How to photograph corruption

Photographing the ‘unphotographable’ has become Mari Bastashevskiʼs mission. Born in Saint Petersburg in 1980, she tackles entrenched and often concealed systemic failures such as corruption, abuse of power, propaganda or the economies of conflict. “I have done some frontline war work, but the result felt like ‘phoning in’. Since then, I have become a lot more focused on the system rather than its victims or results,” she says.

After spending three years in Russia and the North Caucasus to produce File 126, which documents cases of abductions, Bastashevski is currently working on distinct yet concomitant series. In 2013, she was awarded a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant for State Business, a scrupulous and intricate study of the paradoxes of the global arms trade industry. She is also continuing It’s Nothing Personal, an ongoing project about the contrast between the corporate branding of western surveillance firms and Privileged/Confidential, an informed look at the abuses committed by officials in the Balkans.

Using both text and images, her work has a forensic quality. Precision, distance and restraint inspire her aesthetic. “Beauty and spectacle are not photographic criteria for me, with the exception of when state theatrics is itself the subject,” she says. Each photo, along with the accompanying words, testifies to her research and findings. “I approach my subject like a criminologist. I ask: ‘Why canʼt I photograph here? Why is that a security concern? What is the distance where the photograph is permitted?ʼ If it werenʼt for this process, the outcome wouldnʼt be the same image,” she explains. Increasingly, she includes outsourced documents and raw data, elements that add to the complexity of her projects while making its underpinnings more intelligible.

“Her subjects are difficult and her approach is a kind of ascetic undertaking,” remarks Barry W. Hughes of Super Massive Black Hole magazine, one of her many early admirers. “Though the characters and situations are serious at core, none of the irony or absurdity is lost. and, despite the complex themes in the work, the style and attitude remain nuanced. She avoids condescending the viewer, and so there’s an integrity that transcends technique.” Using a similar vocabulary, curator Hester Keijser puts her in the same league, in terms of approach and subject matter, as Trevor Paglen or Taryn Simon.

Bastashevski welcomes comments like these, which highlight the demanding nature of her endeavours. “This usually means that the viewer is required to become part of the understanding process with me,” she says. “I try to provide the pieces, but leave the audience the space to put them together and find conclusions independently.”

Find more of Mari’s work here.

First published in the January 2014 issue. You can buy the issue here.