The award-winning Moscow-born filmmaker and photographer Alexander “Sasha” Kargaltsev has lived in Brooklyn for the past seven years. Forced to flee the censorship and persecution he experienced in his homeland as an LGBTQ artist and activist, Kargaltsev was granted asylum in the United States in 2010. His career as a photographer was launched in New York with his first exhibition, Asylum (2012), which documented his fellow Russian-born gay asylum seekers who had also fled the increasingly harsh persecution at home. The exhibition generated strong reactions in his homeland. Later this month (October 22-25, 2017), Kargaltsev will be unveiling a new project of works on paper, titled Disassembled, at the Fridman Gallery in Soho. In early September, the Rail contributor Ivan Talijancic met with Kargaltsev in Bedford-Stuyvesant to discuss what it was like growing up queer in Putin’s Russia, his early artistic and activist endeavors, and his new body of work, for which he developed a new technique – transferring instant-film emulsion to paper.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): It’s good to talk to you, Sasha. Please introduce yourself to The Brooklyn Rail readers.
Alexander Kargaltsev: My name is Alexander Kargaltsev. I was born in Moscow thirty-two years ago, which means I remember what it was like to live in the Soviet Union, experiencing Perestroika and all that. I started my education as a journalist, but eventually switched to film directing at the All-Russian State University of Cinematography. Many famous Russian directors went there; most famous is Tarkovsky, but the lineage goes back as far as Eisenstein. It’s the oldest film school in the world, founded in 1919, right after the Revolution. I spent five happy years there making student movies. When I finished, I applied and was accepted into the post-graduate program, but by that time I was already traveling to film festivals with my shorts. At one of the festivals, which I did not go to because it was in L.A., I received the grand prize. I then used that money to pay tuition at the New York Film Academy—which is actually what initially brought me to New York.
Rail: When was that?
Kargaltsev: In 2010—then I just applied for asylum and stayed here.
Rail: Let’s talk about the circumstances under which you came to the United States and what prompted you to apply for asylum.
Kargaltsev: I was working as a journalist in Russia, and I ended up being politically active as anti- LGBTQ laws started appearing under Putin’s regime. Growing up in the ‘90s during Yeltsin’s presidency, in comparison to living under the Soviet Union, I experienced freedom. In other words, we had freedom of speech, we had great television and papers, you could find anything we wanted to watch or read. But it’s not like that at all anymore. When Putin was elected in 2000, I immediately realized something was changing, especially for gay and LGBTQ people, and so, after several years of him being in office, I realized it was time to make a decision. I could stay, which meant I would have to keep fighting. You see, because of my background as a journalist, it is impossible for me to just conform. Especially when, as recently as this summer, a friend of mine, Kirill Serebrennikov, was arrested. He is just a theatre director, well-known worldwide and they arrested him [on trumped up charges.] You may have read about it in the New York Times. The last Russian director to whom this happened was Meyerhold in 1939, who was arrested by Stalin! Nothing like that ever happened before—until now.
Rail: How old were you when Putin came into power?
Kargaltsev: I was sixteen.
Rail: What was it like to be coming of age as a queer youth in Putin’s Russia?
Kargaltsev: Well, there is only one openly gay artist left in Russia that I am aware of. He is a musician; we see less and less of him lately, otherwise—no one. People are not coming out, and are not openly gay—actually it is forbidden. You cannot hold hands, you cannot carry the rainbow flag—it is considered “propaganda” now. At sixteen, I was pretty young; I was still living with my parents. And I remember my parents not being happy with Putin’s becoming the president. They felt something was really wrong. And indeed, it was the beginning of a dictatorship.
Rail: At what point did you feel—as a person and as an artist—that your freedom was restricted? What was the breaking point?
Kargaltsev: During my university studies. I was watching gay films in Russia, and I had issues with all of them. They were about basic issues such as coming out, dealing with one’s parents, etc., but there were no good dramas. The first ones I saw that I felt were strong were American independent films like Luster, (Everett Lewis, 2002) and Wild Tigers I Have Known (Cam Archer, 2006). One of the first was Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), and I remember seeing people crying in the movie theater in Moscow. Everyone seemed fine with this, but it was still mainstream Hollywood. So, when I finished my studies, I realized it would not be possible for me to express myself if I remained a mainstream director because I was really interested in making good gay dramas. Movie business in Russia is really small—officially about sixty films a year get made, but really it is maybe eight to ten of them that you really have access to. So even for this reason, I thought it would be better to be a small fish in a big pond than the other way around. More importantly, if I stayed in Russia, I felt like I could not express myself as a gay artist. And if you are not speaking your truth, it’s not art.
