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The big picture: vodka and sunshine in southern Siberia, 1993

·2-min read

In the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen travelled through some of the outlying states, living with families and documenting ordinary lives. One of the books she produced about those travels was called Let’s Sit Down Before We Go, a reference to the Russian custom of taking a quiet moment before a long journey to reflect on the place you were leaving and imagine where you were going next.

Van Manen’s pictures captured a whole empire in that kind of limbo. Sometimes, as here, temporary refuge might be found in a vodka bottle. The young men on this camping trip, to the shores of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, have hung their empties on a line, a trophy each for the five of them, and one for luck. The two boys standing appear to be enjoying the sunlit freedoms of the holiday; the two staring into Van Manen’s camera under the piratical flag might fancy themselves in Lord of the Flies.

Van Manen, now 79, started out as a fashion photographer, but abandoned that career for documentary work, using cheap snapshot cameras, which helped, she says, both in gaining the trust of the people she photographed and lending her pictures the snatched, intimate feel she was after. Subsequently, she has travelled in China, the Appalachian mountains and rural Ireland, always getting close to the people she photographs, staying in village houses, waiting until she becomes part of the furniture. The results of all those journeys are published alongside pictures of her own family in a new archival book. “When you take photographs with no planning or staging,” she says, “you get surprises afterwards. It’s as if the photograph is giving you a present.” And what is the gift here? I’d start with the knife embedded in the tree trunk, the fixed point around which all the rest turns.

Archive by Bertien van Manen is published by Mack (£50)

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