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Dissolving Borders: A Photographic Journey in Kazan, Russia

by Alison Shuman

Kazan is the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of 21 semi-autonomous ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. It is a beautiful city located at the convergence of the Volga and Kazan Rivers about 700 kilometers east of Moscow. I first traveled to Kazan during a post-college backpacking trip in which I spent three months traveling and photographing in Russia from the European side through Siberia. As part of a riverboat cruise down the Volga, I briefly stopped in the port city of Kazan and was immediately struck by the city’s palpable sense of history. I photographed mosques and churches and crescent flags flying over government buildings. It felt to me to be unlike any other place in Russia, a feeling that stayed with me over the years.

As a documentary photographer, a lot of the work I’ve done in the States has been with the Muslim community. I was profoundly affected by seeing such negative representations of Islam in the media, particularly after 9/11. When I started developing this project in Kazan, I was interested to look at Islam in the context of Russia, a country that was just starting to rediscover religion after 70 years of Communism, but once I started working on the project, I realized that there was so much more to the story.

The dismantling of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s kindled a slow but steady religious movement in the Republic of Tatarstan and across Russia. In Kazan, churches and mosques were rebuilt, the Tatar language became an official language of Tatarstan alongside Russian, and ancient traditions kept alive in small villages began seeping back into the city. The ­2000s brought a safer and more stable environment for the city’s inhabitants and with that came a stronger resurgence of religious and cultural expression, particularly among the youth. In a city divided almost equally between Tatars and Russians, Muslims and Christians, this process has unfolded not only with a marked lack of tension, but also with a spirit of mutual respect and exchange.

In 2011, I traveled to Kazan to begin photographing. What I witnessed was a picture of tolerance that is governmentally mandated, religiously guided and personally experienced. In 2005, the Tatarstan government rebuilt their Kremlin to incorporate both the Orthodox Church and a new mosque. Last year Tatarstan’s president created a governmental department dedicated to supporting inter-religious dialogue and to suppress any form of religious extremism. Religious leaders periodically gather to discuss ways in which the groups can work together and to hold events geared toward interreligious communication. The Kazan Seminary and the Russian Islamic University both have a long history of promoting tolerance and personal freedom and students from the two institutions occasionally meet for an inter-scholastic soccer match.

Most striking, however, were the personal relationships the people of Kazan have to religion, culture and each other. At its heart, this is a story of rediscovery. Tatarstan has a long history of tolerance and Russian society in general is imbued with a very deep sense of humanity. In the religious and cultural reawaking both Tatars and Russians have been experiencing over the past 20 years, they are also honoring the open-minded attitudes of their ancestors. Time and again, people would share with me how proud they are that they live in a society where they don’t fear expressing their religious identities. I truly believe that Kazan has some very important lessons for the world.

I am excited by what I’ve accomplished in the time that I had, but there is much more work to be done to see this project through to the end. Photography projects such as this take time and resources that are unfortunately increasingly scarce in today’s world. Last year I self-funded my work in Russia but this year I am using the platform of Kickstarter to raise money to return to Kazan and finish the project. Kickstarter has created an invaluable resource for photographers to engage in these long-term projects that have an incredible impact in the world. The platform of Kickstarter is such that you’re not just donating money to a project, but you also receive a great reward for your generosity. You can see the project here:

The caveat is that Kickstarter has a firm deadline policy. After the March 8th, 9AM deadline, anyone wishing to donate can just go to my blog and donate there. I will keep in place the exact same reward levels for donations, just email me with your name and address so I can send the rewards! For my blog, please go here:

My deepest desire is for this story to serve as an example from which we, Tatars and Russians included, can all learn. Regardless of a region’s history or government, it is the people who ultimately choose cooperation over conflict. This is a perspective that is largely missing from but desperately needed by our global community.

Thank you!

Alison Shuman



Pluralism Project hosts photo contest for religious diversity

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University is hosting a photo contest highlighting religious diversity in the United States.

From the Pluralism Project website:

We invite you to participate in our second annual Pluralism Project Photo Contest. We are looking for high-resolution digital images that convey the vibrancy of religious diversity in the USA. We are particularly interested in images in the following categories:

  • Religious practices and rituals
  • Religious centers, including festivals, center openings, and parades
  • Participation of religious groups in American civic life
  • Interfaith encounter or social action
  • Women’s leadership and participation
  • Emerging leadership within Muslim and Sikh communities
  • Historic and present day images of the Atheist/Humanist, Bahá’í, Confucian, Native American, Shinto, Taoist, and Zoroastrian communities in the US

One grand-prize winner will be selected; the winning photographer will receive a $250 cash prize and an extended exposé in the spotlight on our homepage,

Click here for full details


Golden States Of Grace: Prayers Of The Disinherited

From The Huffington Post

I am of the firm belief that every one of us carries within us something that is marginalized, some trait or piece of personal history that has been (or that we wish would be) left behind or cast off — the malformed foot, the embarrassing immigrant heritage, the emotional scars left by an abusive, alcoholic mother. It is this concept (compounded by an allegiance to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious) that has led me to conclude that those whom society has cast off as “them” are, in reality, “us,” and which drove the creation of my newest body of work, Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited.

Since I began Golden States of Grace in 2003, it has often felt as if our world has drawn increasingly stark divisions between “us” and “them,” be those divides cultural, political, socioeconomic, or religious. Additionally, representations across faith lines have become filled with stereotypes and, at times, outright hatred of “the other.” National and international events demonstrate almost daily that we live in a fundamentally faith-based society that has grown increasingly intolerant of those who do not clearly embrace the narrowly defined codes of morality and religious worship. (The day before I began editing this book, a man with a gun entered a church in Knoxville, Tennessee and shot eight people, killing two. His motive: they were too liberal in that they supported the inclusion of gays, racial desegregation and women’s rights.) This body of work aims specifically to counteract that intolerance, hoping its audience might open itself to discovering (if not experiencing) faith from the bottom up.

Click here to read the entire post.

September 21st, 2010 at 4:00 pm