Rail: Thankfully, you had received a scholarship to attend the New York Film Academy. When you accepted it, did you already know that you would want to apply for asylum in the United States?
Kargaltsev: I had a few months between the scholarship announcement and my arrival to New York. I was doing my research, but the final decision happened when I came here. I had a meeting with the organization called Immigration Equality. They provide attorneys and help you with the application. So yes, I arrived in July that year and in August I was already applying for asylum. It was right around that time that the arrests had started—I remember receiving calls from Russia and being told, “You are so lucky. Stay there!”
Rail: When did your photographic pursuits begin?
Kargaltsev: I was trained as a film director, and I was doing films for five years while at the university, but when I was done with my studies I had no opportunity to make films, so I started taking pictures. I took a lot of photos, but under the table, so to speak, with no chance that they would be exhibited. When I came to the United States, it was with fresh eyes. Everything was beautiful and exciting, so I felt compelled to take a great deal of photographs. I spoke almost zero English. My friends were mostly from the Russian community and it didn’t take long for me to realize I was surrounded with other people who were asylum- seekers as well. I realized that could be a nice project, so I started taking pictures of them. I had a portfolio of gay friends I was shooting on the streets and in the parks to avoid studio costs. Plus, morning light is always nice, and there are no people around. I ordered very large prints from China because they were less expensive. We ended up having a nice show titled Asylum, and that is how it started.
Kargaltsev: Indeed. I kept shooting, and eventually these images became a book, which I also had printed in China. The main concept with these images was to show to Russia and to Putin who they were losing—because mentally, I was still there. I felt like I was in a limbo, watching Russian TV and reading Russian papers, and yet I was living here [in the United States.] That was my message: “hey guys, you are losing something—how about that—smart, able-bodied people who are leaving the country.” And that message came across.
Rail: How did that happen? Obviously, that project—both the exhibition and the book—took place in its entirety the U.S. how did the news reach Russia?
Kargaltsev: It was featured in an online magazine, Snob.ru. When we released Asylum, they contacted me through the gallery and made a post, and it ended up receiving the highest number of hits that they’ve ever had—over 40,000 views just the night it was published—and then it went viral.
Rail: It’s been seven years now that you have made a home for yourself here. How does it feel now to make work as a queer artist in the United States, while at the same time following the developments in your homeland, especially having to do with the tenuous condition of Russia’s LGBTQ population?
Kargaltsev: It feels good to be here. I feel free. I never thought that freedom of expression could be so important to someone, but it is.
Rail: It gets taken for granted in so many places.
Kargaltsev: Yes. You feel connected with the world, you have dialogue, you have feedback. It is very sad, what is going on [in Russia], but I feel like it is going to end very soon. Because of all the sanctions, the country is getting poorer and poorer. There is an oil crisis, and that industry accounts for seventy percent of Russia’s economy. The price of oil dropped twice already, so that alone represents a forty percent decrease in the country’s budget. The population is getting steadily poorer; meanwhile, we had the Olympic games in Sochi, and Putin took Crimea, so – all those bad decisions. They spent fifty billion dollars on those games—the most expensive Olympic games in the history. Of course, most of it was stolen, that is the reason. At some point, it is going to get so bad that it will implode. When people start going hungry, there will be protests, and protests bring on revolutions. Putin will not give up, but things will end up badly for him.
Rail: To what extent are you still in contact with people you know in Russia?
Kargaltsev: Less and less.
Rail: As someone who was born in Russia and has family there, how do you feel about the information that we receive here, versus the reality of what is happening politically on the ground? What are we missing?
Kargaltsev: The difference, first of all, is that you are receiving concentrated and exaggerated information. But still, it is pretty realistic. During Soviet times, the papers lied about internal affairs but accurately depicted what was going on elsewhere. Now, when the New York Times is writing about Russia, the reporting is quite accurate. What’s missing is the human interest. I don’t think the world is as interested in Russia as much as it was during the Cold War. Now it’s just seen as a third world country. There should be more noise, more coverage. Something significant is happening there. Russia used to be friendly with neighboring countries like Ukraine and Georgia—now it is surrounded with enemies. That is exactly what Putin achieved.
Rail: This conversation actually dovetails nicely into the subject of your new body of work. From my perspective, you are approaching it from two parallel directions. You were particularly affected by the persecution of gay people in Russia and the murders in Chechnya. Another interesting dimension that you are bringing to the work has to do with a website you created to track the likelihood of Putin’s getting re-elected in 2018.1 Can you talk a bit about these threads that inspired the new project, Disassembled?
