I had been shooting at the Russian Cultural Centre for several years before I took this photograph and it was the product of a happy accident, as so many images are.
The complex had the potential to be dangerous and I was always mindful that, as a foreigner with a camera (and often alone), I could be robbed, attacked, abducted or ‘arrested’ (meaning abduction) by the police. To reduce risk, I would enter the building at a location unrelated to my destination and then weave my way though basement passageways, shell holes in walls, service shafts and all sorts so as to reduce the likelihood of being ‘bounced’ by someone anticipating my activities. I did not fear the addicts. Although always careful, they were the one group I could count upon to go about their own business and leave me alone if I posed no threat to them. They too were afraid of being robbed (particularly by the police) and having either their money or heroin stolen. I developed respect for how the men living inside moved around silently and there was of course a moment, when I realized that we were both approaching the complex in the same way and for the same reasons.However, I could leave after a few hours, but they spent very much longer there and of course had to sleep, which introduces a completely different level if vulnerability. Most would pick a spot only as night fell, when criminals felt less inclined to enter its dark and threatening recesses.
To photograph the addicts, I would normally arrive before sunrise, when the police would be asleep. Most would wake up, go about their morning routine and leave within an hour or so of my arrival, giving me just enough time to talk to them and take a few photographs before they slipped out. One day, I was moving from the large main building to one of the bombed out adjacent blocks, which some of the addicts used to sleep in. I chose my route, which on this occasion was to move between buildings via window voids on one of the upper floors. This allowed me to walk across the concrete roof of a covered walkway that would once have provided shelter for ground level pedestrians.
As I approach the room with the window that gave access to the walkway’s roof, I realised I had never set foot over on the other side of this particular space (I had no reason to). I had tried a number of shots of the debris strewn floors elsewhere and wondered if this untrod and less obvious area might yield a stronger image. As I carefully placed my feet amidst the broken bricks, I stepped back past a very low interior wall that had been stripped down to its concrete base (the addicts would remove bricks from walls and create their own private spaces, by partially bricking up cupboards, bathrooms etc). I then saw to my right the two young men shown in this photograph.
The weather was bitterly cold and there they were huddled together under a heavy canvas sheet, fast asleep – hiding in plain sight. The low wall behind which they slept, was just off to one side of a main walkway used by addicts (and me), but with no reason to explore the far, empty, debris strewn part of the adjacent room, that low wall kept them well concealed. I had walked past this spot countless times and wondered how long they had been using it for. Of course I knew that I would never be able to answer that question, but whenever I returned to the Russian Centre before sunrise I checked and most often they were there. It just goes to show that ‘getting out there’ and continuing to revisit familiar ground can throw up surprises.
I found myself looking down at these young men (probably 16-18 years old) and shaking my head in surprise and admiration at the cleverness of their concealment. Addicts used many of the dark private nooks found in the labyrinthine complex, so there would be a chance of someone exploring the same hidey-hole as darkness fell, but this solution – choosing the least likely spot – was genius.
They were young and their skin and general appearance suggested that they were probably not addicts, but simply had nowhere else to sleep. They way their bodies squeezed together for warmth exuded trust and mutual dependence. I imagined how difficult it must be to sleep so soundly on frozen concrete with so little to keep them warm. I had discovered them, but I hoped nobody else would. They were so vulnerable.
Taking the photograph required me to move a little closer without disturbing them. There were small pops as my feet crushed shards of broken masonry and I knew that I had to use the lens mounted, as changing lenses and opening bags would make far too much noise in the context of such silence. I recall struggling to lean over them to get the angle that I wanted, without losing my balance and then firing off one frame, followed by the slowest, quietest film advance I have ever attempted. I fired a second and then slowly crept away.
They were so young and one could only wonder what had happened to result in them choosing such a place to spend their nights. It’s an image that tugs at me every time I look at it, because it feels like a secret, with a sense of responsibility incumbent upon the discoverer: me. Perhaps it is also because I have two sons and the young men in the photograph have, or had, a father too. Their presence felt like the antithesis of everything dark and menacing about the Russian Centre. Its just sad that this relationship was witnessed in the context of desperate survival and so any welling sense of joy arrived bitter sweet.