21 May 2008 Kit Fordham’s new exhibition of black-and-white photographs of Orthodox life and worship in the Balkans and Russia casts a fresh eye on an ancient subject, writes Marcus Tanner.

A tall Russian priest cranes his head forward to hear the whispered confession of an old woman at the St Sergius monastery in Moscow; a young man in shorts lights a candle in the coal-black gloom of a church in Budva, Montenegro; a bearded clergyman emerges from beneath an archway at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria; a giant cross leaps into the sky on the outskirts of Skopje, Macedonia.

These are only some of the images of religious life in the Balkans and Russia captured by British photographer Kit Fordham, who has embarked on a mission to portray the spirit and spirituality of the Orthodox world.

His exhibition, “Eastern Soul: A Photographic Odyssey through Russia and the Balkans”, opened at the Pushkin House in London on Tuesday.

Fordham is no conventionally devout Christian. “I’m not even baptised,” he says. But he makes no bones about his fascination with the little known and often misunderstood world of Orthodox Europe, and with the way that faith, ritual and tradition continue to exert a powerful impact on society in the Balkans and Russia - not only on headscarved grandmothers and peasants but the young, too.

For many people, he says, it remains “a key anchor in the lives of young and old alike, while life changes round them inordinately”.

Fordham’s journey began five years, he told Balkan Insight, when, after touring Transylvania, he chanced on a little church in the Romanian capital and felt struck both by the otherness of the Orthodox faith and by the intimate role it still played in the life of so many people in the “other” half of Europe.

“Eastern Soul” celebrates only the first part of what Fordham anticipates will be a longer Balkan journey, taking in the holy shrines and churches of Kosovo, among other places.

The use of black and white lends a quality of austerity and stillness to his work, which draws on the influence of Cartier-Bresson, and appears peculiarly well suited to the subject matter – a faith that endeavours above all to remain true to its past in a fast changing environment.

Fordham hopes his work will do more than tease the curiosity of onlookers: “At a time when east-west tensions are on the rise, eastern soul provides a prism through which life in the Slavic east can be viewed”.

“Eastern Soul: A Photographic Odyssey Through Russia and the Balkans” is on show at Pushkin House in London until June 4. All images are for sale. For prices and further information, contact Kit Fordham on: Kitfordham, or Pushkin House

From Balkan in Sight

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