Picturing a rural idyll in the little-acknowledged nation of Transnistria

As Moldova proclaimed its independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union, a 400km stretch of territory wedged between its border with Ukraine also declared itself a separate entity. With its own flag, parliament and currency, Transnistria has all the apparatus of being a nation yet it is only officially acknowledged as an independent state by three other republics, all of them also with limited recognition.

Born at the same time as this new state, in 1990, Anton Polyakov and Anya Galatonova are first generation Transnistrians whose work is dedicated to visualising life in the region, believing that photography plays a crucial role in affirming their homeland’s identity.

Polyakov was introduced to documentary photography through a workshop by Eastern European collective Sputnik Photos before teaming up with Galatonova. The duo are devoted to chronicling the characteristics and realities of life in the region in a way that goes beyond documenting the relics of its Soviet past.

“It seems to us that by engaging with photography and reflecting on the processes that take place in this territory, we declare our existence to the world, and the world thus recognises our country – at least in the cultural space,” they say. “This is an important moment of recognising ourselves as non-ghosts.”

From the series Mahala © Anton Polyakov and Anya Galatonova

Though both are from the city of Tiraspol (Transnistria’s de facto capital), their project, Mahala, sprang from childhood memories of summer holidays with family in their respective villages. In local Moldovan dialect, the word ‘mahala’ signifies an isolated settlement occupied by people who feel that together they make up a kind of community. Focusing on a group of young people, mainly around the village of Hristovaia, the project delicately explores the ups and downs of rural life, from the idyll of being close to nature to living in isolation from the rest of the world, and the necessity of eventually leaving to find work.

Over two years, the pair documented the intimate friendships of the closely-knit group, all aged 17 and 18, struck by how different they were from the young people they knew from the city. “By the end of this story we have discovered a simple but important thing: the nature surrounding them is also a reflection of their inner world,” they explain.

“They are pure and in some ways naive, sometimes riotous and wild, and they are always ready to share what nature has given.”

A sense of transience runs through Mahala. During Soviet rule, state-run collective farms provided the region with jobs in the agrarian industry. Since its collapse, work has dried up and most young people are forced to emigrate, either to the city or abroad, in order to earn a living, casting the future of these villages in doubt.

“Right before our eyes, almost all of the people we shot scattered in different directions, coming home only for the holidays,” remark the duo.

mahala.anton-polyakov.com  This article was first published in the March issue of BJP, available from thebjpshop www.thebjpshop.com

From the series Mahala © Anton Polyakov and Anya Galatonova
From the series Mahala © Anton Polyakov and Anya Galatonova
From the series Mahala © Anton Polyakov and Anya Galatonova
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy