Posted on 1st February 2011
If one were to guess what would come next after female freedom fighters in the Kurdistan region, and stunt horse riders, also female, in Somerset, then it might come as no surprise that the Cossacks, and in particular the female students at a military college in south Caucasus, is where photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind would find herself next.
Witnessing a resurgence since 1991, when the USSR collapsed and the years of oppression of the Cossacks by the communists began to wane, these schools had become popular once again, and funded by the government, now taught the traditional Cossack training of horse riding, martial arts, folk dancing and Shashka (Cossack sabre) performance, as well as the more contemporary soldiering necessities of shooting and parachuting, in between academic lessons.
In 2009 Anastasia was awarded The Joan Wakelin award, a bursary for the production of an overseas photo essay by the Guardian and the Royal Photographic Society. Having received much acclaim for her photographic series of the female PKK soldiers, considered terrorists by Turkey and the UK yet depicted as sensitive and above all feminine through her time spent with them, and spurred on by her own love of horses from her time with the daring stunt riders Camilla and Amy in Somerset, Anastasia decided to travel to the Cossack cadet school of Ataman Platov in Belaya Kalitva.
The school, although it trains both boys and girls, was the first to accept full-time female boarders. A new kind of ‘freedom fighter’ (Cossacks are traditionally known as warriors from the word Kazakh meaning freedom) this was a military school with a difference, as once again it was Anastasia’s overwhelming ability to focus on the softness and the intimacy between the female students in particular that came across. The girls are tough in their camouflage uniforms, but caring, one minute putting make-up on in between classes, doing each other’s hair in the dormitories, or hugging or whispering to each other in the classrooms and cafeteria. It is the same female strength mixed with an active caring for each other, the comradeship and femininity, which also evokes the well-known phrase, ‘Out of the strong, came forth sweetness.’ The bonds are strong between the students, but there is an intimate and quiet nurturing and protection of each other. The tenderness is there also in the way they look after their horses, these members of the ‘All Powerful and Great Warriors of the Don Cossack Army’, train them to gently lie down in the grass to avoid the enemy, or lead them for a swim in the green waters of the Black Sea.
The images of the school are often cool and clear greys and blues reflecting the slightly dingy surrounding of the eastern European institution, but are here and there brightened by a flash of red from the traditional costumes, or lipstick, or their military stripes. She also still resolutely sticks to shooting on film over digital, and her subjects are soft and cinematic as a result. Often the stillness of the portraits and the gangly and kooky teenagers could almost be from the pages of a fashion shoot. When she does photograph the boy Cossack cadets, they are muscular and suave like in a Jean Paul Gaultier ad, but with a shot of vodka in the hand you are in no doubt where they are.
Indeed it must take precisely a strong yet sensitive woman herself to approach these subjects, to immerse seamlessly in the daily lives of the female PKK and Cossacks, befriend them and take such intimate, touching and beautiful photos of camaraderie within the group. There is always complete respect and tenderness for her subjects, and a sense she is sharing the moment with them, a genuine warmth which renders the tough and the brave as vulnerable and human, and brings out the femininity and sensitivity in the seemingly tough and strong. Sweetness from strength indeed.