Russia has greater economic disparity than any other major global power. In 2016, Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report found that the wealthiest 10% of people in Russia controlled 89% of the country’s wealth.
This discrepancy is what photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan set out to explore in her series “Masters and Servants,” an intimate view of Russia’s elite photographed within their homes, alongside their hired help.
“For those who can afford it, it’s a common situation to hire a helper,” Li-Mi-Yan told Business Insider. She said she was interested in exploring those people’s stories and their relationships.
According to Li-Mi-Yan, finding the employers to photograph wasn't difficult. 'These were mostly people that I was acquainted with,' she said. 'Most of them agreed to take part in my project with enthusiasm.'
'I had long conversations with my subjects in their homes,' she said. 'I asked about their roles as employers and employees, how their status made them feel, and what their relationships looked like.'
These conversations helped Li-Mi-Yan decide how to stage the photographs. Her subtle yet critical placement of the subjects speaks to their relationships.
Gender plays a large role in the staff's duties -- women are usually housekeepers, babysitters, or governesses.
'In Russia, a governess or a babysitter or a driver is reckoned to be a (lower-class) job,' Li-Mi-Yan said. Some employees refused to be photographed, wanting to avoid the label of 'housekeeper.'
In most situations, Li-Mi-Yan said, those working within the homes were saving money in hopes of a better future. 'Most of them have a higher education ... They see their current employment as a temporary state, hoping for a better, more interesting, and respectful occupation in the future,' she said.
'Most of the employers think that they treat their employees with respect and care. However, most of the 'servants' -- regardless of whether their relations with employers are in fact full of warmth and respect -- wish to save up some money and find another kind of job,' she said.
'I met only one old woman who chose that kind of work on her own will and not because of constraining circumstances,' Li-Mi-Yan said.
Li-Mi-Yan understands the sensitive nature of her work and welcomes discussion around it. She said when the photos were first published, 'some of the participants asked me to remove them.' 'I understood all the controversies and the level of effect the project imposed only when it was published on the internet,' she said. 'I was amused with the amount and variety of reception which my photographs received.'
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