2014 Winners - Runner-up: Davide Monteleone
Davide Monteleone’s series Spasibo depicts the perplexing political reality in Chechnya, a Russian republic bordering the Caucasus Mountains and plagued with a complex history of conflict. For more than two centuries, the predominantly Muslim Chechens have struggled to assert independence. They have in turn endured mass deportation under Stalin; prolonged civil war between separatists and Russia, as well as with local Moscow-backed authorities; organized crime; and abuses of religious and civil rights. Monteleone’s outspoken authorship of these photographs entails considerable personal risk. His ability to document this subject without arriving at clichés of violence and oppression is a considerable achievement.
Judiciously edited, Spasibo comprises studied representations of the Chechen context. Portraits and tableaux coincide with landscapes and objects photographed as if for an archive. These varied photographic strategies share common formal threads: a muted gray pervades the series, and each image is purposefully and resolutely composed. By linking disparate images—a reproduction of the Chechen constitution and a portrait of the devout praying toward Mecca; the mountain refuge of separatist rebels and a plate bearing the portrait of Putin-approved Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a reformed ex-rebel—Monteleone conveys the disconcerting normalcy that reigns in Chechnya following the intense trauma of its recent past.
In an image of a girl praying in a women’s madrassa, a curtain quivers before an open window. The tonal register and delicate composition render the image clearly legible. Whereas Islam had been historically emblematic of the separatist movement, the sudden endorsement of traditional Chechen cultural and religious practice by the Kadyrov regime is not necessarily a sign of increased freedoms; the republic’s president has stated his desire to implement aspects of sharia law. Kadyrov’s politicized use of Islam exemplifies, to quote Monteleone, the “psychological violence” inflicted when politicians and extremists trade cultural dogmas like cards in a game.
The title of Monteleone’s portfolio, Spasibo, has a bittersweet implication. Meaning “thank you” in Russian, the utterance could be understood as a response to the recent reprieve of violence, but also as obstinate sarcasm aimed at despotic politicians. In these photographs made throughout Chechnya in 2013, Monteleone portrays a moment in which dictatorial propaganda and strategies of repression are subtle and nuanced, effecting a forced appeasement under which ordinary Chechens are forced to choose between martyrdom and normalcy, between their pride and their lives.
Davide Monteleone (born in Italy, 1974) is based between Italy and Russia. His photography career began in 2000, when he became an editorial photographer for Contrasto. He has published photos in various publications, including D, lo Donna, l’Espresso, the New York Times, Time, and the New Yorker. He has exhibited his work at Chapelle des Beaux-Arts, Paris; the Nobel Peace Center, Oslo; VII Gallery, New York; and many more. He has won various awards, including multiple World Press Photo prizes, the European Publishers Award (2010), and the Fondation Carmignac Photojournalism Award (2013). Monteleone has published several books, including Dusha, Russian Soul (2007), La Linea Inesistente (2009), Red Thistle (2012), and Spasibo in 2013.