Over the weekend Maxim Shipenkov took a photograph of a woman being arrested at the protests in Moscow. The photograph is striking in composition, its tension and poses almost classical, almost a grotesque recasting of a pietà.
A series of visual juxtapositions inhabit the tight space of the photographic frame: her flying hair versus the police hard round helmets; her hand clutching her purse versus the hands that grab of her body, wrestling her arms and legs; tan coat next to the authoritarian black vests of the police’s impenetrable riot gear; her pleading, silent expression juxtaposed with bureaucratic calm. The bodies too are visually and materially contradictory—hers limp, the police armored and weaponized; her legs exposed and bent at the knees, the languidness of the classical recline ruptured by the baton police juts out from underneath her calf.
The woman, who was later identified as Olga Lozina, is no radical. She was not in the crowd to protest Vladimir Putin but rather caught up in sweeping arrests of seemingly anyone in eyesight of the police after leaving a McDonald’s. “There was a flower bed and I jumped up to see where the crowd [ended]. Then riot police demanded that we immediately got off the flower bed,” Lozina said in an interview.
Everyone quickly got off but the police grabbed the last person to get down, a young man, and took him to a police van.
My mom was there and asked police, ‘Why are you detaining him?’ Then they grabbed my mom. And then my sister. They took them and I followed them without realizing that they were detaining me as well.
Lozina added that the police handled her gently, which may be true, but Shipenkov’s photograph—an object that exists independently of Lozina’s narrative—resists such interpretation. In the jumble of bodies, the photograph makes a visual appeal to liberty and to justice; to abstract concepts that are often invoked as the bedrocks of modern citizenry. The photograph, which quickly went viral, implies the overreach of a state—the infringement of a single body stands in for the citizen—and reiterates the permanent politicization of women’s bodies, particularly those that occupy public spaces. As such many labelled the photograph “iconic”—an implicit understanding that the arrest and physical coercion of the then-unidentified woman was a singular visual summation of the historic anti-corruption protests.
Lozina’s body, politicized by both presence and gender, was thus transformed from that of an individual woman—an individual citizen—into an icon; a visual allegory of the excesses of the state. In that respect, Lozina has many photographic sisters: Jasmina Golubovska, who was shot while applying bright red lipstick using the reflective surface of a riot shield at a protest in Macedonia during the Spring of 2015 and, perhaps more famously, Ieshia Evans, who was captured as she was arrested during a 2016 Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge. Golubovska and Evans were described as “badass” and “graceful,” “heroic” and “strong” and both photographs of the women were deemed iconic. In every case, the women who resisted the state were pulled into the realm of the allegorical, transformed, more broadly, into symbols of liberty.
The photographs of Evans and Lozina particularly lend themselves to a classical interpretation (comparisons of both photographs with Renaissance painting abound). Both photographs exploit the visual tensions of male and female bodies, excess and restraint, and of the textual surfaces of clothing. Both women happen to be in painterly poses—Evans statuesque; Lozina inadvertently in the C-curve of a recline—as though their bodies were readymade for interpretation. But then, of course, they are. “Because women continue to occupy the space of the Other that they lend themselves to allegorical use so well,” Marina Warner wrote in Monuments and Maidens. This is doubly true in the case of Evans and Black Lives Matter.
Photographs of women like Lozina and Evans go viral because they are an ancient allegory rendered living. Liberty and freedom have always been women. Since a statute of Libertas stood in the Roman Forum, we’ve understood that the abstract concept can only be made concrete by the body of a woman. Marianne and the Statute of Liberty might have been modeled on real women, but it’s their transformational power that endures (even Soviet kitsch at its finest couldn’t resist such an alluring allegory).
“Liberty” Warner writes, “prolongs the ancient associations of women with Otherness, outsiderdom, with carnality, instinct and passion, and against men endowed with reason, control, and spirituality who govern and order society.” But if such associations position men as masters of the state (also, particularly in America, represented as a woman), then the allegory of liberty also unravels that order, subverting those categories by placing “women in a different relation to these categories [...] placing women in a different relation to civilization, to its content and happiness as well as its discontents.”
Lozina and Evans then are iconic because, in the photograph, they have ceased being individuals, subsumed instead by the longing for an allegory for the discontent or the disenfranchised. And yet the photographs are a pertinent reminder that while liberty might be a woman, women still have a tenuous grasp on the very value they have given form to for centuries.