The Great Emptiness Award-winning photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev captures the Russian capital during the coronavirus lockdown
On July 17, the Museum of Moscow debuted photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Sergey Ponomarev’s new exhibition titled “Moscow. The Great Emptiness.” The exhibition includes 45 black-and-white panoramas of the empty Russian capital, which Ponomarev captured during the coronavirus lockdown. Meduza shares a few of these photographs with the photographer’s commentary.
During the quarantine period in Moscow, I was taking photos of everything that happened in the city for the New York Times. Everyday I walked around the streets and looked for subjects. At this time, the majority of photographers were trying to get into the “red zones” of the hospitals, where coronavirus patients were being treated. It seemed like that’s where the frontline was, the frontline of this strange war with an invisible enemy. I decided not to do that. I’m always more interested in photographing dramatic events through the eyes of ordinary people. But during the quarantine period there weren’t any ordinary people on the streets. And I realized that the empty streets were the main metaphor for this time.
I saw that some photographers were using the empty streets as decoration, shooting them as the backdrop for a ballerina, for example. I didn’t want to do that either. I wanted to make the city itself the main character of the photoshoots — its buildings, monuments, parks, bas-reliefs, and strips of empty intersections. I understood that this had to be more than just a photograph, this had to be a series, a photo project, a story.
Every time I stopped and looked around in search of people, I turned my head in an attempt to see all the emptiness. And that’s when I decided that this photo project should be shot in a panorama format, to try and convey this feeling to people. I had never shot panoramas. Moreover, in recent years, photographers had to painfully adapt to vertical formats, since the main gadgets that people use to view content are phones with vertical displays. I’ve said constantly that it’s necessary to adapt to formats and to viewers, but here I decided to do an experiment and shoot not just horizontally, but panoramically.
Everyday I rediscovered the city. It’s an amazing feeling. You begin to see things that you haven’t paid any attention to all your life. Seeing the details on buildings, understanding how buildings from different centuries add up to the history of the city and the country, how monuments exchange glances. In everyday life our attention is always drawn to movement, to people and cars, and static objects are just decoration.
I must admit that I was scared, as well. I experienced all those feelings that millions of other people experienced. The fear of getting infected, fear for your family, fear that nothing will be the same. Sometimes I also wanted to shut myself up in my apartment and not go anywhere. This project helped me cope with this fear. I forced myself to leave the house, take out my camera, and take pictures. While other people had yoga, fitness training, cooking, or master classes to keep them from going crazy, I had empty Moscow.
People often ask me why there are people in some of the pictures; couldn’t I have waited for a moment when there was no one at all? Or, even worse, removed them later in Photoshop? Since this is an artistic project rather than a journalistic one, the ethical rules are different here. But I specifically decided to leave everything as it was. It seems to me that the emptiness feels sharper when you see one person in a place where there are usually hundreds or thousands of people walking.
A lone, fearless couple on an embankment, bored police officers patrolling the empty streets, couriers on bicycles, rushing to those walled up in their apartments — all of them are an inseparable part of this time, an inseparable component of the Great Emptiness.
Translation by Eilish Hart