Nikolai Ignatiev 1955 - 2004
Nikolai Ignatiev, photographer: born Moscow 22 July
1955; married 1983 Juliet Butler (one son, two daughters);
died London 15 June 2004.
Nikolai Ignatiev was one of the foremost Russian
photographers of his generation. For the last 17 years his
work, mainly from the former Soviet Union, but also Asia and
the Middle East, has featured in many books and some of the
world's leading magazines.
Born in 1955 in Moscow, he was raised by his father, a
computer engineer, and mother, an English teacher, and went
on to study as an economist, but it was his experience as a
Soviet army officer in Afghanistan that perhaps provided the
education that was to shape his life. Billeted in Kandahar
as an army interpreter - he was fluent in Farsi - he was
introduced to a world far beyond what he later described as
the "concrete wasteland of Communist Moscow".
As his two-year term of service neared its end in 1979 and
return to Moscow loomed he decided his future lay beyond the
Iron Curtain and set about planning his escape. At first he
applied for political asylum at the American Cultural Centre
in Kabul, only to discover that the Americans were more
interested in his returning to Moscow. But Ignatiev had no
desire to work as an American spy, although there would have
been a certain irony: a few years before, the KGB had tried
to recruit him while he studied at the Moscow Institute of
Instead he tried escaping across the border, but although he
made it to the supposed safety of Pakistani territory, he
was pursued and seized by Afghan border guards, then
escorted to his base in Kandahar. On his return he was
beaten up by his superior officers, drugged and locked in a
cell. Overhearing his captors describing the charges of
treason and the death sentence he would face, he attempted
suicide, but was saved by prison doctors.
However, the treason charges failed to materialise. His
commanding officers realised that his attempted defection
would reflect badly on them, and instead opted for an old
Soviet favourite: Ignatiev was diagnosed as insane, and
shipped back to a mental asylum in Moscow. Within two months
he was released.
His Afghan experiences had awakened Ignatiev's creative
spirit, and it was around this time that he first took up
photography, inspired by his friend and the future Magnum
photographer Gueorgi Pinkhassov. Travel to the Soviet Union
was still all but impossible for foreign photographers, and
Ignatiev found an outlet for his work in the American news
magazines hungry for images from a country on the brink of
This was also when he met his future wife Juliet Butler, an
English girl working for foreign correspondents. During this
Cold War era, few Russians would risk meeting Westerners,
let alone marrying them, and such personal relationships
were almost out of the question. But Nikolai was a maverick:
in 1983 he and Juliet were married.
With the coming of glasnost, he moved to the UK and in 1987
joined the agency Network Photographers, announcing that he
would now be based in London, not Moscow. But this was a
rash vow given the times, and he was to be proven wrong.
Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika era was in full swing and
any ambitious photojournalist was trying to get into the
Soviet Union, not escape it. With Russian as his native
language, and better yet a Soviet passport, Ignatiev was an
ideal candidate to document the twilight of the Soviet era
and the chaotic birth of the new Russia.
To authorities unaware or forgetful of his earlier
treasonous escape attempts he was nashi - "ours" - and
virtually guaranteed the access coveted by the hordes of
foreign photographers descending on Moscow clutching
obviously spurious tourist visas. When Life magazine
published Ignatiev's first major photo essay, in 1986, on
the Millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church, it was clear
where his professional future lay: like it or not, Nikolai
Ignatiev was going home.
This period, from the late 1980s, was to be the most
creative of his professional life. The signature intensity
of his colour photography, combined with his natural
journalistic instincts and ability to mix at all levels of
Russian society, put him in demand with Western editors. He
was to spend the next decade and a half chronicling the
country he had been so keen to leave, working on assignment
for The New York Times, Time, Stern, the Sunday Times, Vogue
and many others. When not on assignment he worked on his own
projects, notably his black-and-white documentary of the
remote Velikaya River pilgrimage, an event that he
documented over a period of several years.
Unlike so many other photographers, Nikolai Ignatiev never
seemed to grow bored or cynical with his subjects. On the
contrary he displayed an almost child-like enthusiasm for
them: at times it seemed as if he was discovering his own
country for the first time. Even proceedings of which he
disapproved were greeted with an air of wry amusement. As we
watched Vladimir Putin's first presidential election victory
in 2000 in the Ignatiev Moscow apartment, Nikolai reacted
with mounting dismay. "It's incredible," he giggled finally,
shaking his head. "It's like they're voting for Hitler!"
In 2001 Nikolai and Juliet Ignatiev finally relocated to
London with their three children, but he was not finished
with Russia, returning regularly both on assignment and to
pursue his own projects. He also worked further afield, in
China, Iraq, and finally in the country which had given him
his first glimpse of a wider world and which he had longed
to revisit - Afghanistan.
