Spectator Pass (2014) by the Russian photographer Julia Abzaltdinova documents the resort city of Sochi and Russian sport fans in preparations for and during the 2014 Winter Olympics. When you delve deeper, however, this series really focuses on the visual representations of national identity and how that pans out in the context of one of the biggest sports events in the world.
“Journey through Russian Looking-Glass”
‘Lewis Carroll’s Alice had to step through the mirror to get to the world of the Looking-Glass. To become an equal participant of Russia’s new utopia – XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi – one had to purchase a spectator pass.
The Spectator Pass series is the culmination of four years of work capturing and studying the changes, which took place in Sochi and its surroundings, where once a Soviet health resort was turned into another contemporary Olympics city. The main focus is on people; the people who “drew the lucky ticket” and perhaps experienced the most important event of their lives. These people found themselves in the so-called Olympic Looking-Glass, modern isolated city built with innovative technologies, which looks a little bit awkward against the Caucasus mountains landscape.
The spectator pass, a special Olympics document, enabled its holder to attend sport events, move around the city using special Olympics transport and visit recreation and entertainment areas.
Has the new ideology been recently created in Russia and is it the newly transformed Olympic Sochi that was supposed to become its symbol? As with Carroll’s’ Looking-Glass, we haven’t found any clearly defined myths of the new Russian statehood. The camera captured the easily recognisable mix of dissimilar Russian realities adopted by Russians either from their Soviet past or from the screens of modern TV sets. A notorious Russian tricolour flag was perhaps the only unifying factor – along with Soviet symbols and pseudo-Russian skewed-collared national shirts one could spot glamorous coloured branded sportswear; horned helmets of Western football fans somehow co-existed with the Russian Airborne Troop colours. And the apogee of all of this was a man wearing a stylised uniform of the Soviet national hockey team with a famous shapka-ushanka, a trooper hat with earflaps. All this can inevitably evoke a smile. But is it stupid? Weird? Ridiculous? Of course, not! This is just a vivid proof that modern Russia is still as far from the West as it is from the East, and that it still goes by its unique way through another Looking-Glass.’
Sergey Chebatkov, 2014
You may view a video of the book Spectator Pass (2014) here.
With Russian flags displayed in a multitude of ways, be it painted on fans’ faces, worn as capes, or even represented by simple, everyday items such as an umbrella or a jacket, Abzaltdinova’s Spectator Pass (2014) is a fascinating study in national identity and its visual representations. How do you communicate visually who you are in such an international setting as the Olympic Games? The national flag and national colours are obvious choices. In these portraits, however, they are often complemented by other objects signifying people’s Russianness – we can spot fans proudly wearing vintage-looking furry hats associated with Siberian winters or the ‘good old’ CCCP (USSR) T-shirt or a top. What is incredibly fascinating about this project and its context is that Sochi Winter Olympics actually took place in a summer beach resort on the Black Sea coast, making the visual clash between winter hats or reindeers and tropical palm trees rather humours, if not ironic. The Spectator Pass (2014) series is a body of work not only exploring the theme of national identity representation but also of visual representation in general – how to re-present oneself so that one is seen as they wish to be, that is the question.