Welcome to the LTP – Irina Popova

Popova - men eat soup

Popova, 2015. Untitled

The first Labour Treatment for Profilactorium (LTP) was established in Kazakhstan 1967 and offered alcoholics and drug addicts rehabilitation in return for forced labour.

Operated along the lines of a prison, residents could be incarcerated for periods lasting from 6 months to 2 years. There was no right of appeal. There was no crime.

Should the residents have one, their home is rented out to meet the costs of their treatment. Any children are placed in care.

The LTP system met with strong protest from human rights campaigners in the USSR, and was closed down by Yeltsin in 1993 under perestroika. However, some LTPs still remain in operation in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.

Irina Popova is a documentary photographer and curator. Her book Welcome to the LTP is a journey through the Soviet-era passageways of despair of one Belarusian ‘workhouse for substance abusers’. She is the first photographer to be allowed access to such an establishment.

Draconian in concept, Draconian in practice – the LTPs are not an investment in people, instead there appears to be two objectives behind the system. Firstly, to remove the problem away from mainstream society, out of sight is out of mind. Secondly, to beat the addiction out of the residents with a proverbial stick.

The LTPs are a chimera of the penal system, being described by human rights activists in the USSR as ‘punitive psychotherapy’ – prison meets rehab.

Popova’s Welcome to the LTP conveys a strong message of not only addiction, but also abject poverty and loneliness.

Her images have a distinct richness to them. Which is in stark contrast to her subjects and their surroundings in Welcome to the LTP.

Grimy walls, dingy corridors, stark rooms – the outlook at every turn is dismal, hopeless, bleak. Popova’s images capture an infrastructure in decay, a system that was never going to work. The base level at which the decay starts, and the magnitude of that decay suggest that there was never any interest in the system, nor the people who would go to these centres. The system failing the system.

My projects to-date have explored alternative relationships with food. These have been interesting and rewarding projects to work on.

I feel that as my photography has developed, so has my interest in giving a voice to the socially disadvantaged through my practice.

Taking my three most recent projects in the order they were produced, this trend can be seen clearly: the cravings experienced by an athlete preparing for a competition, the interrelationship between diet and mental health, and the diaries of an anorexic.

With reference to the latter, eating disorders are a conveniently forgotten disease. Periodically there is a news article informing us that a celebrity has an eating disorder and the issue becomes topical for a very brief time, before being forgotten again.

Eating disorders are highly stigmatised. They are something that the general public are largely ignorant of, many believing them to be a lifestyle choice. The reality is that eating disorders are a serious mental illness. Some individuals are susceptible, they carry within them a ticking time bomb. For such individuals, family and societal pressures are merely triggers which stimulate an underlying condition.

Alcoholism shares some similarities with eating disorders. It is perceived by much of the general public as being a lifestyle choice, whilst in reality being a serious mental illness. There is much stigma attached to alcoholism. It destroys careers, homes, families, people.

Building on the success of Jo-Ana, my next project will investigate alcoholism. Popova’s work is a fascinating documentary, in view of my plan, however, it takes on new relevance.

Jo-Ana took me out of my comfort zone, and that was necessary for me to develop as a photographer. My next project needs to do the same, but in different ways.

My photography already has a definite characteristic style – close up, point of view still life compositions beautifully lit by natural light. I do not intend to deviate from this. However, I think my practice will develop, both technically and creatively, if I include some environmental shots in my next project. Popova’s Welcome to the LTP is a benchmark as to how this can be done.

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