Darya Apahonchich: Relaxation for Men

darja-1Darya 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
Jussi Lehmusvesi
Helsingin Sanomat
March 13, 2019

A good three years ago, Petersburg teacher Darya Apahonchich was walking to work when she noticed letters painted on the sidewalk.

ОТДЫХ

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.

Relaxation.

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.

darja-2Two 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.”

darja-3Man 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.

darja-4A 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?”

darja-5.JPGThe 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

 

There Is Power in a Union

fart and laugh.jpg“Farting and laughing are healthy.” A life-affirming message photographed by me on the Langenscheidtbrücke in Berlin-Schöneberg, 16 June 2019.

It’s funny to read one of the most celebrated, successful Russian-to-English translators in the world complaining that an equally celebrated, successful scholar of Russian history wrote a less than glowing profile of a famous writer whose works they have translated and published to great acclaim and universal gratitude, and calling for an online campaign against the famous scholar and their allegedly retrograde views.

It’s funny because there is a whole other world of less celebrated, less acclaimed translators who have other, more mundane problems to deal with, such as getting paid fairly for their work or, sometimes, getting paid at all, and having their work stolen by unscrupulous publishers and other clients.

Just minutes ago, I was informed that the people who shanghaied me yesterday (Saturday) into consulting and commenting on someone else’s (extraordinarily bad) translation of a text and asked me to do this before Monday would not pay me the modest fee of 105 euros I asked for two and half hours of intense work commenting on the very bad translation of the odious text they sent me. They want to pay me 32 euros per the number of characters in the source text, although I made it clear that were this an ordinary translating or proofreading job, my minimum fee would be 40 euros in any case.

photo_2019-06-15_10-45-35If you read Russian you will understand why I was extremely dispirited to consult on a wretched translation of this source text with no notice and basically no deadline this past weekend. And then the people who asked me to do this thought it should cost them next to nothing.

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the memoirs of a famous anti-Putin dissident, translated into English and published, nearly two years ago, by the world’s largest general-interest paperback publisher.

I was curious to see who translated the book, but no translator is identified by name anywhere in the book. Oddly, however, the publishers had included a plainly false statement in the front matter: “The moral rights of the translators have been asserted.”

How could that be if none of them was identified by name? How could that be if one of them, as it turned out, to my surprise, was me?

You see, I translated a book of memoirs by the same author a few years ago. The book was never published, however, supposedly, because of a nasty conflict with the publisher.

Now, however, this new book has been published (to great acclaim, of course) and, while it is mostly a new book, whoever really wrote it or ghost-wrote it or edited it has inserted chunks of my old, previously unused translation into the new book.

I have not gone through the book with a pencil yet to underline and figure out how many such passages there are, but they are there.

In what sense, then, were my or anyone else’s “moral rights” “asserted”? Neither they nor I was identified in any way as being among the translators. I was not paid by the publisher for my work. I was not sent a copy of the book by the publisher.

The same publisher, by the way, had to be forced by the organizing committee of a prestigious literary prize for books about Russia to send me copies of a book I translated that was awarded the prize last year.

In the front matter of this book, I am clearly identified as the translator. I am also identified as the copyright holder of the translation published therein. But until last year, when I won the prize, I had never seen a copy of the book.

Nor has the world’s most powerful English-language publisher ever contacted me about royalties, although per our contract they are owed to me. I am reasonably sure a decent amount of royalties have piled up by now. Even if they haven’t, they should give me an accounting.

I would say I really have them coming given that both the world’s most powerful English-language publisher and the US publisher that sold them my translation for a song after having pleaded poverty and paid me a miserable fee themselves refused to send me copies of the book. They only did so after pressure was brought to bear on them by influential outsiders.

***********

I would call on more celebrated translators to band together with less celebrated translators to defend the rights of translators great and small.

What I wrote at the beginning of this post was probably wrong. I would be irritated, too, if a celebrated scholar wrote a damning review of a writer whose work I promoted by producing the very best translations of it I possibly could.

But there are translators whose work is ripped off and left unpaid. It comes with the territory, but it shouldn’t. Translators worldwide should organize national and international unions to ensure the fair treatment of translators and their work by publishers and other people who commission translations. When publishers and other clients step way out of line, these unions could intercede forcefully and effectively on behalf of their members.

As it is right now when clients try and throw me under the bus, I either raise a ruckus on my lonesome or I lump it. I usually do both, usually to no effect. Since many outsiders to the craft do not deem translation “real work” anyway, they are only too happy not to pay you for your efforts.

There is power in a union, however, and there really is strength in numbers. {Thomas Campbell, the editor of the Russian Reader and other blogs since 2007, and a freelance translator since 1996}

P.S. Out of curiosity, I just counted (with a little help from WordPress) the number of words I have published on this website since I launched it in 2007: 1,409,036. Apparently, the median length of a book is 64,000 words. In the last twelve years, then, I have translated (mostly) and written the equivalent of twenty-two books and published them on this website.

Discussing the rates professional translators charge, Job Monkey writes, “The average rate per word is 10 to 20 cents, depending on the type of document to be translated, the language combination, the amount of work involved, the subject matter and the deadline.”

For the sake of the argument, let’s forget all other factors and pay me ten imaginary cents per word for my work on the Russian Reader. If someone were to pay me, the bill would be a hefty $140,903.60.

This is not taking into account the work I did on a website that mostly eclipsed the Russian Reader for over five years, Chtodelat News (740 posts between February 18, 2008, and May 4, 2013) and the work I still do, not often enough, on my “relaxation” blog about Finland, Living in FIN, which mostly functions as a platform for my translations of modern Finnish poetry. 

Of course, I don’t expect anyone to pay me $140,000 or even a fraction of it for work I made myself do, but even things that are not bought and paid have value. So, it is all the more vital that when translators (all of whom, in my experience, do a lot of pro bono work for good causes) are paid fairly and promptly when they work for money.

Finally, you can support the work I do on this website by looking in the left sidebar, where you will PayPal and Ko-Fi donation buttons. I appreciate all the support I get from my fellow Russian readers. It is what keeps me going.