“Our relationship was strong, sophisticated,” says the Russian photographer Olga Matveeva.
She had just graduated from Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography when, together with her boyfriend, they decided to move from Moscow to Crimea, for the winter at least, “and probably for longer”. They were sharing a home, deeply in love.
“But suddenly, something changed in the air,” she tells BJP from Moscow. “Everything became serious, frightening. Everyone stopped trusting each other.”
The protests began in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Then, with a slow inevitability, Ukraine fell into war with its old master. Matveeva and her boyfriend found themselves sitting on the sofa, watching TV, comparing the news coverage of Putin’s coded invasion of Ukraine and the eventual annexation of Crimea. It was, says Matveeva, “a strange kind of entertainment”.
As they flicked from Ukrainian to Russian to European TV channels, she started to come to terms with her situation. “I realised we were not a couple anymore, because we were not willing to give support to each other,” she says of her lover.
So began Feud, a photography project spawned from “an unbearable loneliness during the war”. As her relationship disintegrated, and as Crimean democracy was suspended, Matveeva started to photograph everything around her, using her camera like a diary, charting her emotional course.
“It was the only medium that could articulate my existential questions about the absurdity of the war and the destructive passion that can only exist between close people,” she says. “There is no the beginning or end in my project. There are no answers. I just tried to raise one question – how could this happen?”
“Feud is a category of intimate space,” she writes in the introduction to the series, which was published by Austrian publishing house Anzenberger. “How close people who share common bed and who have common past can suddenly become real enemies.”
Feud is shot in different formats, in monochrome and colour, on film and digital, and presented across double page full bleeds. It shifts horizons, environments, temporalities; from the most intimate bodily moments of Matveeva’s relationship, to the extraordinary violence and restless uncertainty that surrounded them, to the inanimate objects that managed, whatever the weather, to stay intact.
The book moves from her body in the creased sheets of her bed, to her partner’s face, to coloured fish frozen in a lake, to a pockmarked sculpture of an arched mermaid, to flares and flags in Kiev’s Maidan Square, to a fleet of ships floating in dark water amidst the falling snow, to a statue of Lenin surrounded by protestors, to the explosion of a missile in an endlessly blue sky.
It finishes with a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, from his book Beyond Good and Evil: “Anyone who fights with monsters should take care that does not in the process become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Matveeva remained in Crimea for a year – from early winter 2013 until Autumn 2014, – when she realised she was becoming dependent on the war, in her home and beyond, “as if it were some kind of a drug”.
When her physical and mental health began to fail, she returned to Moscow, realising en route that her personal experience could turn into something she could call art. “Who started this provocation and what is the source of its nature?” she writes. “You feel yourself as an animal in a cage, but you can’t jump out. War and hate here look like a passion, just like the filling and identification of yourself, using your counterpart.”
See more of Matveeva’s work here.