Kargaltsev: Putin’s chances of being re-elected are pretty high, it seems. First of all, he changed the number of times one can get re-elected. Yeltsin was able to hold two four-year terms before stepping down. Putin is already on his third term and is looking to change the duration to six years, so he is well on the way to beating Brezhnev, who was in office for nearly twenty years. He also changed election laws: in the past, the results were only valid if at least thirty percent of the population showed up at the polls. Now, even if only ten percent cast their vote, the result is considered valid—they could care less. If only two people were to vote for Putin, he would still get to be the president.
In terms of the aesthetics of my works – the slicing, the disassembling – represents Russia as it is disassembled now, it is not accidental. I try to find ways of connecting my art to politics because I want to keep fighting. I disagree with what’s going on, so any opportunity I have to bring it up, to give it exposure, I do.
Rail: Speaking of disassembling: the body of work that you are creating for the upcoming exhibition is using a rather unique technique. Can you talk about what it involves?
Kargaltsev: It is a Polaroid technique. The film is new, but I am still using an old Polaroid camera. Polaroid came to Russia very late—in the ‘90s—when I was still very young. When I was old enough to shoot consciously, it was already late. In 2003, they announced that they would stop producing film and the cameras. That was disappointing. I felt that I missed something really cool, but a new company, Impossible Project, announced that they would develop new film for the old cameras. Now they even make their own cameras, but back then, a few years ago, they experimented with the film. Polaroid did not sell them their formula, so they had to develop their own. First, they created black-and-white film, so they basically retraced Polaroid’s steps from the ‘40s to the ‘80s, but they were fast. I love science! One of the features of the old film from the ‘40s and the ‘50s was that one could transfer it. That wasn't good because the image could get damaged really easily, so they fixed it. Starting from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, the film wasn't transferable anymore, but Impossible Project started with this technique, and they kept it. So now you can transfer the emulsion. It's not popular; not many people do that, especially in this artistic direction where I am focusing for several years on this technique. I realized that I'm one of the first artists to use this new Impossible Project film.
Rail: Is it safe to say that you have invented a new technique?
Kargaltsev: Basically, yes. I spent two years just experimenting. You have to figure out the best temperature for the water; you have to process the picture within a couple of days, otherwise it gets so dry you cannot feel it anymore. So, time is important; temperature is important; exposure is important; and in order to meet all those criteria, you have to do a lot of experiments, which is time-consuming. Then, I experimented with brushes and with paper. I mean, the chemistry is—well—it's poison, so you have to be really careful. Still, you can’t use any gloves because you don't feel the emulsion—you can damage it if you don't feel it, so you really need to work with your bare fingers. I'm doing a video right now that will show this process, and it will be projected at the gallery.
Rail: How are you using this technique in Disassembled, and how does this particular method relate to the subject matter for the exhibition?
Kargaltsev: Polaroid had ten shots in the package; Impossible Project managed to fit only eight. The film is pretty expensive—almost twenty-five dollars per pack—so each time you press that button you are spending three dollars. I thought: "Okay, I can use eight shots, so I can probably do two models per pack." That's how I came up with the idea of slicing the image into four pieces. When it comes to buyers, collectors, and galleries, they want unique stuff on the wall. Prints are really hard to sell. So this is not a print anymore; it's something else, like a large painting. I use photography, but I also use brushes—either my fingers or a real brush. Nudes are just the most popular—we were born nude, and we're going to die nude, so I am dealing with the body in its most natural state. It's not necessarily something everyone would hang on the wall, but it certainly is for someone who would like to collect it.
Rail: What I find fascinating in the images that you've shown me is that the works are beautiful on one level but also disturbing on another level because the subjects' bodies are cut apart. At the same time, the composition is very classical. Is this intentional, or did it just evolve as a part of your process?
Kargaltsev: Both. My aim was to fit the whole body into the frame, and I wasn't dealing with a single frame anymore, so I spent some time figuring out what the best composition and the best framing would be. When I found it, it was pretty difficult to make the first one, and I thought that I was never going to repeat it. But then, little by little, I did.
Technically speaking, you need a pose someone can hold for twenty to fifty seconds; otherwise it's going to be messy. The easiest way is to put the model on the table and make them relaxed, as it takes a few seconds for the battery to recharge between takes. Most of the images are horizontal because that's how we read; we have two eyes, which are horizontal. It is more comfortable to watch horizontal images, and it's easy to find flat surfaces everywhere. You don't need much of a backdrop, and you don't need daylight because the flash is built in. Everything came together so perfectly. And I just couldn't stop—I still cannot stop. I keep creating more and more of those images.