A view on Chechnya

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“Some deaths we know. Others we forget”, writes Edouard Carmignac in the prologue to Davide Monteleone’s photobook, Spasibo.

Carmignac alludes to the code of silence that ravages the Russian region of Chechnya, a former enclave of brutal oppression, violent conflict and rampant corruption, and the subject of documentary photographer and 4th winner of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award Davide Monteleone’s series, Spasibo. Loosely translated as ‘thank you’, the photographer uses the word ironically for his poignant study of Chechan life under the tyrannical rule of Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

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Published by Kehrer and priced at £40, the book contains striking black and white images that convey not the war-torn, blood-stained visions of the Republic’s past, but of a modern Chechnya. Monteleone takes the reader on an incisive journey through Chechnya’s myriad landscape, traversing snow-scattered mountains, neo-classical Stalinist constructions, gilded mosques, and run-down towns, to explore the complex identities and cultures of those who call the region home.

Monteleone’s monograph possesses a sensitivity that captures the beautiful banality of his subjects. As Spasibo’s narrative gradually unfolds, an apparent undercurrent of ambiguity and emotion is revealed. He constructs a serialisation of daily life, excavating the façade that Kadyrov has built to hide the omnipresent psychological tensions that continue to grip Chechnya’s people. While Monteleone avoids addressing these critical points of turmoil head on, he openly plays with this façade, and ideas of misinterpretation within his images.

In the book’s opening image, what looks like an explosion from a government building is revealed to be harmless firework display. In another, an ominous crowd of men, who appear to be plotting an uprising in the dead of night, is in fact a congregation leaving church. Most notably, a haunting portrait of a child bride is a young girl simply playing dress up in her older sister’s dress. In this way, Monteleone plays with the reader’s expectations, and in the process acknowledges both the ambiguity of Chechen society and indeed of his photography and the medium in general.

Alongside Monteleone’s photographs are carefully composed images from the archives of the Gronsky library – a memento mori to the ghosts of a bygone era that haunt Chechnya’s present. Together, the images reflect the strength and sorrow, hopes and fears, and stifling sense of compromise and unease felt by many of its people.

Spasibo, with its timeless and austere qualities, offers an arresting insight into a landscape recovering from its past wounds, and a people resiliently piecing together the complex fragments of their lives.

Spasibo is on show at the Saatchi Gallery in London until the 03 November 2014.

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Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.