Interview: Photographer Vlad Zorin On His Powerful Debut Book, “With Love from Russia”

Stunning images and intimate interviews with gay men align for a survey of sex and sexuality across Russia

Moscow-based fashion and fine art photographer Vlad Zorin published his debut book, With Love from Russia, in December 2021. Across 256 pages, through intimate portraits of queer men and deeply personal corresponding text about their sexual awakenings, the photographer explores the questions “What is sex?” and “What role did it play in defining me as a person?” Zorin—whose debut photographic exhibition, Hare, was held at Cube.Moscow in 2019—uses his artistry to upend stereotype and break down barriers in a country devoid of protections for the LGBTQ community. He traveled hundreds of miles to profile the models, who he refers to as his heroes. Altogether, the artist shines a light on identity, isolation, honesty, heartbreak and the beauty of humanity—as the book provides unified voices on a subject matter that is often suppressed.

How did you get the idea for this book? How does it align with the photographic work you’ve exhibited?

The idea for ​​the project was born in Paris in September 2020, inspired by the question, “Why do Parisian guys talk so easily about sex and why can’t Russians do that?” and “Why can’t I?” was added upon my return. I remembered my childhood and adolescence, in which there was no place to talk about sex and the answer became clearer. In the author’s preface to the publication, I formulated the feeling that guided me while creating the book: “This project began with a desire to overcome an internal barrier.”

When I realized that I could not speak freely about sex, I also realized that my photographs were a kind of euphemism—attempts to express what worried me in the absence of an appropriate vocabulary. After listening to the 17 stories of the heroes of the project, for the first time I mustered up the courage and spoke myself—said what was important for me to say from the beginning of my creative career.

What was your process like in finding the subjects and photographing them? 

There was not one system for finding these heroes and I like that. I looked for collaborators for the project on Instagram and wrote to guys from different regions of Russia. It was important for me to reach others with similar social experiences in these various regions. Among these heroes of the book, there are also acquaintances with whom I shared the idea and who volunteered to participate. I call this group of people that have been united by the pages of the book “non-random strangers.”

How did you get them to feel comfortable with telling their stories?

At first, I myself learned to feel comfortable. I grew up in the working-class city of Chelyabinsk and, unfortunately, absorbed a lot of taboos and acquired complexes growing up, so working with the topic of sex I needed points of support that would help me feel bolder and not get lost during the interviews. I came up with questionnaires, with prompts like “favorite color” and “favorite song.” They turned into “favorite sex position” and “brightest fantasy.”

I went to the first meetings armed with these questions. To my surprise, I realized that there was absolutely no need for them. As soon as I indicated the topic of conversation, the guys easily laid out their story of sexuality from A to Z. Later, I realized that I was giving the guys a kind of safe space and that was enough. Sometimes, at the end of the conversation, they would say: “Vlad, for me, this was like a confession. Thank you.”

Your images and the words are all very intimate. What intrigues you about sex, sexuality and sexual identity? Why is it important to reflect on this?

With this book, I want to help to de-stigmatize conversations about sex, sexuality, sexual identity; become freer; and overcome the taboos associated with it all. To undo circumstances that force people to hide their sexual identity, along with the lack of understanding and the inability to build communication about sex, to encourage people to be aware of their sexuality, and undo circumstances that provoke psychological problems, anxiety, and even prevent pleasure. It’s important to talk about it.

In this sense, sex and everything connected with it intrigues me, as one of the areas in which our freedom is still limited, and my work is always about overcoming limitations, about freedom

In this sense, sex and everything connected with it intrigues me, as one of the areas in which our freedom is still limited, and my work is always about overcoming limitations, about freedom! In addition, I am convinced that this topic is overloaded with discourse on power and politics, especially now in the time of a pandemic. I would like the general focus to shift toward love. Love, by the way, is the subject of a future project, which I hope to show in February in Moscow.

This is a dual-language book and the layout and design are very thoughtful. Can you talk about how you structured it and why?

The idea for a bilingual edition came shortly after my team and I saw all the transcribed texts. We saw two potential impacts from them. First, it was important for us to give the Russian male audience the opportunity to see their ideas about sexuality from the outside—with all the problems that are present in our experience, this is why the book contains the Russian language. Second, to enable foreign audiences to expand their ideas about sex and sexuality in post-Soviet Russia, which inherits, but actively overcomes in certain circles, the status of a country where sex does not exist.

Finally, the main message of the book lies outside national borders. Therefore, English as the language of international communication was chosen for the translation of stories: With Love From Russia is a book that invites you to reflect on your sexuality, listen to yourself and your desires, compare them with my experience, draw parallels and write your own history of sexuality, following the guys whose reflection of sexuality and sexual experiences is born in front of the reader’s eyes. There’s a place for the reader’s personal history on the last pages of the publication.

Regarding conceptual work for the layout, and all the materials, the project curator Andrey Lopatin helped me. In addition to the sequential alternation of texts in Russian and English, one of our solutions was to separate the visual storytelling from the textual one. The photographs of the heroes and their stories are mixed in the book—we tried to ensure that the book encouraged the removal of masks from the heroes.

Can you talk about your photographic style and how you developed it?

I almost never say what pose to take or what emotion to show; honesty in photographs is important to me. This intention is not contradictory even if you apply these words to my projects Hare and God. Their glossiness—especially Hare—was acceptable only thanks to honesty, which is very difficult to find in front of the camera.

Recently I was thinking why I love using the colors blue and white in my photography—and remembering my childhood, I assumed that the Urals, which are in the vicinity of where I grew up, are still reflected in my memory and in my work. In Chelyabinsk, most of the year outside the window is snow-white winter and a bright blue sky. All this I apparently unconsciously reproduce in my works now.

Another recurring element of my work from childhood is play. As a child, the neighbors’ children and I changed into my mother’s clothes, built huts out of blankets and came up with theatrical performances. Hence, I think the masks that arise in my projects.

What do you hope your artistic legacy will be?

Although it’s not easy for me to answers questions pertaining to a longterm vision, I can tell you one thing with certainty: I try to listen to the present, to explore what resonates in me now and time will put everything in its place.

Images courtesy of Vlad Zorin