Boris Mikhailov on Photographing Life on the Fringe in His Hometown

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Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Wedding© Boris Mikhailov. Courtesy of Sprovieri Gallery

Ukrainian Artist Boris Mikhailov’s photographic series lends complexity and universality to the Barbican’s latest show

Boris Mikhailov’s series The Wedding stands out in relief from the 413 images it accompanies in the photographer’s work Case History. This epic body of work documents the bleak socio-political landscape of his hometown Kharkiv, Ukraine, from 1997-98, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soaring inflation and dwindling energy resources left swathes of the middle and working classes in devastating poverty and Mikhailov set out to document the lives of the “bomzhes” (the homeless) the only way he knew how – with his camera.

Setting up a scene between a group he came across – a woman and her two friends – Mikhailov captures a couple performing a wedding. Playing between dignity and humiliation, tenderness and lewdness, the forging of bonds and the destruction of formality, the pictures are at once disconcerting in their explicitness, and convivial, playful, open. It was an experiment that could only have been captured on film; exploiting the medium’s mode of real-time documentation. “For an artist, for a good painter, you need a long education. I had a simple education, so I choose photography,” self-trained Mikhailov explained. “But reality: reality is very important for me. This is an impression from reality.”

We’re talking on the top floor at the opening of Barbican’s exhibition Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, where Mikhailov’s series sits alongside works from Diane Arbus, Walter Pfeiffer and the Casa Susanna Collection. The show presents works that communicate a diverse and complex view of the world through the depiction of its fringe communities. And for Mikhailov, The Wedding fits in perfectly. “It is all part of the same – what more can I say?” he asks. “But what interests me is that this is not nostalgic. Though these pictures were taken a long time ago, it’s closer to life now.”

While it’s life on the fringe that concerns both this series and its placement, there’s also a sense of universality that courses through these images. “I seldom came across a homeless woman. But [even in these circumstances] they were a couple – even here they lived somehow in the same way. They continue like normal human beings. They walk down the road, they hold hands together – it’s radiant.” It’s this element of joy juxtaposed with adversity that invites the viewer to consider their own proximity to life lived on the fringe.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins is on display at Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 27 May 2018.