As he battled cancer, in his final year Ignatiev tried to
return to the Russia he had been so keen to escape a quarter
of a century before, but ill-health prevented him. Before he
died, he said he wanted to be buried in the family plot in
the Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow, last resting place of
many other notable Russians. And that's where he now lies.
"Most of the world knows of my husband, Nikolai Ignatiev as the Russian photographer and remembers him mainly for his documentary of the remote Velikaya River pilgrimage, shot in black-and-white.
He was also famous or rather infamous because of his rebellious nature. If these facts about him intrigue you, allow me to share more about him," says Juliet Butler, widow of Ignatiev.
"Nikolai's work was seen mainly in the New York Times, Time, Stern, The Sunday Times and Vogue, to name a few. Though these names sound glamorous and add a nice touch, the fact is that Nikolai's beginning wasn't as cushy.
Nikolai was born in Moscow in 1955. His father was a computer engineer and mother an English teacher. He studied economics, but that was not the profession he was to pursue. While at school, he had been told that he was not artistic. Though he read voraciously, he was not a writer ... though he observed, he could not paint.
So when, many years later in Moscow, he was asked to assist a Life magazine photographer as an interpreter he realised that he had found a way to escape the bureaucratic future as a Soviet economist that had been mapped out for him - he could take photos.
"Nikolai never liked to use a flash or to digitally change or set up any shot. He would always see an image as a naturally created moment in time, which he simply snapped with his battered old Leica camera in the light, colour and mood in which it appeared.
He walked through the world as if his eyes were a camera - and a blink of the eye was a photo shutter, which would capture that instant and freeze it forever on celluloid.
"Whether it was a single ray of sunshine, floating with dust particles and darting down into a Russian Orthodox church; a child lit from below by a quivering candle; or a bare room harshly lit by strip lighting, he would take the scene just as it was.
Nikolai photographed real life with real, unsuspecting people. He disliked any interaction with his subject because he saw this as throwing a pebble into a pool and spoiling the perfect reflection ...
"He didn't talk to them and didn't ask them to pose. That's what makes his pictures so appealing. It's as if he was not seen, as if he was an invisible chronicler of life in its most intimate moments.
Many of his photos look like oil paintings because he had an extraordinary ability to look at an everyday, apparently humdrum instant at some pinpoint of the world and see it for what it really was - a beautiful and lasting work of art.
"I think his best works are those he took of children around the world - from doe-eyed little girls in Iraq, to scrappy village kids in Siberia ... I believe this is because he travelled very often and for long periods of time away from his growing family and every time he saw a child he was reminded of our three children, whom he loved very much and missed.
This is why many of his best pictures, taken with a warmth and compassion - almost a longing - unusual in other images, are those of children, and they are the most touching.
"We met when I was 23 and he was 28. He was working as an editor ... he was a rebel and always dreamt of life beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. I was living in a foreign ghetto for Westerners walled off from the rest of the city and guarded by the militia, so we would meet for walks by the Moskva River. He would bring me flowers, chocolates ... and we quickly fell in love.
"When he started, Nikolai could only afford Russian Zenith cameras and he closed off the bathroom and used it as his developing room.
"Soon, because he was married to me and was the only Russian photographer brave enough to work for Western journalists, he began getting assignments from journalists for whom I was working as a nanny at that time - Newsweek, Time and the New York Times.
He was sent out on assignment and through his natural talent and tenacity ... he became much in demand in the days of the early 1980s (before Gorbachev's glasnost) when Western photographers were not being given visas to enter the country.
"At first he was refused permission to leave the country, despite being married to me in 1983, but after Gorbachev's openness campaign he was finally allowed to leave in 1988 to live in England.
He began specialising in reportage work abroad but since there was great demand for him to do assignments in Russia and because we had our first child in 1988, we moved back to Russia in 1992 and lived there for the next nine years. He travelled extensively but we were based with our growing family in Moscow and the children went to Russian schools.
"He was a person who was remembered at his memorial service as someone who was always happy, always laughing ... but he was a lone wolf, someone who made few true friends in life, a deeply private person.
"Sadly, even his force of will could not escape the 'black dog', as he called his cancer; forever appearing behind him just when he felt he had finally fooled it. He travelled abroad during his illness, in between bouts of chemotherapy, and took his two youngest children to Morocco seven months before he died (in June 2004). He took photos all the time.
"As for me, no wife and mother should ever have to go through the heartbreak of telling her children that their father has cancer, then six months later telling them he will probably not get better and six months on from that telling them he has died.
"He was buried in the family grave - Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow, Russia. I think that after all his travels he would have wished to return home."