I’ve written before about the false uniformity among religions that some journalists, including visual journalists, assume when covering religion stories. It’s hard for us to escape the fact that the features we associate with religion — features like clergy, sabbath, and place of worship — are often categorizations imposed from the outside that those in non-western religions may not use to identify themselves. A reporter looking to find the Sikh “version” of a priest, sabbath, or church will find none of the above, only highlighting their western or Abrahamic-centric understanding of religion.
So it was refreshing to see Raffaele Petralla’s most recent work on the Mari nations in Russia, a nuanced exploration of a complex people on The New Yorker Photo Booth in a feature titled The Resilient Pagans of Russia. You can see more on Petralla’s website here.
The Mari are an Ugro-Finnic-speaking people numbering about 600,000 who live 500 miles east of Moscow and are referred to as “the last pagan population in the West” (a qualification that discount the recent resurgence of Odinism taking place in Scandinavia). Petralla brings light a kind of religion that refuses to fit into the commonly accepted boundaries for what a religion “should” be, even (especially) as he explores the Mari’s overlapping observance of Eastern Orthodox Christian practices alongside their pagan roots.
Petralla opens his series with an image of Mari people attending a small concert in the grass. Four musicians stand on stage under a horizontal line that divides the image in half. A Mari farmscape and homestead stretches into the background while patchy grass and weeds make up the foreground. It’s overcast and the colors are desaturated just so, in that style that’s really popular right now. It’s the kind of laid back performance that looks like anyone in the audience could just jump on stage at any moment — but most seem like they’re just there to sit and socialize.
This image sets the tone for a story that, while important, doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. The series is not poverty porn, and it’s not even really that much about the loss of a way of life. It’s about people eating, driving, cooking, smoking cigarettes, bathing, and yes, taking part in a few religious ceremonies and rituals. But in most of these images Petralla refuses to place the religious life of the Mari into a separate category from the everyday. That’s what makes the story stand out.
“Petralla refuses to place the religious life of the Mari into a separate category from the everyday. That’s what makes the story stand out.”
Frame #5 in the New Yorker edit (Tonshaevo area, 2010) is one of my favorites. A young girl in all pink runs out of frame while an older woman drinks from a beer bottle that takes two hands to hold. The photo is effortless in its approach to its themes: aging, in that the visual divide is clear but both subjects seem youthful; and religion, in that the girl’s head covering goes almost unnoticed in the energy of the image. Like her religion, her head covering is integrated into the wider story, not a separate theme that’s artificially located in a different category from everyday life.
In its approach to both Mari paganism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Petralla’s series is neither afraid of religious representations nor a sideways look into the customs of an exotic, ancient tribe — this is, by the way, the biggest mistake photographers make when covering religion: “othering” the religious in their practice and making them unrelatable for the rest of us.
Frame #7 (Singing traditional Mari music, 2014) starts to strafe into this territory a little bit — I’m just not sure a picture with this little energy or sense of place would be included in the edit if the women weren’t wearing fancy ceremonial clothes.
I have a similar issue with a headshot in the series of a of Mari spiritual leader (not shown here) that just feels a bit out of place. Why do I need to see him? Is he the Mari equivalent of a priest? Better question: Do the Mari even have the equivalent of a priest? If not, might Petralla or his editor be imposing his own categories of religion on the Mari by trying to find an equivalent that’s not there?
Petralla is at his best when he’s letting the spiritual come naturally — like the frame of two thin girls scarfing down watermelon slices the size of their heads (top image). Like the story itself, this frame balances intensity (at first I thought the girls were tearing into big chunks of red meat) with a peace that stretches into the landscape. It’s a restless quiet, and it matches perfectly the tone of life in Mari Russia that Petralla is eager to convey.