Crashing couches along the Trans-Siberian railway
Belgian photographer Bieke Depoorter doesn’t speak Russian, so she had a friend who does write this on a piece of paper: “I am looking for a place to spend the night. Do you know people who would have a bed, or a couch? I don’t need anything in particular, and I have a sleeping bag. I prefer not to stay in a hotel, because I don’t have a lot of money and because I want to see the way people live in Russia. Could I stay at your place, perhaps?” Carrying the handwritten note and her camera, Depoorter climbed aboard a train heading east on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Spanning seven time zones and connecting Moscow to the Sea of Japan, the railway also became the gateway for Depoorter’s “Ou Menya”—meaning, “with you”—an exploration of small-town family life and the transient bonds between photographer and subject.
Over three separate month-long stints, Depoorter debarked somewhere new every day, wandering and snapping photos while casually searching for a trustworthy woman to approach and ask for a place to stay. Sometimes she went days without finding a host, but when a receptive subject looked into her eyes, rather than at her camera, a new friendship clicked. “We cannot really talk,” she says, “but we can communicate in other ways. It’s strange, but very fast they don’t see me as a stranger anymore.” Invited to stay, Depoorter quickly became “a member of the family,” and her photos, many featuring disrobed subjects, show the unguarded world of people who know they’ll never see each other again. Amplifying this intimacy, many photos are thickly grained, a byproduct of low lighting and the photographer’s disavowal of alienating flash.
Depoorter, who intends to publish the work as a book, slept on couches and in grown children’s old bunks; she huddled with others for warmth on floors and unfolded newspaper over linoleum tiles. The next morning, she’d take a picture of the night’s bed and set off again. “This is not a story about how people live,” she says. “It’s about intimacy—the intimacy between family members, because they live really close together in small houses—and it’s about the relationship between them and me. Sometimes you really start to love the people, and sometimes it’s hard to leave because of love. But I couldn’t take any of these pictures if I didn’t spend the night. It seems like one night is not a lot, but it’s a lot if you spend it.”