I met Nika in March 2005. At that time she was 25. I was on the outlook for young adults who would be HIV positive as a follow-up of my last trip to Russia in 2002, at that time working with a young couple – both seropositive – and very much in love. The feeling «to be in love with someone» had inspired me into a new documentary-portrait project focused on a small group of friends in the age of 19–27 years. Then as I met Nika, I turned around my concept as I decided to portray Nika and, connected through her, her innercircle of best friends of whom many were seropositive. In this «small world» new and lost ideals share the same bed so to speak, like ever changing friendships, there's envy, dreaming, love, sex, as well as some political engagement that all makes part of «passing» time in this ordinary life that was once so full of contrasts.
Nika and I clicked immediately. I noticed that she was a funny and very intelligent young woman, who knew what she wanted in life. Although she had quite some bruises from her past, she seemed a tough girl yet with loads of humour. Our adventure started with my second trip that year, when I'd experienced claustrophobia in a Moscow hotel, and Nika reacted surprised as I called her the next morning, she couldn't understand why I hadn't come to her place right away? And that was it, from that time on I would stay at Nika's place each time when I came to visit her in Russia, wherever that would be. In those years she had moved from Moscow to Sint Petersburg to end up again in Moscow. At her friends' house, where she lived for more than a year, many friends – as well as a few boyfriends – would gather, often to smoke and have endless philosophical discussions during the whole night, then to end in hysteric laughter rolling on the kitchen floor. I was up during these nights, halfway these nights I would then to bed and get up in the morning to photograph all of them still sound asleep.
The images feel like a theatre of daily dullness, at the same they are of great intimacy to me; it's become a platitude where the faint memory of drugs, alcohol, negligence, death and abuse dominate on a deep subconscious level trying hard to not give in to the tenacious desire of their former addictive habits and needs, that never seems to leave their present.
Nika became HIV-positive when she was 17 years old. She continuously stated to have had luck to be alive still. She believes she should have been dead a long time ago, but since she's still alive she feels obliged to live life to the full max. She's clean for more than 8 years now. I've had many interviews with Nika, as with her innercircle of best friends. Not all of them have HIV, that has to be said. One her best friends, a young man, unfortunately didn't make it. He died unexpected of an overdose a year after we had met, allthough he had been clean for years. But then as Nika told me, «once addicted, always addicted», is one of her repeated mantra's.
What intrigued me most about her, is that she treated her status, being HIV-positive, as something like diabetes; a normal health problem. She would sit in a taxi and start to explain to the taxi-driver what is means to be HIV-positive. Always teaching everyone, anyone who wanted to listen and to learn for that matter. Anyone who has been to Russia, knows how difficult it can be to feel accepted, for there is still a lot of stigma around HIV-positivity.
Our project came to and end during the warm summer of 2007. Saying goodbye was kind of hard for both of us, since we had become close during those two and half years. She was as much a teacher for me, as often she felt like I was her «big sister». It was the one project of my life where there was almost no distance in my presence as «photographer» and myself as a person, a lot of it being credit to the vigorous Russian soul and mentality of the people I met. Thereupon it's one of the most intimate projects I have ever experienced.
The project is now planned to be realized into a wonderfull book in participation with two graphic designers, Hilmer Thijs and Ruben Doornweerd, who just graduated from ArtEZ, Art Academy Arnhem and d'Jonge Hond (the Netherlands). All still very much in progress, I look forward to the day for the photographs, sound & video as well as the interviews to become as «one» and set free out into the world, thus Nika and her friends can touch many other harts around the globe.
Ilse Frech – 2010