In the summer of 2013, photographer Cassandra Giraldo traveled to Russia in search of the "real punk."
It was the year after two members of the feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot had been arrested and sentenced to jail time for staging an anti-Putin concert in Moscow. But Giraldo wanted to find the kids who had long been living and breathing the radical ideologies Pussy Riot preached.
With support from an Italian photography program, Giraldo flew from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg without so much as a single lead for her story. She spent her first day wandering about the city, scavenging spots she guessed her subjects might be hanging around — skate parks, dingy concert venues, and the like — until late that night she ran into a group of grungy-looking boys outside a raucous bar blaring garage music. Their alienish haircuts, manifold piercings, and full-coverage tattoos fit the bill.
She made her pitch to the one who spoke English, and they agreed to let her spend the following week trailing after them with her camera in hand.
Just like that, she became immersed in the universe of these young, rebellious foreigners. "It was all very serendipitous," Giraldo told The Week in an interview. "Every new person I met, something unfolded."
The Russian punk scene emerged a few years after its U.S. and U.K. counterparts, in the late 1970s as a fringe offshoot of rock music. As a movement, punk culture has always pushed against the mainstream. But the Soviet Union pushed back, casting a wide net of censorship around anything relating to the look and culture, and labeling punk bands enemies of the state.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, punk went commercial in Russia. And at the dawn of the millennium, a new, politically charged punk counterculture emerged. Instead of nightclubs and bars, bands played at riots and political rallies. In just a few years, Russia's punks were synonymous with the country's anti-fascist movement.
Politics was indeed a strong thread weaving together the punks Giraldo met and photographed — their austere veganism was a political statement against capitalistic food industries, and what little money they had went to fundraisers for their activist peers who'd been jailed staging protests and demonstrations.
But economic forces also played a hand in bringing these young punks together: Many lived in inadequate housing, squatting in abandoned apartment buildings, and sharing tiny spaces crammed with too many bodies. Some worked lackluster day jobs they cared little about; others were unemployed and looking for direction.
Though Giraldo was initially drawn to the authentic punk look and their outlandish personas, she was artistically inspired by the ordinary, almost universal moments of their young lives: wandering dark suburban streets in a drunken haze, whittling away quiet afternoons on art, and seeking purpose in fighting "the man," whoever he was.
"They're young people in their early 20s who are sort of in between things, just like anyone in any part of the world who's figuring out who they wanna be," she said. "This is something that is universal, and we happen to be in Russia."
In the end, Giraldo seemed reluctant to label the collection of young people she spent that week with in 2013.
"I met the gamut of kids that were very much politically engaged, going to protests, and then others who were just young 20-somethings in between jobs that were just trying to bond over this identity," she said. "Young people are very similar in sort of this 'globalized world' way. We share big cultures, and that's what connects us."