For photographer Misha Friedman, all great stories start with a question.
Friedman's newest series, called Photo51: Is Corruption in Russia's DNA?, delves into one of the country's most pervasive problems -- the prevalence of corruption in all levels of society.
Friedman was approached for the project by the Institute of Modern Russia, a pro-democracy organization led by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of imprisoned former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Yet the photographer decided to take the subject to a place few expected it to go.
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“Corruption is much more complicated than the abuse of power for personal gain," Friedman told The Huffington Post. "It’s more about corrosion and decay, degradation, dilapidation than just an elected official taking a bribe, an envelope full of money, golden toilets or yachts.”
Less interested in documenting actual acts of bribery than in starting a conversation, the photographer tried to approach the issue in a broader way. "Imagine I captured that envelope, that platinum toilet brush, what would that add to the conversation on an intellectual level? Not much," he said. "Those symbols of greed and abuse are something you expect to see."
Instead, Friedman focused on the omnipresence of corruption in the country and Russians' willingness to tolerate it. “Why is it that Russians think of themselves as these white fluffy bunnies, as a great nation, and it’s always the fault of a few bad apples in the government?”
One of the photos in the series that exemplifies this approach shows a man hitting a dark-haired woman in the middle of a Moscow street. Police and onlookers stand idly by. The photo is not about that man beating up that woman, but about the men in the background.
In 2009, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced sweeping reforms to tackle corruption, describing the move as "his political vision." Yet few predicted the president was headed for easy success.
At the time of Medvedev's initiative, Transparency International, a global organization that studies corruption and advocates for government transparency, ranked Russia 146th out of 180 countries in its Global Corruptions Perception Index, which measures the perceived levels of public-sector corruption in countries and territories around the world. While Russia's ranking improved slightly in the following years, jumping to 133rd place out of 176 in the 2012 survey, Transparency International concluded that the country still suffers from every form of corruption.
“It’s petty corruption, it’s administrative corruption; I would say it’s like a mid-level corruption and then there’s political or grand corruption,” Anton Pominov, research director at Transparency International Russia, told Voice of America in 2012.
Friedman was born in Moldova and moved to the United States in the 1990s. He worked as a logistician and project coordinator for Doctors of the World and later Doctors Without Borders, traveling to some of the darkest places on earth. His first big photography project, a series of photos on tuberculosis in the countries of the former Soviet Union, was related to his humanitarian work.
While traveling in Russia on the corruption assignment, Friedman says he wanted his photography to do more than demonstrate the effect of events. “The best way to start is with a question, and when I started I didn’t know whether I would find answers.”
Reflecting back, he wrote on his website:
What I’ve come to define as corruption goes beyond any one act and points to the acceptance of the whole system of it. Things that are not normal—bribing, beatings, adultery, cronyism, negligence, chauvinism, lying, and the cynicism of elected officials—are borne as normal.
Photo51: Is Corruption In Russia’s DNA? opened on Friday Feb. 15 at 287Spring in Manhattan and is on view until March 2.
For more on Friedman’s work, check out his website.
Take a look at some of Friedman's photos in the slideshow below.
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