Nadia Sablin, a freelance photographer based in Brooklyn, New York, was chosen by renowned curator and historian Sandra S. Phillips to win the seventh biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for her color photographs that document, as she writes, “the lives of my aunts who live in Northwest Russia. Alevtina and Ludmila are in their seventies but carry on the traditional Russian way of life, chopping wood for heating the house, bringing water from the well, planting potatoes, and making their own clothes.”
“In 1952, my grandfather began to lose his vision as a result of being wounded in World War II,” Sablin writes. “Wanting to return to the place where he grew up, he found an unoccupied hill in a village north of St. Petersburg, close to his brothers, sisters, and cousins. He took his house apart, log by log, and floated it down the Oyat River to its new location and reconstructed it. More than sixty years later, this house is still occupied by my aunts in the warmer months. The two women, who never married, have relied on each other for support and companionship their entire lives. I have been spending my summers in the village, photographing my aunts’ routines and quiet occupations, and the small world that surrounds them. Leaving and returning again divides our time into chapters, as the narrative moves toward its inevitable end.
“In these photographs, I record the stories of their lives, and explore the childhood memories I have of them,” Sablin writes of her aunts, who over the seven years of Sablin’s ongoing project began to collaborate with her in reinterpreting her memories and in creating new ones. These images combine observation and invention, biography and autobiography, and are thoughtful meditations on aging and belonging. Sablin’s quiet and lyrical photographs capture the small details and daily rituals of her aunts’ surprisingly colorful and dreamlike days, taking us not only to another country but another time. Alevtina and Ludmila seem both old and young in these images, as if time itself was as seamless and cyclical as their routines—sewing curtains, making quilts, tatting lace, planting seeds, weeding their garden—and as full of the same subtle mysteries.
First Book Prize judge Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA, described Sabin’s photographs as “wonderful and sophisticated. . . . The two sisters seem to exist in a privileged reality, one closer to the warm smell of strawberries in summer. Lives like these used to be normal everywhere, but they are at a remove, antique, now—the sisters seem to be living in a Russian fairy tale. Their exertions are real enough, though. We admire them and even envy their simplicity and the beauty of the light and land they inhabit.”
Duke University Press will publish Sablin’s prizewinning book, Aunties, in November 2015. Learn more about the prize, sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Honickman Foundation in Philadelphia, and see a selection of images, at http://firstbookprizephoto.com/.