Brent Stirton’s photograph of Maria won a world photo press award for its depiction of a tough woman in a perilous situation
For the Guardian. 13th November 2012
At first glance, Maria looks like an athlete resting after a warm-up. It’s all in the way her limbs are arranged, and her bandaged right leg initially makes you think of a sports injury of some kind. The photograph’s lighting is also reminiscent of one of those old-school shots of celebrated boxers, meant to celebrate both their battered bodies and their unsettling grace in equal measure.
At second glance, the reality of Maria’s life begins to set in. It starts with the hideous purple track marks blooming on her left leg. Then you move on to the rest of her body – most of her flesh looks undead. You finally bring yourself to look at her face. It is the face of a young hag, a woman who might have been pretty once, before fate had other ideas.
Brent Stirton’s portrait of Maria, a sex worker and drug addict living in the town of Krivy Rih in Ukraine, has been making the rounds lately. Earlier this year, Stirton won a world press photo award for the shot, which is part of a larger series on life with HIV in Ukraine. At the time the photo was taken, Maria said that she was not infected. How she is doing today is anyone’s guess.
It’s the dramatic, powerful shots that win world press photo awards, of course. A picture of a middling happy Ukrainian family would probably not do the trick. Still, Ukraine is routinely associated with the sex industry, various horrors related to the drugs trade and the criminal underworld enough as it is. I understand people who are getting “Ukraine horror fatigue”, especially since most foreigners who travel there for a holiday find it to be a comparatively laid-back country, or so I hear.
But oddly enough, the more I look at Maria, the more I like her. At first, I thought there was something Nietzschean about the photograph. When you gaze long into Maria’s eyes, Maria’s eyes seem also to gaze into you. They deliver a warning – on the dangers of drug addiction and Ukraine’s largely unglamorous and dangerous sex industry – and her gaze is clear, calm and knowing. These are the eyes of a woman who has hit rock bottom and may not come back up but the gaze suggests she is not, at this moment, afraid.
What impresses me most about the photo is the defiance and dignity on display. Here is a woman posing in a pair of flowery underpants that have been washed so many times that the flowers have long since wilted and turned grey, and yet you can tell from her expression that she won’t take any shit from you for being who she is. She’s bruised and no doubt experiencing the kind of suffering no human being should have to endure, but asks for neither pity nor forgiveness.
The toughness she displays is familiar to anyone who really knows Ukraine. There is never anything comforting to say about situations like the one Maria is in. You want to have hope, of course. You wish her luck in getting clean and finding a better job. Her body looks like it may give up soon, but her face suggests she has it in her. Godspeed, Maria.