Mary Gelman, Russia

Mary Gelman, Russia

Mary Gelman, photographer from Russia, first spent just one day in the village of Minya and Tatyana, but returned to them again and again for over two years, cautiously and with the wisdom of a tender observer. She studied sociology, as a photographer she works – always very fundamentally and as a student – on gender and physicality, boundary and identity and against discrimination. Violence against women in Russian society is one of her themes, others are “fat phobia”, her term for the disgust vis-à-vis overweight people, shame and ostracism, Russian defamation of LGBTQ.

We could not help it: We were inexorably drawn to these two people with Down syndrome by the enormous intensity and intimacy with which Mary Gelman let us share their life. Minya and Tatyana. It is debatable what is meant by “biblical”, but we felt we were watching something biblical here. Or, less emotional: We felt we were looking at something approaching the iconography of old painting. The suggestion of two such special faces above the candle!

Rarely, I believe, do we see something so intimate, so irritating, so mysterious, so beautiful. Something so peaceful. So tender.

Communism, with its claim to create nothing less than the ideal human being, did not envisage people with disability. They were not really meant to exist. Only perfection allowed.

But then, after the collapse of this system built on lies, even in Russia an idea stealthily emerged that even the weak, the non-perfect, the non-normal had a right to live, to be recognized and to achieve self-realization. In this way, for example, in 1994, around 150 kilometres east of St Petersburg, a village community named Svetlana was founded, based on the values of the anthroposophical Camphill movement. It covers not much more than four houses, a home for people with mental and physical disabilities.

Minya and Tatyana are two of them. The got to know each other in 1995 and fell in love. They were two of them. Tatyana no longer lives, covid took her away. What we see is a requiem to her. A requiem to the power of affection. To feeling secure. To the beauty of consensualness. To the comfort born from care. Away from even a trace of that other regrettable certainty, that man can also been wolf to man. And often is.

Mary Gelman, as a photographer a practising human rights activist, boasts a number of awards, exhibitions, publications, too many to list tonight. Rightly she, a member of the famous VII Photo Agency, has been awarded almost all globally relevant decorations. She is an incarnation of empathy, trust and the sensitivity found in the greatest photographers.

We could put the Global Peace Photography Award in no better hands than hers. (Text by Peter-Matthias Gaede)

Discover more: Shortlist 2022, Winners 2022