Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a former top aide to Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, has swapped the big beasts of politics for the arguably less daunting ones of the African plains.
The man who was Yeltsin’s press secretary and Putin’s point man on Chechnya, as well as previously working as a diplomat and journalist,
is known in Moscow for his smooth manner and penchant for hunting in Africa. Now he has turned his interest in the continent into a new career,
and today in London he launches his new book of photographs of small communities in 14 different African countries.
It follows a number of documentary films Yastrzhembsky has made about Africa, looking at endangered cultures as well as local wildlife.
He has also made films about other cultures, such as the Old Believers in Russia and the Berbers of Morocco.
VoR's Alice Lagnado asked Yastrzhembsky whether there were any similarities between dealing with the most powerful men in Russian politics
and the most dangerous creatures of the African landscape.
“For sure, there is some communication between these two realities,” he said, laughing.
Fearsome creatures aside, Yastrzhembsky said his diplomatic training has made it easier for him to try to communicate with the people
he has been photographing.
“I am grateful for my past. It helps me to enter into trusting relationships with these people. Without this school, it would be much more difficult to do what I do now.”
Patriarchal Africa: The Last Sunrise – photo chronicle of a vanishing life is a compendium of photographs that Yastrzhembsky has taken over the last five years, concentrating on recording ways of life there that are now under threat.
“These people are under pressure from civilisation and globalisation,” said Yastrzhembsky. In recent years, he said, he has noticed how the pressure of globalisation has increased dramatically in some African communities, and how not enough is being done to help people adjust.
“Africa will change, and wants to change,” he said.
“We want to see old traditions stay, but we cannot be egotistical about this – it must be their choice.”
Does Yastrzhembsky ever miss Kremlin politics? “No. No,” he said with conviction. “In the past six years I have never felt the motivation
to go back. It’s a radically new life, and now I’m a decisionmaker in my own life.
And I have discovered so many countries and people that I could not imagine [knowing before].”
Commenting on how his films have impacted on Russians’ understanding of Africa, he said:
“It’s a pity, but Africa is not well known in Russia, unlike Europe and Asia,” he said. “So I am happy and proud that my 23 films have been bought by Russian television channels.
But it is much more difficult to get into the western film market.”