Irina Popova’s project began with an assignment to photograph “feelings.” Shortly thereafter, Popova ran into Lilya, a young punk woman, outside of an underground club close to St. Petersburg, Russia. After striking up a conversation with Lilya, who appeared to be inebriated and pushing her young daughter, Anfisa, in a stroller, Popova took some photographs of the mother and daughter. The two hit it off, and Popova was invited back to the apartment Lilya and Anfisa shared with Pasha, Lilya’s longtime boyfriend and Anfisa’s father. This started what would ultimately become Popova’s book, Another Family.
Over the next couple of weeks, Popova took photographs of the young family in their tiny apartment. Friends moved freely in and out of the space, music was played, people partied with alcohol and drugs—all with young Anfisa present. The photographs Popova took during that period were shown in a gallery in St. Petersburg (attended by Lilya and Pasha) and then shared on the Internet. Outrage quickly built. Viewers were upset by the way they perceived the couple to be treating their child.
Many were also angry and saw Popova as an opportunist for photographing the situation without intervening. “I couldn’t imagine the reactions at all,” Popova recalled about the backlash against her. “Maybe it’s weird, but my intention was to talk about the possibilities of love on the margins of society, and I hoped to bring more understanding, to build a bridge between people and to raise awareness that bringing up a child is not an easy task.”
Popova said all of the negative attention was difficult to take, because often the truth isn’t completely evident when looking at photographs. She said that viewers couldn’t imagine that the couple they saw in the photographs could raise a child properly, so they lashed out against both the parents and her for publishing the images. “The truth is that life is complex and there are many situations too complicated to be judged,” she said. “I thought it was important to make people think more about the level of truth which they usually don’t want to think about.”
Another Family includes the images Popova took and many documents that relate to the work: the initial assignment she received, correspondence with mentors about the direction of the work, a journal she kept, and email she received from people who were outraged as well as those who supported her. “The book doesn't intend to give all the answers, but it gives enough material to think about it,” Popova said. “The materials are organized into a story, which is totally real, but it took years to sort it and put it into the book with as much love and care as possible.”
At the time the photographs were taken, Popova was a 21-year-old journalism student, unprepared to deal with all of the attention. She hopes by publishing Another Family she can put the project behind her and her subjects will have some peace. Popova said the family has moved on with their lives and that Anfisa is fine, but Popova doesn’t wish to share more information about them. “Basically, by publishing the book, I would like to end the story,” she said. “The main part of the story was shot more than five years ago, and since then life goes every minute further, while photography fixates one moment forever.”
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