Blog Post

Smile For Me, Russia

Couple kissing at Beer, Buns & Burgers restaurant in Moscow.. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

They hide in plain sight. When shooting street photography in Russia, odds are good you’ll encounter them. Anti-photobombers. They’re everywhere.

Let's play "Where Are the Anti-Photobombers." In the picture above, can you can find them?

Did you guess the smooching couple? Wrong. They'd been at it for ten minutes, hardly noticing me standing there with my camera.

The anti-photobombers are here:

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The scarf-over-the-face is a classic move of the female Russian anti-photobomber.

And if a lady should find herself without a scarf, she can always pull the draped-arm routine:

Women at a butcher shop. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

Russian male anti-photobombers have their own techniques:

The "Cup In Front of Face"

Man at a fast-food restaurant. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

The "Pretend I’m a Wall"

Line cook at a steak restaurant. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

The "Turn My Back, Like I'm Not Here"

Women, dog, and security guard at a farmer's market. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

So, what's up with Russian’s camera shyness?

The earliest mention of it that I could find was from a 1947 newspaper article, published in Australia. It reported on the strange behavior of Russians in East Berlin, Germany.

" A gun may make a Russian cower, freeze or bolt; but a camera makes him frantic... No one knows exactly why a Russian is camera-shy; but stroll into the Soviet sector of Berlin with a camera and your chances are about even to wind up in the secret police prison. "

The article warned:

" One almost sure way to raise a storm is to point your camera directly at the face of a Russian soldier. He swings his tommy-gun off his shoulder, aims it at your camera, advances and you are under arrest. You may get the camera back, but not the film. "

Seventy years later, soldiers and policemen still don’t take kindly to being photographed. And woe be the shooter who photographs a government structure, the act of which is considered a threat to national security. For a long time, that meant restrictions on photographs at places like Red Square. Those rules have been loosened. Daniel Maksyukov, a Russian street photographer, says that today’s photo-shyness is a national attitude inherited from the Soviet Union.

" Suspicion, erected in the absolute, is our main heritage from Soviet epoch. Apparently, the question What are you doing here??? is incurable disease. Hearing the shutter sound people stare at me with astonishment and have such face expression as if I have sat to take a crap in the middle of the crowd. "

His collection of photographs is filled with anti-photobombers.

There may be a reason for the stereotype of Russian's cold, steely demeanor. In a 2011 opinion piece for The Moscow Times, Michael Bohm saw a clue in the then-newly released "World Map of Happiness." Out of 178 ranked countries, Russia finished near the bottom, at 167th.

" It is often said life is like a mirror; we get the best results when we smile at it. This may be true if the mirror is normal. But in Russia, the mirror is horribly distorted by corruption, arbitrary rule, lawlessness, a weak civil society and a low level of freedom. "

A collection of pictures that did not get anti-photobombed. PHOTOGRAPHS BY RYAN BELL

The topic got a lot of attention during the 2013 Winter Olympic Games, which were held in Sochi, Russia. In a blog for the National Journal, Marina Koren, a Russian native, tried to help readers understand all those non-smilers. She opens with a quote reported by another blogger:

" In Rus­sia only two types of people smile: idi­ots and rich people — and rich people don’t walk on the street. "

Citing this study, Koren suggests the reason is socio-political:

" In col­lect­iv­ist na­tions, like Rus­sia and China, people tend to neut­ral­ize happy ex­pres­sions, blend­ing in with the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. "

But, she warned:

" All this re­search makes it sound like Rus­si­ans are per­petu­ally un­happy people, doomed for de­press­ing lives. They’re not. "

The Russian smile is anatomically different -- all lips, with little to no cheek, temple, or eye squint. Here’s a chart for understanding its nuanced meanings.

Koren's analysis gives special insight into how Russians relate to the camera:

" ...when someone brings out a cam­era, the corners of their mouths turn down again. The per­man­ence of pho­to­graphs makes the im­ages some­how less per­son­al and more pub­lic; they re­flect how Rus­si­ans ap­pear to every­body else, in­clud­ing strangers on the street. En­tire fam­ily photo al­bums cap­ture not one smile. My Rus­si­an par­ents ap­pear stone-faced in black-and-pho­tos from their young adult­hood, dur­ing beach trips and bar­be­cues, at wed­dings and parties. "

Yet, photographers do succeed at taking awesome street photograph. The secret seems to be, point and shoot, letting the bombs go off as they may.

The one exception to the rule are dashboard video cameras. Russians love them, and apparently don’t mind having their actions captured by others who have them. The Internet thanks them. From streaking meteors, to brawling mascots, Russian dashcam videos rack up YouTube views by the millions. (Viewer discretion advised.)

Ryan Bellis a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project#ComradeCowboys.Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.

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