Perched on the end of a bench in her gymnastics class in Lugansk, enjoying a moment’s reprieve from her daily, four-hour-long lessons, a five-year-old Anastasiya Lazurenko, in leotard and tights, eyes locked on the succession of “beautiful young girls from that small Ukrainian town” doing perfect aerial flips, wondered “why people go to all the trouble of living when in the end all they’re going to do is die”.
“I remember feeling very alone at the time,” says the 28-year-old photographer.
Existentialist thoughts have always consumed Lazurenko: “Had I not had a strong education, my brain would have blown out my head and I wouldn’t be here today. I also wrote poetry from an early age – that saved me too.”
Lazurenko sees beauty in everything and says that ‘thinking’ is what she does best. A shaman once urged her to spread beauty to the world – suggesting she should do it with words, for they are entry points to the emptiness. But Lazurenko’s entry point to the emptiness comes by way of a viewfinder. She says it’s where she finds “supreme peace”.
“Making photography is a spiritual practice. The Alexander Gronsky and Iveta Vaivode workshop I took in 2009 at the International Summer School of Photography in Latvia completely changed my perception of what I had been doing up until then. It made me see that there is not only science in photography, but also magic, and that it’s a spiritual discipline.”
Russian photographer Daria Tuminas, however, is the one tutor who Lazurenko considers a true teacher. “Daria was the first person whose eyes became bright when she saw my photos. That was the first time I actually saw real interest: I was in a difficult way at the time and she caught me – she saw something at the right moment, when I was full of despair. She helped me to organise my work, to give it form and intellectual understanding. This helped me on my spiritual journey.”
A turning point came after the birth of her eldest son in 2010. “I never perceive the world as man and woman; I perceive human beings as souls, and that sex is really just a connection of souls. But after the birth of my son everything changed.” On becoming a mother she was suddenly struck by the idea that, from a scientific perspective, a woman is realised into motherhood through a man. “I was thrown into motherhood before I found my own identity as a woman, and suddenly you find the answers to all your questions,” she explains.
“After I gave birth to my son, I had an overwhelming need to understand what is the nature of female beauty. I started obsessively doing shoots with women – women I met in the street, at the grocery store, at my yoga class, at nightclubs. We connected. I was like a spiritual teacher to them and they my disciples. I really wanted to understand what men see in them, to get inside them, to find out how they switch on their ‘feminine magic’.”
Lazurenko had sex with some of the women she photographed, exploring her belief that sexuality does not divide along gender lines, and that it really is about an ability to love: “The energy that emanated from these women when they were posing for the shoots made me tremble behind the lens.”
But in 2012, two years into the project, one of her muses – Valeria Koshkina – died of anorexia. “Her death had a great impact on me. I understood just how much everyone is fixated on images of women from glossy magazines, and how those images make people crave to be a part of that perfect world. Visually, though, I had been making the same type of imagery that is so popular in our modern, model-crazed world – especially in Ukraine, a country rich with beautiful girls. I photographed girls who wanted to pose, to look sexy, to be just like the models they see in the media. They wanted to look beautiful, but it was someone else’s idea of beauty.”
Pearly Gates, which started life on the heels of motherhood, came to its natural conclusion in 2014 – resulting in a photobook – after Lazurenko attended an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroid works at Grand Palais in Paris. “I stood there crying from the strength of his work. It was so powerful. That same day I bought a cheap Polaroid camera.”
By the end of that summer, she travelled to Saint-Petersburg, where she reunited with many of the girls she had photographed years earlier using her medium format camera and arranged to shoot them again, exactly as they were, only this time with her Polaroid camera.
“That was very strange for all of us – I couldn’t come to my senses for a long time after that experience. Working with them all, together in one place, was truly mystical. I had film portraits of them from years earlier, as I never use digital cameras; in the photobook, when placed opposite the obsessive archive of images I’d shot four years earlier, the Polaroids themselves become works of art in their own right rather than representations of glossy magazine covers.”
And because Polaroid photos are instant, raw and untouched, they reveal a different layer that’s often obscured by highly stylised digital shoots. “The Polaroids breathe,” says Lazurenko, suggesting they have a life all their own, and so came the “completion of my four-year journey, in a series and photobook titled Pearly Gates, which means the gates to Heaven, or LSD – or vagina.”
Some have accused Lazurenko of oversexualising her images, saying they exploit women, that they are contrived, and that “the project is about women for men”. “Honestly, nothing is deliberate in my work. First I do, then I reflect on what I have done.”
Her practice is more visceral than measured, and Pearly Gates more an exploration of sexuality than an attempt to define it. “I turned the locks,” she says. “I show what it means to be a free soul. Your sex definitely makes an impact on how you relate to the world, to your surroundings, and to your way of thinking. I believe in the Vedic philosophy of womanhood. Woman is love – the highest condition of us all. The women in the shoots understood this and shared it honestly. It was brave for all of us.”
Lazurenko had given birth to her second child by the time she finished the series last year, and in her journey she discovered not that ‘blessed is the one you choose to bring near’, but that ‘blessed is the one who can love with utter abandon’.
“Human beings push each other into such enormous situations in the name of love, and unless you are able to develop yourself, understand yourself, you will die inside. Pearly Gates is about honesty – about being honest with yourself. In it I investigate sexuality and try to understand what is behind the cliches and stereotypes that men and women have about the notion of ‘sexy’.”
The series is not a feminist commentary on sexual empowerment, says Lazurenko; rather, it’s an incredibly intimate exploration of sexual identity, bridging the disconnect that exists between subject and photographer.
For more information on Pearly Gates, go to Anastasiya Lazurenko’s website
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.