Vladimir Vyatkin is a multi-award-winning photographer originally born in Moscow, Russia. Over the past few decades, Vyatkin has produced a remarkable body of work focused on conflicts and the humanitarian consequences of war. His hauntingly beautiful images have garnered him global recognition, including five World Press Photo Awards.
In the interview below, Vyatkin tells us more about what drew him towards photography and about the consequences of a life-long career as a photojournalist. He specifically discusses his project “Soldiers on Duty,” which we have published above.
War is the extreme manifestation of political disagreements, interethnic, racial and religious conflicts. War is the physical and moral barometer of any nation and a tool for assessing the level of common sense and intellect. War kills the best people and affects the gene pool for all sides.
Soldiers are the main force and the protagonists of any war. Quite often, their lives serve as a bargaining chip for someone’s political ambitions and prospects.
The series “Soldiers on Duty” shows the standardized images of soldiers—from all countries and nations—who remain loyal to their professional duty and oath of enlistment. These photos show soldiers from the early 20th century to our present day. They pay tribute to the memory of those who were killed during World War I a hundred years ago, those who defended their ideals and defeated Nazism in 1945 as well as contemporary, often professional, soldiers.
These photos were taken by Vladimir Vyatkin, a reservist who witnessed firsthand a wide array of armed conflicts: Vietnam (1979), Afghanistan (1980), Nicaragua (1986), Yugoslavia (1993-1996) and Chechnya (1999-2004). His professionalism and style are captured in these 30 images, culled from 1980 to today. They are dedicated to the soldiers, photographers and cameramen whom the author considers to be his teachers, and who contributed to this priceless visual legacy of both 20th and 21st century wars.
LC: Why did you choose to become a photographer? What is it about photography that is so important to you?
VV: I started practicing photography at the age of 17. It was accidental, really.
Starting at the age of 7 I studied music, painting and sports. I also loved geography, history, and literature. I studied in an orphanage and all my classmates were interested in cinema and photography except me. After finishing at the orphanage, I didn’t pass the exams to go to Moscow State University. Instead, I got a job working in a photo lab at the world news agency Sputnik. From that first day in August 1968 till today I’ve been working in this agency. I started out as a worker and now I’m a longtime photojournalist.
To me, photography is mysticism—it’s magic, it’s a mystification of life. All the hobbies and passions of my childhood were formed into this one profession. While the profession has not made me happy in my personal life, I envy myself that I have been able to pursue one of the most distinctive careers in the world, all of which was informed by the interests and dreams of my youth.
LC: “Soldiers on Duty” is a compelling body of work which bears witness to the life of soldiers who remain loyal to their professional duty and oath of enlistment. What is it that makes this work so important to you?
VV: For almost 40 years I’ve been photographing a topic related to my love of music, art, literature: this topic is called “Music of War.” After all, photography in the 21st century is an art of signs and symbols, metaphors and philosophical reflections—like the shades of major and minor chords in music. I would like to see this music in my photos.
But the “Music of War” is a special subject—the worst thing for me in war is silence, behind which lies death. One sound of a shot and the person is dead. I have not yet managed to convey the horror of this silence—that is why I continue to work.
LC: Do you think that photography can make a difference? What do you see as the power of photography, and how does it continue to inspire you?
VV: For me, photography is a way of life and the meaning of my life. Photography has a great potential to identify the problems that exist in the world. Clever photography can be a half-step ahead of an event. It can change our understanding of the world. But it cannot, in itself, solve the problem of war and peace.
Still, the power of photography is how it can attract a viewer’s attention using an endless variety of aesthetic styles. After the initial attraction, I would like to convey, using the language of photography, the depth of thoughts contained in the words of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky…Unfortunately, modern photojournalism shows no such creative thinking. Instead, it focuses only on a dry, documentary, chronicle-style vision of life.
Unfortunately, I find that most photographers—even the best in the world—are more interested in proving to each other that they are able to take pictures, rather than testing the limits of the medium and seeing if photography can reflect, philosophize and engage with serious problems.
LC: You’ve been a constant witness to human grief and pain. Do you cut yourself off emotionally in the field—or do you have another way of conceiving of your relation to your subjects? Robert Capa said “If your photos are not good enough, it is because you are not close enough.” What do you consider to be the right distance?
VV: Robert Capa had the right idea, generally, but for me, there is a concept—a thematic distance—inherent in each series. If you break it, you can do absolutely miserable things to innocent people and render a great disservice to the heroes of your photos (and to yourself).
I also always place a cardinal importance on maintaining my morality. Perhaps this means I’m not good at taking pictures in every moment, as sometimes my conscience goes against my professional duties. This means that, unlike some of my colleagues, there are times I forget that I have a camera on my chest and instead think only of helping others.
I forget my role as a photographer for a second and instead focus on being human—reaching out to those around me—despite the fact that I might miss my picture because of it.
LC: What is your perspective on partiality and bias? Can photography be objective or should we simply give up on that notion altogether?
VV: Any art is the art of deception. Take literature—the word is the most significant tool we have in the art of deception. But right after that, I put the photograph. If you do not know how to cheat, you will have nothing to do in photography. While the idea of “documentary” is a backbone, every photographer is subjective in his or her assessment of the surrounding moment. The only objectivity, I think, is a small child with an amateur camera. A child doesn’t not know to lie yet—their naive worldview is the most objective display of life that exists.
LC: You’ve repeatedly mentioned the influence of literature on your work. Who are some of the (non-photographic) figures who have inspired you?
VV: I have many such figures—every good photographer should have a lot of teachers. For example, I grew up on classical music, and their understanding of the world colors my own. My visual culture I learned from Russian realist painters. I also love Impressionism in painting. I’m interested in modern theater and drama—specifically the staging of a scene.
[Left: Ballet dancer relaxing after rehearsal // Right: Soviet soldier, Moscow, 1971]
LC: You’ve been awarded several of the most prestigious awards in the industry. Do you think that you have already made your “picture of a lifetime,” or is this an ongoing hunt?
VV: Of course I’m still looking for my “lifetime” picture, otherwise I would have stopped working! Perfection is endless. Still, if anything has come close, the two photos shown above hold something special for me.
LC: You’ve has been teaching photojournalism at Moscow State University since 1981. What do you see in young photographers that is either discouraging or encouraging? How is photography developing and what is your vision for its future, both in the short- and long-term?
VV: The general availability of technology to modern photography has lowered its value—particularly the way that digital media has given anyone the ability to make an image at any time. But perhaps this is not a photograph at all…
As I mentioned, I’m a proponent of experimentation, but I find that in contemporary photography there are too many airless, intellectual attempts that have no basis in the knowledge of life or even the photographic experience. Images should have some eternal values that convey one’s inner feelings about time and being. Even photojournalists and documentary-makers today are so tempted by taking pictures of what lies on the surface that they capture only a pleasing outer texture.
For many years, I looked forward to the day when modern photojournalism would be filled with educated, intelligent, sensitive people. But God did not grant us so many eyes. There are those who want to see and shoot, but do so without heart or soul. There are also those with soul who cannot see. The combination of these gifts is the foundation of my vision for the future of photography.
—Vladimir Vyatkin, interviewed by LensCulture