Masters and Servants (2014) by a Turkmen photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan portrays well-off Russian families and their domestic helpers in a revealing way…
Masters and Servants is a series of staged portraits of ‘masters’ and their servants inside homes of the former and workplaces of the latter. In this cycle, Lilia Li-Mi-Yan wanted to document people working as domestic helpers in Russia together with their employers, some of whom were photographer’s friends. During the project, Li-Mi-Yan was trying to understand how servants perceive their profession and its status as well as hoping to capture the relations between the helpers and their bosses.
As the photographer explains, rich have always had maids, butlers, gardeners, drivers, nannies, etc. Although having a helper is getting increasingly common in Russia among those who can afford it, the service personnel profession is a second-class job, often treated as a temporary, at times even shameful occupation. Interestingly, more and more well-educated people who used to be doctors, engineers, or teachers end up accepting these jobs due to various life circumstances. This means that some servants used to enjoy (more or less) the same social status as their current ‘masters’ – that of course renders their relationship even more fascinating and complex.
Lilia Li-Mi-Yan was interested in stories of the house owners and their servants. She ‘wanted to lift the veil’, offering us a peek not only into these glamorous, luxurious interiors but also into the lives of the ‘masters’ and their helpers. When entering these homes and meeting these people, the photographer wondered who they were, where they were from, and why they were there.
Before taking each photograph, Li-Mi-Yan would discuss the project with the house owners and helpers. In an interview with the Fotografia Magazine, she mentions that she asked her subjects ‘about their roles as employers and employees, how their status made them feel, and what their relationships looked like.’ She decided how to stage each portrait only once she knew answers to these questions.
What I find most fascinating in Masters and Servants are power-relations between Russian ‘masters’ and their ‘servants’ that you can read quite clearly from the portraits. Facial expressions, poses, gestures, physical distance, clothing, and other characteristics are all very telling. You could also look at Masters and Servants as a visual study of middle and upper class Russian interiors – from this perspective the cycle is equally interesting.
On a funny note, have you noticed that the same dog breed – Yorkshire Terrier – appears throughout the project? It’s incredibly amusing, though, how in some portraits the dog is on its master’s laps but in others it clearly ‘sympathises’ with the helper…