Mary Gelman is a VII Photo Agency Member photographer based in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She explores the larger world through close personal narratives. Mary focuses on a study of issues of gender and body, boundary and identity, discrimination and the human relationship with the environment.
Russians are prejudiced against those with mental disorders. They are not considered proper humans able to learn and socialize, they often remain unemployed. Yet there exists a different kind of place. "Svetlana" is a unique community in Leningrad region. This village provides people with various mental disorders an opportunity to live free and supported by tutors and volunteers. For the residents, though, those labels mean nothing. The place is not a boarding school or a clinic. No one is controlled and the doors are always open. Residents do not draw lines between "healthy" and "unhealthy," "normal" and "abnormal." Everyone is valued as an individual. One's ability is the only thing that matters. The residents believe in the person one can become despite one's past.
"Svetlana" has nearly 40 residents. Living in four large houses, they have a garden, a farm, a bakery, a carpentry and more. The residents subsist on farming and work together despite their differences. The villagers get five meals a day, visit sauna on weekends and stage plays on holidays. People with special needs are free to go out, work, have friends and fall in love. They can find fulfillment in any employment or creative activity. Some residents originally unable to hold a spoon now bake bread for all the inhabitants of the village or play in performances.
Lisa, a volunteer, on a walk with a donkey. She has been at Svetlana Village for nearly two years, has worked at the bakery, taken care of the donkey and now helps at the farm. Young people from different countries often come to live and work at the village.
Vegetables grown by the villagers sustain the community. The residents work hard in summer time to stash enough food for the winter. They also produce milk and basic and cottage cheese for their own table and to sell to the neighbors.
Vasya works at the farm. He stands out for often asking questions to which he knows the answers. In his spare time he likes to listen to Pink Floyd and Queen and cut out pictures from magazines to combine into collages for decorating his desk.
Vika is an adopted daughter of one of Svetlana's workers, Sarah Hagnauer, an English woman, and her husband Boris. Vika has the Down syndrome and does not speak much but expresses herself with sounds and so-called alternative communication, for example, with gestures. Curious and open, she can unexpectedly show up anywhere in the village. She is very attentive and involves herself in everything that interests her. Speech difficulties do not get in the way of communicating.
As a child Julia had meningitis. She cannot read and write and because of lesions in the brain cannot be taught. Julia works at the cheese-making shop and she is proud of it. She collects product requests; though unable to write anything down, she hands people a piece of paper and a pen with an impatient "spare my time" look. Julia knows how to keep her dignity. Even wading in the field Julia walks as if on a podium and she is aware of her attractiveness. She is caring, asking "How are you?" of anyone even slightly familiar and listening to the answer.
Minya's birthday. Now 50, he regularly writes letters where he imagines himself the deputy director of the village. The villagers of "Svetlana" are one big family and all have showed up to celebrate his anniversary.
Julia walking around the village in the evening. There are four large houses in the village built by the residents themselves. Each resident has his own room and all four houses have different names: "Fyodor Dostoevsky," "Larsh Henrik," "Serafim Sarovsky" and "Fridtjof Nansen." Each has its own atmosphere and its own homey ways.
Amir came to the village with his parents. They loved him very much, but did not know what to do after Amir's coming of age. They wanted him to live fully with a sense of his own worth, and they were afraid that it would be impossible. Amir himself felt frightened of independence. But his relocation to "Svetlana" taught him to fend for himself. He learned much and developed useful manual skills. The villagers adore Amir for his inner strength, self-reliance and a kind heart.
Tatiana and Minya, residents with the Down syndrome, met in the village and fell in love. They call each other husband and wife.
The villagers have different religious beliefs. Some frequent this chapel.
Raya is originally from Sevastopol. In her home town she attended a social support center for people with disabilities, but did not feel needed in society. The staff of "Svetlana" say that on arrival Raya did not seem to have her own face. Now she is a beautiful young woman able to form her own opinions and share them with others. She likes to joke but shies any gesture from strangers.
The village is quite green, surrounded by woods and fields. One can hardly find it on the map, getting there takes asking the residents. The inhabitants love their land and plant life.