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

 

Today’s Sponsored Post

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Since I have to pay the bills like any other tiresome kvetcher and blogger, today’s post is sponsored by the Petrograd Import Substitution and Localization Center, and by lonely Rosa, who can be reached at the telephone number listed above.

Remember, whatever it is you need, cheese or sex, keep it local! Don’t import when you can make it yourself!

__________

Landwehr Canal, Berlin

The canal where they drowned Rosa
L., like a stubbed out papirosa,
Has almost virtually gone wild.
So many roses have moldered since that time,
It is no mean feat to stun the tourists.
The wall, concrete forerunner of Christo,
Runs from city to calf and cow
Through fields blood has scoured.
A factory smokes like a cigar.
And the outlander pulls up the native gal’s
Frock not like a conqueror,
But like a finicky sculptor,
Getting ready to unveil
A statue fated to live a while
Longer than the reflection in the canal
Where Rosa was canned.

Source: Radio Svoboda. Translated 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.

Let’s (Not) Talk about Sex

sexikas-1
“Relaxation 24 hours,” Petrograd, December 2014. The city’s pavements, walls, and billboards are teeming with such offers of paid sex.

Every day more than 200 new cases of HIV are registered in Russia, and by the end of 2015 the number of HIV-positive Russians will exceed 1 million, according to news reports released on Monday, World AIDS Day.

Russia’s health and safety watchdog Rospotrebnadzor told Interfax that “860,000 HIV-positive people are currently registered in Russia, and every year this figure increases by 10 percent.”

In a speech to the State Duma on Monday, Anna Popova, head of Russia’s health and consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, said that 75 percent of males who became infected with the virus this year had become HIV-positive by taking drugs. This leads to severe damage to the country’s economy, as these men are usually in their most productive years, she said.

Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal AIDS Center, said that contrary to popular belief in Russia, only 1.1 percent of cases are registered among gay men. The rest are “heterosexuals who lead normal sex lives,” he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Many regions do not have enough money to provide sufficient medication for HIV-positive people, Pokrovsky said.

“The number of HIV-positive people is growing very quickly. In three years it has increased by 200,000, while the amount of money allocated from the budget to deal with the problem has not changed,” he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Russia has come under international criticism for its policy on HIV, such as prohibiting opiate-replacement therapy using drugs such as methadone. The practice has been shown to reduce needle sharing among drug addicts, thus reducing the HIV infection rate. The government has also been reluctant to embrace needle-exchange programs, another weapon proven to be effective in combatting the disease.

Critics also argue that more preventative measures need to be taken, starting with increased sex education in schools.

—Ivan Nechepurenko, “Number of Russians With HIV to Reach 1 Million by 2016,” The Moscow Times, December 1, 2014

sexikas-3

You don’t need sex education when you have Russian literary giants Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky to enlighten you on the murky realities of the bedroom.

This, at least, appears to be the view of Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, who said on Monday that the country would not introduce sex education in schools because it contradicts Russia’s moral norms and traditions.

“I am often asked: When will you have sex education? I say: Never,” Astakhov snapped at a meeting with Russian parents, Interfax news agency reported.

Astakhov’s statement followed his complaint about an upcoming meeting with his European counterparts in Brussels next week.

The ombudsman said his European colleagues have branded him an “ideological opponent and enemy” because of his uncompromising drive to prevent children from learning about sex.

But he would still cooperate with fellow ombudsmen, said Astakhov, a former celebrity lawyer known for advocating a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.

Astakhov gave his own recipe for teaching teenagers about sex last year, when he said Russian literature offered a goldmine of information on the subject.

“Children need to read more, it has everything on love and relationship of the sexes,” Astakhov told Rossia-24 television.

The staples of the literary curriculum in Russian schools, such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, are notably short on advice on contraception or how to deal with budding homosexuality or other non-heterosexual orientations.

A good thing, according to Astakhov, who said “school should raise children to be chaste and understand family values.”

“Russian Children Need More Tolstoy — Not Sex Ed, Official Says,” The Moscow Times, December 1, 2014

sexikas-2
Offers like this from “Lora,” “Eva” and other brothels and prostitution rings are pasted everywhere in the city, including on this billboard for a Christmastime theatrical production for children.

[…]

While Russia may be more notorious for its homegrown cheap sex labor, these days inbound sexual traffic in fact far exceeds the exports, thanks to Russia’s previously stable economy, which ensures a steady demand for prostitutes, experts said.

The country is now at once a destination, origin and transit country for sex slaves — part of a 1-million-strong slave force that exists in Russia, according to a recent report released ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on Dec. 2.

But the government and the legislature both ignore the problem for fear that it would damage Russia’s reputation, even though sex trafficking exists everywhere, said activist Boris Panteleyev.

“Admitting the existence of slavery, in the eyes of officials, would harm our prestige,” said Panteleyev, head of the Man & Law NGO and a former prosecutor who has been combatting human trafficking since the 1990s.

As a result, sex slaves in Russia struggle even if freed, and have to rely on NGOs, clerics or police generosity in the absence of state rehab and protection programs.

“Russian criminal legislation is insufficient, and existing laws say nothing about help for victims,” said Yelena Timofeyeva of the SafeHouse charity.

[…]

Russia ranked as the country with the sixth-biggest slave population in the world — 1 million people — in a fresh annual report by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation released last week.

The report put the total number of slaves among 167 countries of the world at 35 million. India was the runaway leader with 14 million slaves, while Mauritania had the highest percentage of slave population (4 percent).

[…]

—Alexey Eremenko, “Sex Slavery Thrives in Russia Out of Public View,” The Moscow Times, December 1, 2014

Victoria Lomasko: The “Girls” of Nizhny Novgorod

 

girlsI got into contact with the “girls” (sex workers) with help from Nizhny Novgorod social activist Andrei Amirov. I was able to spend between five and fifteen minutes at each “office” (a rented flat where sexual services are provided), during breaks between clients. I had to draw the series very quickly on the spot without making corrections. We made the rounds of over a dozen “offices.” It is nearly impossible for outsiders (especially women who do not work as girls) to get into an office. For me it was a valuable experience: I was able to do portraits, record the women’s own words, and ask them questions. There is a striking difference between the images of prostitutes circulated by the media and the girls I saw. The girls condemned the violent behavior of men generally (not just that of their clients), strongly criticized the authorities (officials and the police) and tried to maintain their personal boundaries even while working this job (which seems wildly unrealistic to me). I recalled times when I had been subjected to emotional and physical violence by men but had gone on claiming this was what “normal” life was like. The rented flats where sexual services are provided are called “offices” (kontory). When they are not busy, the “girls” (devochki), the madam (mamochka) and the “dispatcher” (dispetcher) hang out in the kitchen behind a closed door or curtain, while customers are served in the “chambers” (apartamenty). I caught a glimpse of these rooms while I was making my way to the kitchen in different offices. They all look alike: a sagging fold-out couch or ottoman, a rug on the floor, a TV in the corner. Although the girls keep them clean, the rooms still look off-putting: you can tell no one lives in them. In only one of the offices I visited had the chambers been decorated. The walls were hung with long pale green curtains, which apparently were meant to remind one of a boudoir.

This is the introduction to “The ‘Girls’ of Nizhny Novgorod,” a graphic reportage by artist Victoria Lomasko now published in English translation in the February 2014 issue of Words without Borders. Read the rest of the story here.