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Earlier today, I posted House of the Dead (or How We See and Expect Tropes in Photographs of Russian Prisons) with images of blighted prisoners from art history. Regimented and downtrodden, the subjects of these historical works seem to me like precursors for the B&W grey photographs of Russian prisons, even today.

It was a set-up of sorts.

I used a selection of Sebastian Lister‘s photographs to illustrate my point, but I didn’t show you the majority of Lister’s portfolio, nor did I tell you why he had visited Prison Colony 29, Perm in Russia. (Sebastian, I hope you don’t mind my chicanery!)

Elsewhere in Sebastian’s portfolio are unexpected images of costume, make-up, curtain calls, cross-dressing, pressured script-reading, nervous rehearsals and opening night applause.

Sebastian joined Alex Dower, director, actor, musician and artistic director of Creating Freedom, an international production company working in prisons. For more information, click here and then on the ‘prisons’ tab. Russia Today produced a wonderful half-hour documentary about Dower’s project.

Prison theatre is a common mode of arts rehabilitation in Russia, and Sebastian Lister’s documentary photographs are valuable insight into the “movement”. Perm Colony’s players are diligent creatives and their activities allow for more positive representations of prisoners in the Great Bear nation.

If you’d like to see more, Sebastian has posted more images on his Facebook page.

Scroll down to read my Q&A with Sebastian.

How did you get involved?

I became involved with Theatre in Prison: Territory Festival 2009 having studied acting & directing with Alex Dower. We were trained in the science of acting by the Russian Sam Kogan in London. It seemed fitting to be taking Kogan’s system ‘back home’. It is a rigorous, research based approach which appeals to those with a strong work ethic. For the most part the prisoners relished the opportunity and thrived under Dower’s leadership.

Tell us about Alex Dower’s work in Russian prison theatre.
Dower is a pioneer in that his project was the first high-profile prison theatre project in Russia. It caught the eye of the authorities, some of whom now regard theatre (and perhaps the arts in general) as having a role in rehabilitation. The media interest was aided by the fact that Alex and I are British. Arrangements were complex – we didn’t have the go-ahead until a month or so before. The show was beamed onto a big screen in Perm during the Territory Festival 2009. Crucially, I would say Dower nurtures the prisoners as artists in their own right without any hint of condescension.

How seriously did they take the acting?
As a group the prisoners set about their job with a high degree of diligence. There were some stand-out levels of commitment. In fact, Igor, one of the cast of Chekhov’s “The Burbot” has been offered a job in the professional theatre. And ironically a former neo-nazi murderer played the Jewish lead in “My First Goose” by Babel, a story for which the main theme are fear and courage.

Why does prison theatre prosper? What is the psychology behind it?
I think prison theatre prospers because it is an opportunity for inmates to learn from the characters they play, to exercise their imaginations and to acquire a sense of freedom on stage, thus escaping from the confines and drudgery of their daily lives. There is also the thrill of an audience – including inmates and parents – witnessing this transformation. It is an occasion for them.

One negative aspect of the experience was the come-down the prisoners felt after the show. Future projects should take this into account.

How many of the prisoners would have attended theatres before imprisonment?
I don’t know the exact figures but I would say that barely any of the prisoners had been to the theatre before imprisonment. Most prisons (I’m not sure about the high security ones) have a theatre of some kind.

What are the motivations for the actors?
The motivations for the actors come from the challenges of the characters in the stories – Chekhov’s “The Burbot”, Babel’s “My First Goose” and “Butterfly” written by Albertik Sadrutdinov, one of the prisoners. Characters were discussed and interpreted in the first week of rehearsal. Tanja Arno, an actress from Moscow was the only member of the cast not from the prison.

What other activities are available to them at Colony 29, Perm?
Albertik Sadrutdinov (now free) gained a qualification in building fireplaces whilst in the colony. He also spent time running, meditating, working out in the gym, reading, and playing in a band. On our first day, during quite a media scramble, I saw prisoners in class learning geometry. There is also a “working zone” with a timber yard and metal working shop.

Do either you or Dower plan more prison theatre coverage?

Dower plans to direct in a prison in Kazan, Russia in November 2011, and in Columbia in February 2012. Whether I accompany him or not depends on the funding available.

Sergei Vasiliev‘s photographs of Russian Criminal Tattoos are part of a three part encyclopaedia/archive on the subject. Vasiliev photographed between 1989 and 1993 in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St. Petersburg.

Vasiliev’s portraits are accompanied by over 3,000 tattoo drawings made by Danzig Baldaev during his time as a prison guard between 1948 and 1986. Baldaev had supported of the KGB who used his illustrations to develop intelligence on the convict class.

Three volumes of the encyclopaedia have since been published by FUEL Designs:

” [The documentation of] Tattoos were Baldaev‘s gateway into a secret world in which he acted as ethnographer, recording the rituals of a closed society. The icons and tribal languages he documented are artful, distasteful, sexually explicit and provocative, reflecting as they do the lives and traditions of convicts.”

“The accompanying photographs by Sergei Vasiliev act as an important counterpart to Baldaev’s drawings, providing photographic evidence of their authenticity. […] In these images the nameless bodies of criminals act as both a text and mirror, reflecting and preserving the ever-changing folklore of the Russian criminal underworld.”

Baldaev’s drawings and Vasiliev’s portraits are currently being exhibited at 4 Wilkes Street, London E1 6QF (30 October to 28 November 2010).

The Guardian has this review of the book/exhibition. More about Baldaev in particular at Design Observer.


Image gallery.

From FUEL Publishing are three video shorts [1], [2], [3] of the drawings and photographs.

More can be found on Vasiliev‘s work at Michael Hoppen Gallery, Saatchi online (images) and the PhotoEye book review.

Found via


I’ve posted before about prison tattoos:
Prison Tattoos and the Photographers’ Intrigue
Klaus Pichler: Central European Prison Tattoos, Taxidermy and Beguiling Portraits of Odessans
Detached, formaldehyde-soaked, preserved, studied: The tattooed skin of Polish prisoners
Bob Gumpert on Foto8, on Prison Tattoo Codes


Sergei Vasiliev was born in 1937 in Chelyabinsk, Russia. After graduating from the MVD Academy, Moscow, he became a staff photographer for the newspaper ‘Vecherny Chelyabinsk’, where he has worked for the past thirty years. he has received many honours including International Master of Press Photography from the International Organization of Photo Journalists (Prague, 1985), Honoured Worker of Arts of Russia, and the Golden Eye Prize. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in numerous museums’ collections. He is author of more than twenty books, including ‘Russian Beauty’, (1996) and ‘Zonen’, (1994).


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