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

 

Walk

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Walk, May 29, 2016, Saint Petersburg, Russia. The city’s famous Church on Spilled Blood is in the background. Photo by David Frenkel

Varya Mikhaylova
Vkontakte
May 29, 2016

Petersburg female activists have staged the performance Walk to call for a humane attitude towards women involved in the sex industry, the prosecution of pimps, and the decriminalization of prostitutes themselves.

Wearing dresses pasted over with advertising flyers for brothels, and sporting painted bruises and black eyes, the five female performers were marched by a “pimp” through downtown Petersburg.

The young women bore placards on their backs featuring such quotations from real interviews with prostitutes as “I have always been raped, now I’m getting raped for money,” and “We are not human beings to them.”

"My rate is 1,300 rubles an hour. I get paid a 100 rubles." // "We are not human beings to them."
“My rate is 1,300 rubles an hour. I get paid a 100 rubles.” // “We are not human beings to them.” Photo by David Frenkel

On Arts Square, the young women slipped away from the supervision of their “pimp.” They turned their placards arounds, revealing the inscriptions “Not a commodity,” “Not a thing,” “Not a criminal,” “Not a slave,” and “Human being.”

At this point, the other performers, depicting prosperous citizens who have a contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes and their problems, shouted angrily at the young women and pelted them with dirt.

Rapes, beatings, fear, constant threats to their lives, no protection from law enforcement, a lack of medical care, and endless public scorn: these are the real lives hidden by brightly colored flyers advertising “Masha,” “Sevinch,” “Girls,” “Relaxation,” and “Massages.”

Prostitutes lead closed and stigmatized lives. Our prosperous society is irritated more by the flyers and ads that disfigure our beautiful city than by the slavery and human trafficking occurring behind its disfigured façades.

The recent raid by “defender of morals” Vyacheslav Datsik has returned the subject of sexual slavery, which society and the media persist in calling “sex work” to the public discourse and underscored the fact that society has no sympathy for these women. It only feels contempt for them. If Datsik had forced any other women to walk naked down the street, everyone would have been up in arms. But prostitutes are not people. No one cares about their misfortunes.

Datsik has even seemed like a savior to many people, because he liberated the residents of a building from a brothel. And indeed, although brothels operate outside the law, politicians and policemen are also involved in the profitable business of selling women. So complaints against brothels filed by ordinary people are ignored and drown in bureaucratic rigmarole. However, a new brothel will open to replace the one Datsik, allegedly, shut down. And it will be that way until there is the political will to denounce and prosecute the people who trick and force women into slavery and sell their customers the right to violence. People should realize that the last thing they should do is blame the prostitutes themselves. They should stop seeing these women as criminals.

Pay attention to the slaves who live invisibly in our midst. And don’t call them “workers.” But do call them human beings.

Walking past St. Catherine’s Catholic Church on Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main drag. Photo by David Frenkel
Walking past the Chamber Concert Hall of the Petersburgh Philharmonic (right) and a poster advertising a “gala concert” celebrating the 140th anniversary of the translation of the Russian Synodal Version of the Bible by the Russian Orthodox Church. Oddly, the concert was held on May 26 at nearby St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Photo by David Frenkel
Walking past the entrance to the city’s premier hotel, the Grand Hotel Europe. Photo by David Frenkel
Enraged “citizens” pelt the “prostitutes” with dirt.
“Human being.” // “Not a criminal.” // “Not a thing.” Photo by David Frenkel
“Not a commodity.” // “Not a slave.” Photo by David Frenkel
“Igor is married but goes to prostitutes because his wife is not willing to give him the humiliating, painful sex he likes, which one can only endure out of fear or for money.” // “Yulduz does not speak Russian and does not understand how to escape from the brothel. Human trafficking is a global problem.” // “Round-the-clock rape for money. Using another person’s body to masturbate while ignoring their needs is rape.” Flyers handed out to passersby during the performance Walk. Photo by Ksenia Chapkevich

Translated by the Russian Reader. For more on this subject, see my post “Let’s (Not) Talk about Sex,” from December 2014.