The opening night saw the Ozwald Boateng store on Savile Row full to bursting with fans of modern black and white photography and creatives from all spheres of art world. It was wonderful to see so many people engage with the story of the STRANGER IN MOSCOW.
Stranger In Moscow is a series of photographs that shine a light on a young man’s story, and highlight the feelings of displacement and vulnerability felt by so many living in foreign environments, far from their country of birth. Their aim being to better their own lives, and those of the ones they love. The social struggles faced by such people has defined the modern world we live in.
‘‘Habdulay Vilhette - is a young man that I met and befriended on my recent trip to Moscow. After hearing his story he became my archetypal Stranger. At the age of 14 Habdulay left his home country of São Tomé and Principe a small Portuguese speaking island off the coast of west Africa, to begin a life of study in Portugal. After a disappointing start to his studies Habdulay took time out to re-evaluate and decided to study medicine. Having heard of the excellent academic programs Russia had to offer, he set out to relocate again with Moscow in mind, not knowing what to expect.
Two and half years later in October of 2012, mine and Habdulay’s paths met in Moscow during the rigorous casting calls for the Ozwald Boateng runway show, for Moscow Fashion Week. Habdulay arrived on the third day of castings with a large group of other young hopefuls, vying for the opportunity to join Ozwald’s fashion army on the runway. Habdulay stood at 6ft 3 inches tall, well built, and dark in complexion. He radiated strength and confidence with a youthful swagger. Adorned in colourful Pan-African jewellery and vibrant fashion choices, most noticeably a long beaded metal bar through his left ear. He struck me as a young man naive to his social environment, after all Moscow isn’t a city famous for it’s multi cultural tolerance. After living there myself for only a few days, and despite having met some wonderful people in Russia. It was clear from the lingering stares of some, and on one occasion a tirade of verbal abuse hurled my way as I walked down the street, that I was very much a stranger here and therefore not trusted by all.
Delving deeper into his story, I realise it’s not naivety that allows him to be so brazenly defiant in his outward appearance. It’s the indignation of being made to feel that he should be anything less than who he is, no matter where he lives in the world. Straight to the point, he warns me of the dangers of being black in Moscow and proceeds to chill me with stories of violent incidents he’s both heard about and witnessed in the city. Being fluent in English, Portuguese and now Russian, Habdulay is a sharp streetwise young man with a knack for knowing how to take care of himself. Which is why I expect he radiates such inner confidence in who he is, and what he plans to do with his time in Russia.
Moscow has become Habdulay’s home over the past two and a half years. He now has a close circle friends, a job that keeps him busy, whiles also studying medicine full time. These grounding elements in his life help Habdulay miss his tiny island home of São Tomé less. But his deep affection for his country is clearly evident as he repeatedly expresses to me his ambitions to return home one day with skills and passion to improve conditions there. Once he has completed his studies and gained experience in his field.
On our last day in Russia, Habdulay and I - with a small team planned to meet at his student accommodation in the Ulitsa Miklukho-Maklaya street area of Moscow city. Having conquered the catwalk only the night before, Habdulay was still on a high. So I took the opportunity to shoot Habdulay head to toe in Ozwald Boateng, against a hand picked selection of monumental Russian backdrops.
The work aims to challenge our preconceived ideas of Russian society, and to juxtapose Russia’s old world image with its newly emerging face of multi-culture, mixed ethnicity and revived economic prosperity. Moscow is an epic city dripping in history, that left me with an experience that will linger in my heart and mind for a long long time.’’
- If you haven't already done it, make sure you pick up a copy of this month's Black + White Photography magazine (June issue) to read my interview and Fashion Army feature with Max Houghton. it's a good read!
Pick up a free copy of the mag at my 'Stranger in Moscow' exhibition - Currently on at the OZWALD BOATENG flagship store gallery - 30 Savile Row, London. 6 JUNE - 5 JULY 2013.