the state against the individual. Western liberal arts professionals have blown them up to poster size and projected them onto a wall in a slide show for all to see.
Yet the photographs are mute. They say neither innocent nor guilty. Who are we to believe, the NKVD or the exhibition’s curators? The terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ can be applied only to statements, not to pictures. Most of us in the west these days would believe the curators but not on the basis of anything shown by the photographs. Yet it seems that there are still plenty of people in Russia who might not share that view.** By all accounts, the NKVD archives are shut again now to academics and researchers as the Russian state reconsiders the openness of the early nineties.
The photo proves itself to be as elliptical as ever. It can be no more true or false, right or wrong, than words can be blue or green.
* Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence at The Photographers' Gallery in London, 2015. There is a great exhibition catalogue: Diane Dufour, ed. Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence, (Paris, Le Bal – Editions Xavier Barral, 2015)
** There is an interview with a man who worked as an NKVD executioner in Svetlana Alexeyevna's 'Second Hand Time'. He complains of repetitive strain injury.
(The original photograph of Igor Mihailovich is still in the archives of the FSB, the Russian State Security Service and, presumably, copyright rests with the Russian state. Copies are also legitimately held and have been distributed by Pamyat' (Memorial) a Russian human rights organisation.)