Nonfiction by Tamar Charney for MQR Online.
I’ve been snapping pictures with an old Soviet camera.
With each click of its shutter I feel a lovely subversive charge flash through me. It’s as if I’m living in some Cold War spy fantasy brought on by my childhood overdose of Boris and Natasha, James Bond, and Harriet the Spy.
Maybe that subversive feeling is the mailman’s fault. He gave me side eye when he asked me to sign for the hand-cut cardboard box with the Donetsk Ukraine return address written in a shaky hand. It did look pretty sketchy — as if it were a box in which an Improvised Explosive Device would be mailed. Even I paused momentarily when the mailman held it out to me before I realized it was just my camera. I scurried back upstairs with the feeling I was about to do something untoward.
I hadn’t intended to order a Soviet camera. I’d been searching for a replacement for my broken Argus C3, a type of camera manufactured during World War II just blocks from where I now live. But instead of getting a camera made in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I ended up buying a Lomo Smena/Смена 8m — a Soviet camera, a relic from the Cold War. It just spoke to me. At a time when many believe Vladimir Putin has been attempting to control United States politics, it seemed fitting that my quest for a camera from down the street ended with one from Mother Russia.
The old Argus Camera I’d been looking for was a classic piece of American manufacturing. It was a mass-produced camera so heavy and sturdy it was nicknamed The Brick. (Lord knows how I managed to break mine.) It was used by both average Joes and the pros. The Смена, on the other hand, was a mass-produced piece of chintzy plastic that feels like a kid’s toy. The controls are adorably simple; the aperture is set by turning a ring on the lens marked with a cloud featuring rain, clouds, haze, and sun. The focus ring has a face, a family, trees, and a building to demark the various distance settings. It’s so toy-like, in fact, that I forget I have to do more than cock the funny little lever on the lens, point, and shoot.
However, despite appearances, the Смена was actually serious business — a propaganda weapon. If the Soviets could put a luxury good like a camera in the hands of the proletariat masses, then Communism must be doing something right, right? And if you stamp the English words “Made In USSR” on the bottom, you have a product for export, proof that you’ve arrived as a modern industrial nation.
You could say I’m one of the USSR’s products, too, though my family left Russia and other nearby countries before the revolution. I’m a creation of the Cold War, part of a generation raised on fears of nuclear annihilation, spies, and surveillance. As a toddler, I devoured reruns of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and even in the 1970s still occasionally saw the civil defense film Duck and Cover. It was an everyday occurrence to see the yellow and black signs marking the way to the nearest fallout shelter in schools, post offices, and stores. There was no escaping the Cold War’s shadow.
Family lore even has it that our phone was tapped by the Nixon administration over that Cold War proxy war we call Vietnam. This was when my father worked for the Justice Department; his name appeared on a list of protesters left on his boss’s desk with his name circled. Soon afterwards, my parents heard funny clicks and sounds on our phone line. I was just a kid and blissfully unaware of this until we moved to Nashville, where my dad took a job in academia. Not long afterwards, I got my first camera, setting me on a course of keeping photographic evidence of the world around me.
The Cold War continued to rage in the background. It would come to the foreground when the ABC network’s movie The Day After aired, or when the Doomsday Clock made news, or late at night when my mind was searching for things to worry about like vampires, mean girls, and the mac-daddy of all fears, nuclear war. Near the end of my college years, fears about Russia and bombs became irrelevant. The wall fell and I launched into adulthood focused on other concerns. The Cold War faded from American life as well as my own.
Then last year a flash bulb went off, lighting up an unexpected scene. Had Russia meddled in our presidential election? Was the Doomsday Clock really closer to midnight than it had been since its inception in the 1950s? Was the picture of the last few decades different than I originally thought?
My Смена camera spent all these years somewhere in the former Soviet Union, waiting to be sold on the Internet — the same Internet that opened the doors to hacking DNC computers and trolling us all with fake news. It was through the Internet — specifically, an ad — that some guy in Donetsk convinced me to be the proud owner of that plastic Soviet camera. A camera that’s let me revisit that childhood Cold War spy obsession and fears of nuclear destruction.
It’s easy to tell myself that as a kid I was drawn to the romantic danger of the pop culture portrayal of spies. What’s not to like about suave James Bond and sexy, smart Natasha in her purple dress (who overshadowed that bumbling Boris)? But truth be told, it wasn’t the exotic adventure of spy-life I found alluring, there was something that just seemed familiar about it, something I related to. Spies were almost always outsiders trying to blend in; they were the ones trying to not be noticed even as they saved the day.
Ultimately, my spy heroes always gave themselves away — as I’m sure I did. I was the curly-haired Jewish girl from the East Coast growing up in a sea of blonde, southern belles. Spying at this world through a camera was just my M.O.
Since childhood, I’ve used photography as both an escape from reality as well as a way of seeing the world around me. I stood on the sidelines of high school documenting the teenage life I was supposed to be a part of, one that I didn’t really understand, in the hopes that telling the story would somehow save me from the pain of it. Photography reduces the complexities of life to little pixel spots of light and dark, and this simplification of reality is a way to step back, to see the light and shadows that form recurring patterns across our lives.
When I entered my credit card to order a camera, I didn’t intend to peer into the past to see how the Cold War’s shadow had colored my life. And yet now I’ve become the one with a funny-looking camera, peering through its lens as I compose a picture of modern American life.
All photos courtesy of the author.
Tamar Charney is the Managing Editor of NPR One. She writes about all sorts of topics including horses, monsters, social media, and things Icelandic for a variety of outlets and publications. Follow her on Twitter @tamarcharney and Instagram @photo_charn.