Madina Gadjieva's foray into photography began sometime in 2012, where she would actively post up photos on PixArt, a social media platform. Along the years, she experimented with various types of photography and took a deep interest in photo journalism. Making the jump in 2019, she enrolled at the Docdocdoc School of Modern Photography (St. Petersburg) where often her works are rooted in portraying the interaction of different social groups and nationalities in her region.
Can you share with us a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in Dagestan, one of the regions of the North Caucasus in southern Russia. I spent most of my childhood in the village with my grandparents. My grandmother is a very religious Muslim and I think her upbringing had a certain influence on my character and future interests.
What is your background in photography?
After leaving school, I moved to Makhachkala (the capital of Dagestan), went to university to study programming, and after graduating started working as an accountant. This is still my main job.
A cut watermelon on the beach during a picnic by the sea arranged for the pupils of the madrasa Manaskent. Caspian Sea coast near Manas settlement, Dagestan Republic, August 2022. From the project 'Mutaallims'.
"I like that I can use photography to convey to others how people in my homeland live, that the world is diverse and that everyone has problems they struggle with and dreams they want to realize. I know photography won't save the world, but it gives a voice to those who want to speak out."
How did you get into photography and how long have you been at it?
Unfortunately my path to photography is not as interesting as one of the photographers who took their first camera at the age of 12 and realised that this is what they want to do all their lives. I first thought about photography in 2012, after graduating from university. At that time, even before Instagram was popular, there was an app called PixArt where you could post photos. You could say I got a little "hooked" on the app, and eventually I had a desire to pursue photography. I bought my first camera and like many novice photographers began shooting flowers and cats. It seems so ridiculous and naive to me now. Then I switched to people photography and just kept shooting outdoors because I was too afraid to shoot straight. Apart from that, I watched a lot of work by famous photojournalists, classics of world photography. What I liked about photojournalism was that they could send you to any place in the world to shoot an event or incident. That is, I liked the fact that you can go to many places on our planet and meet many interesting people. After a while, I got interested in fashion photography. I thought up some images, looked for models, locations and shot photo shoots. After a year of such practice, I realised that it wasn't my thing, and in 2019 I finally decided to study to become a photojournalist. I enrolled at the Docdocdoc School of Modern Photography (St. Petersburg) and it was the best decision of my life because I finally started to learn what I was really interested in. Studying at the school gave me not only new knowledge, but also support in realising my intentions, for which I am very grateful. I studied there for two years and now I do personal photography projects and shoot for some Russian media.
Tell me about your involvement with the Women Photograph Organization which you are a member of?
I joined Women Photograph during their annual selection process for new applicants. I applied in December 2021 and six months later I was told that I had been accepted. I am very happy and grateful to them for accepting me into their team because being in a community of talented creative people gives you extra inspiration and moral support.
Madina Gadjieva's latest project, 'Mutaallims' follows students in a Madrasah, a religion school. 'Mutaallims' translates into student in Arabic. In the religious context, it is someone who is seeking knowledge about their religion.
Madrasah pupils resting on a football field after rehearsing a scene for the Kurban Bayram festivities. Manaskent settlement, Dagestan Republic, July 2021. Kurban Bayram is one of the major Muslim festivities. It is celebrated by a ritual animal sacrifice to commemorate the prophet Ibrahim, whom God spared of sacrificing his own son.
What does the word Mutaallims mean and how did this project came to be?
Mutaallims (from Arabic) means student. And in a religious context, it's someone who is seeking knowledge about their religion. The idea came to me during the preparations for a photographic expedition to Bashkiria organised by the Docdocdoc school. We had to make a list of themes to find people to photograph during the expedition. I have always been interested in subjects related to religion, especially Islam, so I started looking in that direction. That's how I came across information about women's madrassas. For some reason I could not go on an expedition, and my curator suggested that it would be possible to do a final project on women's madrasas in Dagestan. At first I had my doubts, because here we have a stricter attitude to filming in religious institutions than in other regions of Russia. But in the end, I realised that I should at least try, because as someone who lives in this environment, I have the opportunity to show and tell this story without any of the stereotypes that guest authors would have because of my lack of knowledge of the local context.
How did you gain access to the Madrasahs?
I didn't know anyone who worked in a madrasa, so I looked for them on social media. I found Madrasah pages on Instagram and wrote to them to say who I was and what I did. Some people said no, some just didn't respond, and some fortunately agreed. Of course, consent through social networks is not enough, so I had to ask the director of the madrasah or the imam responsible for the madrasah for permission to film inside the madrasah. After the Imam gave his consent, I ask the girls' parents through their Madrasah teachers for permission to take pictures. All this happens remotely, through messengers, as it is impossible to just go to a Madrasah and get a consent for filming if you do not have acquaintances there. The most difficult thing for me is to access and find heroes, especially when it comes to shooting underage children. I still periodically search on instagram for Madrasah accounts and try to gain access to them.
Once I have access to a Madrasah , I make arrangements for the day of the shoot and go there. The Madrasah where I film has no dormitories, the girls study there for a few hours and then go home. So I either film the process of studying, or outside school hours, or during some events or trips. I shoot in different places, and the journey to some villages can be so long and tiring that I usually stay with friends. I visit each madrasa once, but there is one that I visit very often. It's in the village of Manaskent, which is very close to Makhachkala. I have very friendly relations with its students and teachers, and I go there whenever I can. I would like to visit other madrassahs more often, but I can only go once, because they are far away from where I live and I can't afford to live there.
Patimat, pupil of the madrasah Godoberi, sat down to rest after the ball game. Godoberi settlement, Dagestan Republic, August 2022. Two years ago her mother sent Patimat to a madrasah, but after a while she stopped going there because it was difficult for her to combine studying at a secular and religious school at the same time. And now she visits the madrasah from time to time during school vacations.
How would you describe your photographic style.
I guess my style is that of a classic photojournalist. But it's kind of hard for me to judge myself. Maybe you can see better from the outside.
As a documentary photographer working on socio-cultural issues, what drives you as a photographer?
I like that I can use photography to convey to others how people in my homeland live, that the world is diverse and that everyone has problems they struggle with and dreams they want to realise. I know photography won't save the world, but it gives a voice to those who want to speak out.
What influences your photographic works?
Oh, I have many favourite photographers. I can name a few contemporary photographers whose work inspires me: Alec Soth, Bryan Schutmaat, Michal Chelbin. The classics are: Andre Kertész, Eugene Smith, Diane Arbus. But I also love film and visually it also influences me as a photographer. Especially for the visuals, I love the work of Nicolas Winding Refn and the recent work of Denis Velnève.
What are you up to these days?
I am currently working on a new project, doing research on the subject. In short, it's about the human impact on the environment. In Dagestan this problem is also very topical, just like in any other region of the world.