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Book Review: Spasibo


Book Review Spasibo By Davide Monteleone Reviewed by Tom Leininger The book form is perfectly suited for photojournalism. It offers a framework that allows for the marriage of words and photographs to create a document that explains complex situations. Davide Monteleone’s new book, Spasibo (thank you in Russian), pushes the idea of a journalistic book form report into new territory with his lyrical images and context rich captions.

SpasiboBy Davide Monteleone.
 Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
 
Spasibo
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Spasibo
Photographs by Davide Monteleone
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2014. 164 pp., 86 duotone illustrations, 9½x11".


The book form is perfectly suited for photojournalism. It offers a framework that allows for the marriage of words and photographs to create a document that explains complex situations. Davide Monteleone’s new book, Spasibo (thank you in Russian), pushes the idea of a journalistic book form report into new territory with his lyrical images and context rich captions.

A white elastic band holds a smaller book in place inside the back cover that presents detailed captions in English and French. Putting the captions into a small book gives the reader a chance to experience the work with or without the captions. Both reading experiences are rewarding, but with a complex story like Chechnya, the more information the better.

SpasiboBy Davide Monteleone. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Chechnya’s recent history is complicated. In the 1990s it fought two wars with Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were killed. The capital city of Grozny was destroyed along with much of its industrial infrastructure. In more recent history Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic and a former rebel leader, has pledged allegiance with Russia and the situation has “normalized.” Money flows from Moscow to rebuild the country. Kadyrov rules by strictly enforcing his own brand of Islam and making residents pay for everything. This corruption is at every level of society from hospitals, to schools and businesses. Many ethnic Russians have left the country, and the remaining Orthodox are forced to practice their religion away from the eyes of the government.

SpasiboBy Davide Monteleone. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Monteleone outstrips the idea of news photography and creates poetic scenes where the action is happening just beyond what is seen. The Kadyrov government dictates society and for those living outside of those rules, their life takes place in the shadows. Monteleone embraces those shadows and makes pictures that tell the story he sees, though it's a story that is not always clear. Weaving pictures of the harsh landscape together with portraits to structure his narrative, the scenes of the remade Grozy contrast with the still destroyed infrastructure, painting a picture of a country that is not fully recovered. Peace is provided by rulers in Grozny and Moscow, but at the price of freedom for those who have remained.

SpasiboBy Davide Monteleone. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

There are a number of images relating to Russian Orthodox traditions such as bathing in a hole in the ice, but we never see people in the water. What we do see are images of people around the event, and by not showing their rituals in a clear manner Monteleone illustrates how marginalized the Orthodox are. Working in this fashion gives the work strength, leaving room for the view to wonder why certain rituals are not depicted. Friday prayers from the Central Mosque and other Islamic rituals are seen more directly. This is part of the normalization the country has gone through, which is one of the many issues the thorough captions help to explain.

SpasiboBy Davide Monteleone. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Throughout the book are small half pages with historical photographs that help to organize the book thematically, and in doing so, the reader is able see Monteleone’s narrative structure. While the lyrical images are enthralling with his use of stark formal elements, the details about the history of the Chechen wars and how the peace has come about are filled in by the essays from Masha Gessen and Galia Ackerman. Monteleone was the winner of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism award, which supported an exhibition and the publication of the book.

SpasiboBy Davide Monteleone. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Saying Spasibo is a photojournalistic book about the current state of affairs in Chechnya would be shortsighted. Monteleone’s use of black and white is another metaphor. It reflects the reality. To live there is to submit to the rule of law organized by Moscow and implemented by Kadyrov. There are no shades of grey in this life; it is Kadyrov or nothing. The exterior of the country appears to be rebuilt but there is no industry and high unemployment. Monteleone's portraits of former anti-terrorist police officers show that this normalization has come at a high human toll. The pictures of the war-torn landscape show that reconstruction is a selective process. On page 66 an image shows pro-Kadyrov activists celebrating the 10th Constitution Day in Grozny. Men and women watch the celebrations with what could be read as skepticism on their faces. Behind them the glistening Central Mosque and downtown skyscrapers rise out of the background. Everyone is young, but their future does not seem bright. This picture is the future of Chechnya, but it does not look hopeful.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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