Margo Ovcharenko, Untitled, 2021, from the series Overtime
In the series Overtime, a composite portrait of a local soccer team from the Moscow suburbs, Margo Ovcharenko emphasizes the fierceness and strength of a community of women who feel entirely at home with themselves and with each other. Her subject—a women’s sports team, its individual players, and the industrial suburban landscape of their home—is rendered via cool, quasi-constructivist angles in black and white. In the way that she frequently hones in on abruptly cropped but telling details, the images resonate with the dynamic work of Russian avant-garde artists such as Varvara Stepanova and Maria Bri-Bein. In many ways, Ovcharenko’s depiction of powerful, independent women feels rooted in the radical, visual language of early Soviet photography—as does her use of sport as a metaphor for community, strength, and self-determination. However, she both draws on and diverges from these histories in crucial ways having to do with how the image aligns with or subverts official state narratives.
Last year, Russian-born Ovcharenko made the choice to move permanently to Ukraine, having found the censorship of her work and pressures of Russia’s increasing cultural isolation too much to bear. “Love, femininity, and desire are carefully controlled concepts in countries like Russia,” she writes, from Kyiv, where she is now based, teaching online and spending time with colleagues and friends. She also writes of her work as grounded in a belief in the power of the image to shape a counternarrative against state propaganda, especially in relation to gender and the role of women in contemporary society. Today, the image of women athletes has become highly politicized—a lightning rod for discussions around the power dynamics of gender, consent, and individual autonomy. Ovcharenko deftly taps into these currents with this series, as with her previous work, to fashion her own radical manifesto.
In her previous series, Country of Women, she created a powerful collection of portraits of queer Eastern European women, and in an earlier series about young women gymnasts, she explored the pressures on body image and on a performative enactment of femininity. Overtime extends these explorations to focus on the importance of a chosen community as a framework for the definition of self. In doing so, she makes a concerted effort to turn the narratives wielded by the state apparatus back on itself. “A documentary approach to portraiture is a powerful tool,” Ovcharenko confirms, “especially when it is applied to athletes whose public image is historically created by the state as a stand-in for its power.”
Margo Ovcharenko is a runner-up for the 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize, an annual international competition to discover, exhibit, and publish new talents in photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition.