An exhibition entitled «I’m Here Because» is now open at the Chekhov Literary Museum.
The «I’m Here Because» art show is twofold. The first part consists of unique photographs from the Russian Literary Museum archive taken during Anton Chekhov’s trip to Sakhalin, whereas the second part is a contemporary one designed by the «On the Edge» Film Festival staff. A hundred locals from Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands tell in the latter their family stories, explaining how they ended up here and why they haven’t moved away. The result is thus analogous to the first census conducted locally 125 years ago by Chekhov.
The island’s past comes to life in these testimonies, including labor camps, years of Japanese occupation, the war, and the Soviet era, as the audiences gain access to the lived history of Russia embodied in people themselves and their autobiographies.
On Chekhov’s Photographs
Chekhov scholars to this day argue what exactly motivated the accomplished writer to venture on a journey so perilous and exhausting. Many reasons are considered, ranging from personal strife to scientific discoveries to be made in the medical field, yet the most significant upshot of the undertaking still remains his book «Sakhalin Island», both a pinnacle of Russian non-fiction and the first survey of Sakhalin population.
From the outset, Chekhov wanted his travelogue to be illustrated, though he had failed to hire an artist for the duration of the trip since they all had requested enormous fees from a writer of limited means. In the Sakhalin village of Due, the starting point of the notorious penal labor system, Chekhov met a local telegraph official, Innokentiy Pavlovsky, an ardent amateur photographer. Chekhov then decided to try and illustrate his forthcoming book with photos, for which he personally compiled a list of subjects and themes. Many Pavlovsky pictures currently displayed at the show were premised on Chekhov’s own ideas, which is proven by the photographer’s letters to the writer soliciting admission to the penal colonies. This fateful meeting went down in the history of Russian photography, as no-one before had captured the everyday living of the prisoners, settlers, and colonists of Sakhalin.
Another amateur photographer was the physician on board of the «Petersburg» steamship, Alexander Scherbak. The 50 days Chekhov spent sailing cemented their friendship. It was Scherbak who took all the pictures during the voyage escorting the prisoners from mainland Russia to Sakhalin. Before he died on that steamship, he had willed all his negatives to Chekhov, while all of his possessions, mostly books and letters, were sent over to the Odessa Port Chancellery.
Sadly, for reasons unknown, the illustrated version of «Sakhalin Island» never saw the light of day.
125 Years Later
The modern tradition of documentary group portraiture dates back about 100 years, to the turn of the century when German photographer August Sander, one of the movement’s cofounders, initiated his most celebrated project «People of the 20th Century». His was a vision of austerity and detachment that prided itself on the hard objectivity of «Neue Sachlichkeit» as it maintained a precarious balance between staged photography and authenticity in a painstaking attempt to catalogue the reality around the author. Sander’s legacy is now easily identifiable in the New York and, especially, Dusseldorf schools of photography. His motto, «To look, to observe, to think,» has been adopted by the conceptual photographers of the 20th century and still influences documentary filmmakers and video artists.
The «On the Edge» multimedia research project is a kind of video-census of Sakhalin based on the statistics on local population. In «I’m Here Because», 100 people from different regions of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands relate their exceptional stories on camera.
125 years after Chekhov «discovered» Sakhalin, we now have the chance to see a group portrait of our contemporaries who inhabit the island.