Social networks allow us to project whatever image we choose onto the people we’re connected to, and images – those we take of ourselves and of others – form a central role in the way we perform for others in the online space. And this sense of performance lies at the heart of a project by Russian photographer Anastasia Rudenko, which features images of policewomen and criminals she has found online.
From 2011 to 2014, Rudenko, who was born in the South Kazakhstan region of the former Soviet Union, collected images sourced from Russian social networking sites, including Odnoklassniki.ru, a social network for schoolmates past and present, akin to Friends Reunited. These kind of sites are everywhere in Russia, she says, and they provide an “avalanche” of images that can make a useful starting point for her personal projects. “I collect snapshots and then decide how I can use them, either as found images or as material for my own photography. In my work, I try to analyse sections of modern Russian society from different angles. At some point I found social networks a good place for research.”
In particular, the 33-year-old photographer, who lives and works in Vologda Oblast in the north west of the country, has focused her attention on images sourced from Russian online police community networks. These pictures form the backbone of her series, Wanted, in which she combines images of Russian policewomen in provocative poses with mugshots of criminals, which she sources from police websites and through Google Images by typing ‘wanted criminals’ into the search engine.
“There are hundreds of vernacular images of Russian policewomen photographed in exaggerated erotic poses, either by taking self-portraits or photographing each other,” she explains. “Afterwards, these pictures are displayed on Russian social networks or police community websites. People enthusiastically comment on these posts, the most beautiful women are highlighted, and the practice is sustained.”
This trend among policewomen “to exhibit their sexuality to the camera” is related to the prevalent snapshot culture in Russia, says Rudenko, where women of any age, no matter the setting, will automatically strike a pose when confronted by a camera. “Add a uniform, the notion of authority and power, and the intensity of the woman’s ‘beauty’ is amplified,” says Rudenko. “This project explores the self-representation of Russian female police officers and examines how they view beauty, sexuality and the way in which they share images. It also questions the ambiguity of their position: seeking a man’s attention, but also seeking criminals.”
By including composite images of male criminals, Rudenko draws attention to the representation of ‘the criminal’ in the media, and the romanticisation of their image. “Criminal culture is very popular in Russia, especially in music. There are songs where criminals profess their love to policewomen, for example. This project links two worlds – that of the police and the criminal, women and men – into one story that questions issues of representation, power, ‘good girls’ versus ‘bad boys’, Russian concepts of femininity and masculinity, narratives of love, and the culture of police and criminal communities that intertwine in Russia on many levels.”