I first saw Lilya outside a famous underground club near Saint Petersburg. She was squatting down to pee.

“Can I photograph you?”

A punk who was looking after the baby-carriage told me “Fuck off”, but Lilya started to pose for me with great enthusiasm. She was proud of her beauty, of her extreme looks, and of her blond angelic-looking little girl.

Then she invited me to her place — a small room of a communal flat. It was filled with strange smells and drunk people. Her boyfriend Pasha whom she called “Dandelion” for his curly hair was more an aggressive punk and junkie. They were listening to horrible music, watching horror-movies, and their room seemed more like a cyber-punk club than a living space. The little girl was crawling around the room, touching empty bottles, dirty blankets, cat’s shit... and the mother sometimes dragged her away: “Anfisa!”

Everything that happened there reminded me of a nightmare and it was difficult to remember afterwards how it really was.

They were living in a darkness, mixing day and night, behind the thick curtains, descending to the street only to ask for some money for the cheap alcohol (they already couldn’t buy any drugs). Their daughter was with them all the time and she was looking at all this with wide-open eyes, tried to touch and to taste everything. They fed her with expensive artificial milk, dragged her away from dangerous things, changed her diapers and said, “Anfisa, stop. Anfisa, go to sleep!”

Anfisa could sleep despite the heavy music and noise. She was a very quiet well-behaved baby and almost didn’t cry.

Seven days passed like this, with me coming and going with my camera, and they remembered it afterwards like an end of a long period when they had gone to the very bottom. After that they kicked out all the guests, cleaned the house and lived like normal people… Well, almost like normal people. (By the way, what does this mean — normal people?) This lasts only until the next crazy period.

Lilya and Pasha met each other five years earlier. Lilya had dreamt of becoming a porn-actress or a model but never did. Then she got pregnant and was proud that for nine month she hadn’t used any drugs, only smoked marijuana which is very healthy for the baby in her opinion. She admits that she has a few sexually-transmitted diseases and doesn’t want to pass them to Anfisa.

They moved next to a famous theater which they have never been inside. They are not allowed in because of their looks. Pasha’s parents sometimes help them to look after the girl and give some money.

Each month they buy another cell-phone but sell it in the end of a month to the drug-dealers. Their contacts with outside world are very difficult.

I made an exhibition of this story in Saint Petersburg, and the characters came to the opening. They had a good laugh about themselves on the pictures and couldn’t even believe that someone would accuse them of anything wrong. The viewers also didn’t react at all.

The scandal started when I published the pictures on the internet. Hundreds of bloggers started to blame the couple for a bad attitude to their daughter, and blame the photographer (me) for indifference. My caption that there can be also love and affection in such families caused even more hysteria.

Someone wrote a letter to the police. Their intention was to take the girl from the family and put her into an orphanage.

Two years passed since the pictures were taken. I visited the family a few times since that. They hadn’t quit their lifestyle, still used drugs but lived rather bright and artistic lives and still took care of the girl, looking at her as a part of their life, sometimes with humor. Some other people of the same attitude came to live next door, and they all lived in a peaceful friendly atmosphere.

But half a year ago Lilya left the family, and nobody knows where she is now. Pasha takes his daughter to the kindergarten and goes to some cheap-paid work. The girl can talk and seems to have normal development. She only has more serious eyes than all other children of her age. Pasha looks miserable and aggressive and doesn’t want to have any further contacts with people concerned about the future of this family.

The photographer refuses to take the right to blame these people.

— Irina Popova

Another Family
by Irina Popova
Publisher: Schilt Publishing
Hardcover: 200 pages