Tolyatti – Interview

To celebrate the release of Tolyatti – Exploring Post-Soviet Spaces, we talk to its authors Guido Sechi (text) and Michele Cera (images).

Please tell us what inspired you to make this project?

Guido: A few years ago, I started noticing how devoid of human presence many photobooks on socialist architecture and urban space are. Living in a former USSR republic, in a city where the majority of the population lives in Soviet-era neighborhoods, I thought ‘how come?’ By reflecting further, through observation, reading literature etc. it came to my mind how this focus on abandoned buildings, ruins etc. is not only exploitative and orientalist in itself, but it can also act, albeit inadvertently, as a supportive narrative to the hyper-commodification of space that runs so fast in many former socialist cities in these years…So, discussing with Michele – who has always paid attention to people in built environment in his photographic work – the idea that came was: why don’t we put people in the center of the stage and try to grasp and show the logic of urban space, and the dialectic existing between society and such space? At the very least it will provide readers and watchers with some context about the aims and goals of architects and planners, instead of leaving them with the impression of looking at alien archeological ruins. This seemed to me not only an act of intellectual justice, but also, even more relevantly, a more adequate and respectful way to relate to the people that inhabit these cities. 

Michele: When Guido talked to me for the first time about his idea to work together on a project about society and public space in contemporary post-Soviet cities, I immediately accepted with great enthusiasm. Not only the topics was somewhat familiar to me (I had previously published DUST, a photobook about Albanian urban spaces), but it also seemed to me that the hybrid work that he had in his mind, in which photography was at the same time a methodological investigation tool and an artistic sensitivity-driven insight into the topic, could have brought us to an unusual and original direction. Moreover, his ideas seemed perfectly fit to my visual approach to urban landscapes in which human figures play generally a very important role. 

Why did you choose Tolyatti for this visual investigation of what you called Guido “put people in the center of the stage” and “show the logic of urban space”?

Guido: The choice of Tolyatti was due to the simple fact that it is a large, planned socialist industrial city – you simply cannot ignore or decontextualize its architectural and planning history…its planning principles and aims have influenced and keeps on influencing the life of its residents, and it may convey in a straightforward way the point we wanted to make – neither an enthusiastic, nor a damning assessment of socialist planning, but advocating for a honest and fair approach to it.

So when you started to shoot Michele the concept was already firm, how did this influence you while photographing and the other way around did Michele’s images influence your research Guido?

Michele: the concept was firm and this led us, above all, to explore some specific urban spaces instead of others. However, I tried not to have any pre-established ideas about what I was facing. I tried to be as much as possible open-minded toward what I was looking at, allowing myself to be guided by my “visual instinct”. In a way, the Tolyatti project was built along the way and, as regards our larger project of post-Soviet urban spaces exploration, this construction is still in progress. 

Guido: they did, indeed. Our core methodological idea was, after all, to have autonomous but inter-communicating approaches to the matter. I think the images convey very well the atmosphere of everyday life and urban landscape in the Avtozavodsky district by capturing significant moments and perspectives. This helped me to conceptualize, and also elaborate in the written form, impressions that were, in a way, wordless, partly emotional, perhaps to some extent even subconscious.

You have created this work as a series. What will the next project look like? Will it have the same thematic focus on society and common spaces in post-Soviet cities or will it shift according to the city? Furthermore, which other cities can you imagine ‘investigate’ next, from a visual (Michele)  and research (Guido) aspect?

Guido: I personally think it would be interesting to keep the same broad thematic focus, but a different spatial context may mean different visual solutions and perspectives. It would be stimulating and challenging to focus on a different urban context in terms both of planning history and current development. Avtozavodsky district in Tolyatti was a completely planned Soviet settlement, developed in the context of state socialism and the Fordist economy, and, nowadays, it is part of the Russian ‘periphery’. A city with a more central role in the national economy, more significant investment attraction in the built environment, and a significant pre-Soviet planning heritage – such as Kazan or St. Petersburg – may be an almost perfect counterpart to Tolyatti, which would exemplify the sharp differences existing among and between post-socialist cities. Of course, it will be more challenging to grasp the – sometimes sharp, but sometimes very subtle – transformations and subversions of inherited built space and its functions in such a complex context.

Michele: although the broader thematic focus will remain the same, I’d like to think of this series as something changing and, possibly, improving at each step. From a photographic point of view, I’m not sure that repeating the same formula for every cities will necessarily be the best thing to do. I’d be very happy to succeed in giving a specific visual identity to each city maintaining in some way a cohesion through the entire wider project. It’ll be challenging for sure, but also very stimulating for me!

Published Sep 2020. See details of the book here