Darya Apahonchich is one of the artists exhibited at the 2019 Festival of Political Photography at the Finnish Museum of Photography. Photo by Liisa Takala. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat
Relaxation for Men
Darya Apahonchich wanted to make prostitution visible so she photographed men
March 13, 2019
A good three years ago, Petersburg teacher Darya Apahonchich was walking to work when she noticed letters painted on the sidewalk.
Freely translated, the word means “relaxation, rest.” Apahonchich knew it was one of the most common phrases in Russia for advertising prostitution.
Apahonchich was intrigued. On previous walks to work, she had noticed that ads for brothels had spread everywhere, including walls, light poles, and transformer boxes, and now they seemed to have flooded the streets, too. There was also something irritating about the word отдых.
Or the slightly longer version:
Relaxation for men.
Apahonchich had an idea. She was also a professional artist and had worked in several groups that produced political art. She asked male acquaintances to think about how they really relaxed. Then she took the men to the sex ads and asked them to assume the poses they had chosen for relaxing.
The photographs were produced in the middle of sidewalks as passersby watched.
“I wasn’t trying to take smooth, finished art photos but snapshots,” she said. “People’s reactions were supportive or, more often, indifferent. Petersburg is a big city, after all, and people are not easily surprised.”
After the photoshoot, she posted the photos on social media and waited for a reaction.
Things kicked off after a while.
Apahonchich’s photos attracted attention on social media. The photographer was asked for interviews by more traditional media.
She was more delighted by offers from complete strangers, men who wanted to be involved in the project.
“They said they wanted to relax and asked whether they could help me,” Apahonich says.
Despite what you might imagine, there was nothing suggestive about the men’s requests. They genuinely wanted to be involved in doing something good.
The photographer accepted the offers and new photos were produced.
“It started out just as a fun thing but gradually turned into something more serious,” she says.
Two young men relaxing. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat
The success of Apahonchich’s photos could be explained by their skewed perspective. We have seen plenty of pictures of people victimized by prostitution at exhibitions but the gaze in her photos is focused on men.
This also has its own meaning for her.
“When people talk about prostitution, they usually talk about women, but I hope to make something invisible visible in the images I produce,” Apahonchich says.
It is a reasonable aspiration in the sense that men are active in the sex trade as middlemen, customers and, sometimes, vendors, too.
“Of course, men see my pictures differently. Some see them only as humorous. In the best case, I make the men looking at the photos reflect on their own position on the matter.”
The artist also has a personal reason for approaching the subject seriously.
Apahonchich walks around the Finnish Museum of Photography at the Cable Factory looking at the works of her colleagues in the Festival of Political Photography, which presents the work of twenty artists from around the world in a show entitled Potentiality.
In Apahonchich’s own images, men relax alongside “Relaxation for men” ads. One reads the newspaper, another plays on the train tracks, a third does yoga, and a fourth plays the balalaika.
A fifth man fishes.
According to the artist, the men who wanted into the project hardly represent the majority opinion regarding prostitution.
“Russia is still a conservative country and we have a different notion of women’s rights than in Scandinavia. It is common for men not to see any problem with prostitution. Many of them think it’s quite acceptable if, say, they have problems with their marriages.”
It is illegal in Russia to advertise sex services but, according to Apahonchich, Russian cities are in no hurry to get rid of the ads. She argues that the economic interests of the powers that be are often linked to human trafficking.
“It’s about money,” she says. “In Russia, the media have written about the links between corruption and prostitution. The police, for example, visit brothels regularly. They even have their own term for their visits. They are called ‘Saturday specials.'”
Her drastic claim is supported by a longitudinal interview study in which researchers mapped the experiences of sex workers with police in Petersburg and Orenburg. The study found that over a third of the sex workers had been abused by police.
The study was done in 2014, but researchers have obtained similar outcomes in more recent studies.
Estimates of the total number of people involved in sex work in Russia are as high as three million.
“I don’t approve of the word ‘sex worker,'” says Apahonchich. “In my opinion, it is not work but exploitation. I am talking about women who are involved in prostitution. Of course, there are differences in how people view the matter. If someone wants to call themselves a sex worker, I accept their choice, of course, but I don’t think of it that way.”
She also finds it misleading to talk about “sex.”
“Many girls go into prostitution at the age of thirteen or even younger. I think it is a question of rape culture more than of sex.”
Man and pillow. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat
Apahonchich has a personal reason for regarding prostitution negatively. She earns her daily bready by teaching Russian to women who have come from Syria and Afghanistan, for example. She is painfully aware her students are at high risk of being marginalized and forced into prostitution.
“Since they come to Russia as refugees and immigrants, they are on really shaky ground. They are often undocumented and cannot defend themselves,” Apahonchich says, looking anxious.
She is clearly concerned about her students.
She has not shown her photographs in class.
“I try to keep politics to a minimum,” she says. “A large number of my students are from quite conservative regions and I don’t want to scare them. Also, some of the students’ husbands have a negative attitude to their going to school, so in this sense, too, caution is important.”
“So, I concentrate on teaching the language and I answer their questions.”
There is one subject, however, that Apahonchich plans to raise in class.
She wants to teach the women how to talk to the police.
A man relaxes by meditating. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat
Relaxation for men. Although sex advertising has been moving to the Internet in Russia, the letters on the cobblestones still entice men into becoming customers.
Apahonchich’s own attitude to the advertisements has changed as she has photographed them.
“In the past, I would complain about them and think about all the young women they concealed. But after shooting them I saw them as locations and advertisements. I would think that one was in a good spot for marketing or this one had really different colors, that I had no photos with yellow lettering in them. Or this image was in a good place for setting up and shooting.”
Another thing has changed. The photographer now knows what to say to men who fiercely defend prostitution.
“I ask them whether they would be willing to do the same job themselves or let their children do it. Since they don’t want it for their own children, why would they wish it on others?”
The ads encouraging relaxation are also in English. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat
Apahonchich recounts how one of the men in the photos heard a child ask his parents what the ad meant as the model sat waiting on the pavement.
It was no easy task for the parents to explain what the words meant.
Nor was it easy to tell the child why a price had been placed under a woman’s name.
Translated from the Finnish by the Russian Reader