Orphans From the Forgotten Corners of Russia, on a Mobile Phone

“I can’t say that as kids we had any problems,” Dmitry Markov tells me. “Well, now I realise it’s not quite normal to hang out in abandoned construction areas, have our arms broken, smoke, and breathe in glue fumes, but it all just seemed like an ordinary boyish life. At least in my neighbourhood. My father was an alcoholic. To me and most of my friends, this was normal.”
With his photographs, Markov, a 35-year-old volunteer who works with orphaned children in eastern Russia, is paying homage to his own precarious upbringing. Despite their circumstances, the kids on his Instagram invariably have mischievous glints in their eyes, jumping through windows, grappling on wrestling mats, climbing on things they shouldn’t be climbing on.

Markov lived this life, and knows these kids – and the unfettered joy that comes through in his work, set against consistently intriguing smalltown Russian backdrops, is a refreshing look at Russia’s deprived children.
Markov was born in 1982 in Pushkino, a factory town which had long since seen its factories closed down. The kids were left to fend for themselves, which invariably meant getting into fights, and trouble with police.

“I had no people to look up to, no creative guides,” says Markov. “Later I began using drugs myself – first weed, then heroin and ‘VINT’ – self-made meth. Older kids led way more dangerous lives and we, I must admit, admired them.”
That admiration did, though, lead to more productive behaviour – at 16, Markov got into journalism, and began writing about his peers in local papers. His first article was about his girlfriend’s brother, an HIV-infected heroin dealer who was sent to prison. Markov’s piece “consisted of a lot of gory details on how he’d used drugs in front of his 5-year-old son, and how his family had suffered,” and it gave Markov direction – he decided to continue shedding light on neglected corners of Russian society.

He’d been wanting to leave Pushkino – most of his friends were now either dead or in prison – and by 20 he was gone, working at a Moscow newspaper, writing about deprived youths.
There, though, he was derailed. The job bored him, he wasn’t given the opportunity to go as in-depth as he wanted with his stories, and when a friend of his died – “his body had been found on the railways close to the train station, circumstances unspecified” – Markov got back into drugs himself. Eventually, he quit, combating his sobriety by buying a camera and getting into photography. He left his job and, eager to do something useful, became a volunteer in a village near Pskov, a small Russian town 12 miles east of Estonia, working as an assistant teacher in an orphanage for children with learning disabilities. “I was interested in older kids’ lives in orphanages,” he says. “They always tend to hold themselves close and separate from others. Work at the establishment gave a chance to get inside that closed society.”

Since 2012, Markov has been revealing that closed society to the rest of the world on Instagram. A few years ago he helped to set up ‘Children’s Village,’ in which the older teens, having outgrown the school, learn to live independently. Markov, who has settled in Pskov, says it reminds him of his hometown: “No tall buildings, quiet life, few people. Many locals tend to leave the town and move to Moscow. But I want to stay here.” He documents daily life unobtrusively, with his iPhone, and the kids trust him, the bond already in place – hence his work’s naturalism, vitality and intimacy.
He finds the limitations of the iPhone’s camera a challenge – it pushes him, he says, to think harder about composition and light, and he enjoys the immediacy and interaction that Instagram offers. He wants his photos to bring global attention to the lives of these children, and is succeeding: last year he was one of three people who won $10,000 for the inaugural Getty Images Instagram Grant, which supports photographers who share stories of underrepresented communities. He’s been using the cash to travel through Siberia, doing more volunteer work with different communities, photographing them throughout.

He tells me about Ruslan, a single, disabled father, and his son Vitya, who live in Pskov. Russian law states that if a father fails to keep his child in school, the child can be taken into state custody.
In place of government support, non-profit organisations help the disabled, and most Russians, says Markov, don’t view disabled people as equals; Ruslan himself has grown up with no hope of self-improvement, and just wants to get by.

Last year, Markov took a series of photos of Ruslan and Vitya, for a project called Gray Brick Road, and soon became embroiled in the struggle.
“I met them in the street and decided to photograph them,” he says, “but as I learned more about their lives, I realised I had to take part as a social helper. This story to me is about true love between a father and a son. We were constantly in touch for six months; I only took photos for a couple of weeks. The rest of time, I was busy convincing the social services to return the boy to his father and keep the family together.”

It’s the compassion that elevates Markov’s work. In his emails he repeatedly refers to those in his photos as his “heroes,” and that’s what makes his Instagram feed so compelling – even if the effect it has is limited. “I am not inclined to overestimate the impact of photography on individuals or the society as a whole,” he says.
“I honestly have my doubts on whether art can change people. Photography to me is, to a certain extent, therapy or meditation. I just photograph what’s interesting to me, what reminds me of my childhood, or what looks beautiful. Many people, especially in Russia, think that I show the unsightly part of Russian reality. Well, if that’s so, then I’m part of this reality.”
See more of Dmitry Markov’s photographs on his Instagram page.