The Photographic Alphabet: S is for Sisters and Nadia Sablin
By Erica McGrath
This week I was struck by the problem of deciding between which influential photographers to write about. After this past weekends awe inspiring, and record breaking, Women’s March with protest across the entire world (!!) I knew I had to focus on women artists in this week’s Alphabet series. It was both a blessing and a curse that some of my favorite women photographers have the letter S in their name. It became very difficult to choose between artists like Cindy Sherman, Viviane Sassen, Laurie Simmons, and Sophie Calle. But ultimately I decided to write about Nadia Sablin, a woman whose name both starts with S and her photography series “Aunties” shows the strength, power, and love between two sisters.
I was lucky enough to be exposed firsthand to Nadia Sablin’s work at a lecture she gave in New Paltz New York. She discussed her summers spent in a small village in Russia, Alekhovshchina, with her family and two aunts who still reside there. The small and isolated house and farm that the sisters live in demands much physical work and labor to keep it functioning. Sablin’s Aunts, Alevtina and Ludmila, now in their 70’s still carry on daily laborious tasks such as chopping and gathering wood, cleaning up around the house and farm, cooking, making their own clothing, and clearing weeds. Their strength has been sustained by performing these tasks over many years with their lives revolving around nature and it’s demands.
Nadia Sablin’s photographs of her aunts are fantastical and illuminating. Alekhovshchina and the aunties appear to be unreal, beautiful and isolated, strong and old, the contradictions of this world are stirring. Sablin’s photographs demonstrate the close bond Alevtina and Ludmila have shared over the course of their life due to their dependence on one another to survive. But their bond is clearly based more on just a need to survive. Their isolation is by choice and they are content with living with only each other in their surreal and magical village. However the sisters welcome Sablin into their unconventional life and allow her to photograph them.
Photography acts as a way of communication between Sablin and her aunties. The images are both staged and real as a way for Sablin to evoke memories from her past and depict the sisters as they are currently. They show the sister’s daily activities and self-sufficiency, whether that is chopping wood, gathering berries, or working on a crossword puzzle. The images are bright and lively with astonishing natural light piercing through many of them. Sablin’s aunties are older and aging yet the photographs show a sublime youthfulness to them. The strength and determination of these two sisters is heartening and I am comforted to know the many ways strength can exist in women.