Redefining queer portraiture in Russia

Margo Ovcharenko discusses growing up bisexual, Moscow’s art scene and chocolate babka.

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Drawn to the camera as a vehicle to investigate sexuality and the body—and the social confidence they can bring—Margo Ovcharenko creates portraits that are beautifully honest, stripped back and naked. Grounded by the tactile presence of her subjects as well as the elegance of simplicity, her work both discovers and celebrates the “primacy of sexuality, intimacy and empowerment through femininity”.

Having grown up bisexual in Russia, Ovcharenko’s work is guided by the presentation of a modern-day queer portrait of her home country, as shown in her most recent collection, Country of Women. Increasingly drawn to the world of fashion photography as a platform to share her values with a larger audience, the artist is truly dedicated to her cause. Making the most of her platform, Ovcharenko also runs a critique group for emerging photographers and travels around Eastern Europe giving workshops to those eager to learn and share.

The new issue of Glamcult is centred around the idea of ‘Pleasure’. How would you define pleasure? Does your work touch on pleasure?

To me pleasure doesn’t have an end goal, you just do it because it feels good. My work definitely explores tactile pleasure, but also the aesthetic: looking both at people and the way they are photographed.

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As a young photographer, what has been your greatest obstacle?

Not necessarily being accepted by contemporary art world. I want to do both, but right now I’m more welcomed among photographers and photographic institutions.

And what has been your greatest achievement to date?

Being able to stick to what I love doing for 15 years, full-time for the most part. One knows how it is to make work that doesn’t regularly support you both financially and emotionally. I was also able to educate myself abroad, coming from a modest background, and travel the world thanks to the people who believed in my work.

How would you describe your work and the aesthetic you strive for?

It has evolved quite a lot through the years, starting with drawing inspiration from renaissance paintings that I mostly saw in books when I was a teenager, to sports imagery from the early Soviet era. I look at a lot of contemporary photography as well. Tactile presence of a photographed person is important for me, so I never retouch my photographs. I like the elegance of simplicity in composing and lighting my images. But the most important things, for me, lie outside of aesthetic.

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What is your experience of the artistic community in Moscow? How is the support network for emerging artists?

It’s actually what you make of it. I have very talented friends here, who make great things. I work with a gallery that allows me to experiment. I run a critique group among emerging photographers. I teach at a couple of places and also travel Eastern Europe with workshops where people are very eager to learn and share. On top of it there is a pretty cool photobook festival that just started last year in Moscow and I try to get as involved as I can.

What is the main narrative you embrace through your work?

I strive to include a lot of references and make my work multilayered, but I’d say that the most important thing is that it allows me to discover and celebrate primacy of sexuality, intimacy, and empowerment through femininity.

Your most recent collection celebrates female forms and beauty in all shapes and sizes. The message appears very positive and beautiful. What ideas did you strive to project through this work?

I tried re-imagining what a modern day queer portrait in Russia could be, if I embrace the Soviet era photography (which in fact was very homophobic). But I wanted to use the somewhat similar tools to show the queer female body in a celebratory way. Growing up bisexual in Russia was fun until it wasn’t, so it was very important for me to make this body of work.

Your photography so far has been received incredibly well. Where do you see yourself in a few years?

Just keep on going, really. Also, I became more interested in fashion photography as a platform to share my values with a larger audience and really want to make that work. And maybe get more advanced in making videos, which is also a pretty great tool.

What is your worst (or best) guilty pleasure?

New York’s beloved chocolate babka, which I have to bake from scratch myself or with my partner. And spending a day alone focusing on myself, instead of work and other people’s needs. But mostly the babka.

Follow Margo on Instagram

Words by Louise Goodger

 

All photos by Margo Ovcharenko

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