In Russia, Vlad Zorin photographs young men liberating themselves from the chains of conservatism. They open up to the photographer about sex, voyeurism, tasting bodies, tounges clashing, and the loss of sensibility in the midst of lust and ecstasy. Engrossing sex and casual affairs have given them power that is too overwhelming to repress. Not that they want to ever tramp it down again. Our new generation of young men is done with political foreplay. They take action to inform readers about the highs and lows of sex and affairs through their narratives, and no censorship can dictate the visual and written stories they tell.
Zorin compiles these photographs and texts in his book ‘With Love from Russia.’ Men in their white underwear wear their white eye masks, giving readers a taste of their playfulness. They let Zorin into their lives: while they shower, as they writhe in their bed, during their intimate times. The softcore photos become a comrade to explore the kind of company, relationship, sex, and fling readers want. Yet these raw confessional affairs are not purely about sex. They also expose the transient euphoria these young men have felt, from the pleasant sensation of one’s cock brushing against their legs to padding around naked in their curtainless apartment, intentionally letting their neighbors watch them. At times, the stories carry the pain of curiosity, vulnerability, illegality, and immorality. Radomir’s parents would have sex in front of him, and he would feel jealous. Maxim only dated his previous girlfriend because he wanted to understand what it felt like to date someone. Demid chatted with a stranger who told him he wanted to kiss him, so they did. Mark’s 37-year-old fling confessed to him that she loved him even though she was married and had three kids (Mark was 22 then). Each narrative contains personal encounters readers have longed for themselves and needed to understand who they are.
Zorin, along with his delicate photos, has created a dictionary that clears up one’s complex and tumultuous desires for physical and psychological connection. When he flew to Moscow, Zorin was taken aback by the numerous handsome guys wandering around in the city. He had affairs that lasted for months, but the photographer insisted he did not want to have sex with them. Among them, one stood out. The photographer remembers how this man held the cigarette between his fingers, brought it to his lips, and breathed the smoke out before he locked his gaze on Zorin. From that moment, he became his muse, leading Vlad Zorin to publish similar experiences in his book and speaking with Present Space about the mental barriers he had to overcome before he could freely talk about sex, pornography as a saving grace, the rigid traditions of masculinity, the climate of sex and sexuality in his hometown, and what came after the release of his book.
I grew up in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in Russia where the working-class areas of the city are surrounded by factories. It is the city’s main dumpsite and even a prison. My parents understood my inclination to creativity early on, so it is hard to recall at what age I started doing photography because, since childhood, I have tried all kinds of activities: acting, singing, playing the piano, six years of professional ballroom dancing, three years of hiphop dancing, and photography, to name a few. My parents worked a lot, so they had no time to educate me. I mostly studied art, and when not studying, I spent my time alone on the balcony, always doing something whether drawing or making clothes.
At the age of 13, I was sent to a summer camp. There were many clubs, but I chose photography. There, I met my first teacher who continued to support me even after the camp, sending me master classes and courses in photography. By the age of 14, I had already started earning money using photography from private clients.
Growing up and getting used to this industrial city of Russia has had a direct impact on my current art. I think for me photography is a protest against the environment in which I had to grow up in. My current art protest was born out of my inability to express my feelings, to freely open myself sexually and know myself. This prompted me to travel to Russia for my book “With Love from Russia” to let men talk and be heard because I know what it is like to have no one else. This is probably why my conversations with them are so candid and brave.
As for my artistic language, it was formed from an analysis of male sexuality and sensuality in a totalitarian and homophobic Russia, which led to the creation of protest projects exploring themes of personal freedom and the experience of a new generation.
I overcame this barrier of openly talking about sex because of a man named Radomir, one of the subjects in the book. We did not know each other, and the first time we met, I came to visit him in Veliky Novgorod from Moscow, taking the train to travel around 572 kilometers just to talk and take pictures with him. He spoke so openly about sex like his second skin, and his stories got to me. I remember asking him a question: Radomir, how can you talk so freely about all this?
“What should I be ashamed of? This is me, and it was with me. It is part of me and part of my life,” he told me. His answer won me over. I did not just feel free - I was free. It is amazing how this project, in the course of working on it, changed me and shaped me into the person I am today.
The whole year I was working on the book, I was overwhelmed with doubts. The project was research-based, and I did not know the story behind each man and what the final result of the book would be. I remember the day when the book was already out and on sale, a man from a small town in Russia wrote to me on Instagram: “Vlad, I need this book. I lack support and information. I have no close connection to my parents and friends. Can you please set aside one book for me, and I will save up for it within two months?” Two months passed and he wrote to me again, “Vlad I am ready.”
After a while, he let me know that he was re-reading the book for the third time and that it helped him a lot. He said that some of the love stories coincided with his. There were a lot of stories like this, and I was especially surprised at how popular the book was with young mothers who were recommending the book to each other and sending letters to me to say that they now have a better understanding of how to raise their children.
These letters of gratitude come from different countries: France, Great Britain, America, and even China and the Philippines. After such letters, I saw that puberty has no culture. Even the dubbed ‘free countries’ go a similar way, and my new project “With Love from France” which I am currently working on proves this.
For every subject I spoke to and took photos of, we would have around three to five hours of intense, personal conversations and shoots. I think they changed too because it was the first time they were so open about their sexuality and experiences even to themselves. After each meeting, these men sent me their words of gratitude, sharing that for them it felt like a confession.
When I was a kid, my family and I went to church and, one day, the priest came up to us and told my parents that God had chosen me and that I should follow His way. I never became a priest, but I confessed 17 times, which I continue to do for a new project. All the stories made me realize that everyone wants love. Regardless of who and what they are or the experiences they had growing up, everyone wants love. Everyone.
It is a very difficult time, especially for me as a Russian, to see your country and culture crumbling and your hopes for a peaceful future growing farther and farther away. Everything else around me seems so insignificant and small, but there was one last event that gave me strength and hope and a sign to move forward.
I got from the guys we helped as friends to flee Russia from mobilization. Two days into the start of the mobilization in Russia, my friends and I bought more than 200 tickets for some guys to exit Russia (they are also heroes in my book). For two days, we had been looking for money and miles to buy tickets. We looked for those who needed help, calmed them down, and persuaded them to run and not be afraid.
Those were very scary and difficult days and nights, but the sense of the significance and importance of what we were doing gave us the strength to continue.
On the third day, I could not stand it ( my friends continued to work) as I had a wild pain in my left arm from my shoulder to my fingers. It was psychosomatic from stress. But when I woke up in the morning and looked at my phone I saw dozens of messages from young guys I did not know, “Vlad, we crossed the border. We are safe. Thank you for what you have done.” I cried with happiness and have since then continued what I do. I know for sure that this memory and experience of mine from our new generation will always be with me.