In Russia, people with special needs usually live isolated lives. They’re unable to study, work or socialise and rarely have friends. Families often keep them out of sight. But I found a place where everything is different. Svetlana is a small village four hours away from St Petersburg. Around 40 people live there in four large houses organised around a farm with a dairy, a bakery and a sauna. The community was established in 1992 as part of the international Camphill movement.
Based on the principles of anthroposophy, the latter was founded in Scotland in 1939. There is now a network of more than 100 residential communities around the world providing care for people with disabilities, mental health issues and other special needs. They make up the majority of the people who live in Svetlana. Then there are permanent members of staff and volunteers, who come from all over the world to help. But everyone there is simply referred to as a resident. The village receives occasional governmental funding but is mostly sustained by private donations and subsistence farming. Residents work on the farm, or in the bakery, selling cheese curds and the like to neighbouring villages.
Minya, who is resting his head on the table, has lived there for over 20 years. His partner, Tatyana, in the red cardigan, came later. They both have Down’s syndrome. They met in Svetlana and fell in love. Minya works in the bakery, although his health is deteriorating. He is about 50, which for someone with Down’s syndrome is relatively old. Tatyana works as a cook and a cleaner in one of the houses.
Daily life in Svetlana is very structured, with a tight schedule and lots of ritual. Everyone eats together, three times a day, and says a prayer before the meal. There’s a morning meeting to talk about the business of the day, and movie night on Fridays. Once a week there’s also a Bible study. A resident will always be able to tell you what’s happening next. It’s important for them, it gives a sense of security.
From the moment I first arrived, in 2016, I fell in love with the atmosphere of this place – the goodness, the openness, the honesty, the acceptance. The residents with special needs were so inspiring. At the same time though, precisely what their needs were – what illness or condition they live with – was unimportant. In Svetlana, everyone is different, and valued as such. I always found it a little easier to breathe there.
Over the course of two years, I went back every month, spending up to a week living in the village. I spent time with the residents working, drawing, listening to music, trying to understand their views on life and their dreams. I always had my camera with me, but I spent the first five months taking photographs I couldn’t use.
The first time I photographed Minya and Tatyana, it was difficult. They were performing, clowning around. As soon as the camera wasn’t there, though, they were different people, calm and serious. The village has received a certain amount of media attention, but reporters and photographers only ever come for a few hours at most, and the residents are used to posing for them. It was a new experience for them to have someone come back regularly, and it took a long time before they realised they could just be themselves in front of the camera.
So I waited, and waited. And eventually they stopped focusing on what I was doing. I became “Masha (Mary) with camera”, nothing special.
I remember the day I took this photograph. It was during break time, when most people go to the bakery for tea and cake and a chat. By this point, no one paid any attention to me. They were just getting on with their lives; the camera was an extension of my hand.
Minya and Tatyana were playing. She was putting her hands over his eyes. He was laughing. She was smiling. They were completely wrapped up in each other, oblivious to everyone else. It was so touching.
There are a lot of myths and stereotypes about people with Down’s syndrome not knowing what it is to love others. Minya and Tatyana show that isn’t true. They live together in the same room (they have a print of this photograph on the wall). They wear rings, and call each other husband and wife. They care about each other; they carry each other’s worries.
One day they had a quarrel. Tatyana was very angry, screaming at Minya, and he took her by the hand, and said: “Tatyana, stop it, calm down. Nothing is going to happen. I love you.” Everybody who witnessed that was amazed. It’s not everyone who can find the words so quickly to help their partner calm down. For me that’s what this image is about: love being stronger than stereotypes and limitations. And it sums up my whole experience of Svetlana. I saw a lot of different kinds of love there.
Mary Gelman’s CV
Born: Penza, Russia, 1994.
Training: Docdocdoc School of Modern Photography, St Petersburg.
High point: “The process of thinking about a project.”
Low point: “Whenever I feel like an impostor.”
Top tip: “Take care of yourself: everyone has limited resources and works at their own pace.”