From Russia with... like

Kazan, Russia -- My main job in Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, is to cover the World Cup matches that take place there, as well as the training sessions of the Japan team. Whenever I have free time, I also try to capture images daily life, which can make for some very nice pictures.

A woman sits in a bus in Kazan on June 17, 2018 during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / Benjamin CREMELWoman on a bus. Kazan, June 17, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

I’ve been to Russia five or six times, always for work. I can’t say it’s one of my favorite countries. I wouldn’t come here for vacation, for example. But I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s because I can’t communicate with the locals very well, or that my first contacts have always been a bit brusque, even if afterward they open up.

Maybe it’s because  the Russians are by nature reserved and, based in Madrid, I’m more comfortable with the gregariousness that you find among the peoples of the Mediterranean. For example, the Colombians invaded the city the other day for the match against Poland. There were thousands of them in the street, wearing their hearts and enthusiasm on their sleeve. Not exactly what Russians are known for.

Peru fans in the Fan Zone in Kazan, June 18, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)
Two Russian fans in the Fan Zone in Kazan, June 25, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

 

When I first got here two weeks ago, it was cold. The streets were empty when I came out of my hotel the next day. It was a bit sinister and depressing. And then the World Cup started and the whole place seemed to come alive. The weather warmed up and the city changed its face. Kazan is of manageable size, clean and pretty. I feel good here and the locals have been very welcoming, telling me the best sights, like the kremlin and the main mosque (Tatarstan is a mainly Muslim region).

 

A couple kiss near the Kazan kremlin in Kazan, June 21, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)
A man takes a picture of the Qul Sharif mosque in Kazan on June 16, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / Benjamin CREMELA man takes a picture of the Qul Sharif mosque in Kazan, June 16, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

 

The city center is not too big, it’s human size, unlike Moscow, which is huge. The locals seem to be very happy with this influx of visitors from all corners of the world, each side taking pictures of the other. The security has been omnipresent -- there seems to be uniformed men everywhere. But it hasn’t dampened the atmosphere.

 

Each wave of fans here features their national character. The Colombians just party all the time. The Iranians too, but maybe for different reasons. To me, it seems that they’re also just enjoying being in a place more open than their country. The Poles like their drink, but they are happy inebriates. At least they have been up until their team got eliminated; we’ll see if that changes.

Iranian fans ahead of their team's match against Spain in Kazan, June 20, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

What I will not get used to are the taxi drivers here. Definitely not what I’m used to. I have been using Uber. Each of my drivers’ cars have featured a child car seat and the latest model stereo system that’s probably worth more than the car itself. The drivers spend as much, if not more, time looking at their WhatsApp than at the road in front of them. The guy who drove me from the airport actually drove on the sidewalk -- his left hand was on the wheel, and the right switched between the phone, the gear shift and the volume control on the radio.

The locals have been very nice and very easy to photograph. I don’t like to surprise my subjects or to “steal” photos. I approach them naturally, so they know that I’m there. I haven’t had a single problem here. For example, that woman who was praying, whom I found just fascinating.

I stumbled on her by chance after coming into an Orthodox church. She saw me. She had come to pray, but my presence didn’t bother her at all. I was very close to her because, as is my custom, I prefer to use a 35mm lens -- that way I have no choice but be close to my subject. She seemed to belong to another time.

A woman lights a candle in the Saint Peter and Saint Paul church in Kazan on June 18, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / Benjamin CREMEL (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)
A woman gives a prayer in the Saint Peter and Saint Paul church in Kazan on June 18, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / Benjamin CREMEL (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

 

I haven’t seen too many Soviet symbols. I’ve been looking for them because they work well in a picture and you instantly know where you are.

 

A boy juggles with a ball in front of a mosaic depicting Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin in Kazan, June 26, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

But they haven’t been easy to find. I’ve also taken some very nice pictures by the river that to me are very Russian.

 

A woman looks after a girl on a beach by the Volga river in Kazan on June 17, 2018 during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. By the river in Kazan, June 18, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)
By the river in Kazan, June 18, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

 

Who knows, if the national team advances further in the competition, maybe I’ll start to change my mind about the country...

 

A woman drives a carriage in Kazan on June 16, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / Benjamin CREMELKazan, June 16, 2018. (AFP / Benjamin Cremel)

 

Benjamin Cremel