The Heidi Chronicles

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Home > Alumni and friends > McGill News > 2001 > Spring 2001 > The Heidi Chronicles
The Heidi Chronicles
Jumping for joy in Red Square is Heidi Hollinger, BA'90. She arrived in Moscow in 1992 with a knowledge of Russian, a keen interest in politics and a camera. Within two years her sensational pictures of a Russian politician were published around the world and she was made photo editor of Pravda. Now she's a Russian pop icon who's rubbed elbows with Fidel Castro and Jean Chrétien and who calls Mikhail Gorbachev a friend.

Photos courtesy Heidi Hollinger

"It seems a law of nature that no man is ever loath to sit for his portrait," opined British writer and artist Max Beerbohm. And if ever evidence was required, one need only scan the oeuvre of photographer Heidi Hollinger. Her work makes visible the human side of Russian politicians of all stripes, from the respected reformist Galina Starovoïtova, assassinated in November 1998 as she fought to eliminate corruption, to the ultra-hardline communist Victor Anpilov.

Photo Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin; counsel to the mayor of Moscow in Cossack officer's garb; former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Her photos of the famous, infamous and anonymous have earned her a solid international reputation, and have been published in Russia and in companion books, Heidi Chez les Soviets (published in Canada by Les Intouchables) and Les Russes/Russians (Stanké). They also embody her long-term love affair with the Russian language and people.

Hollinger, a native Montrealer, traces her interest in things Russian to her first-year course in the Russian language at McGill, taught by Marie-Claude Beauchamp, BA'80, MA'84, BEd'94. "She spoke it so beautifully," says Hollinger, "that I fell in love with the language. She played a big role in my destiny, and I thank her for that." Recalls a flattered Beauchamp, "Heidi was a dynamic, active person. She's the sort of person you don't forget. I'm not surprised at what she is doing now. She was what she is." And that, according to Paul Austin, head of the Russian and Slavic Studies department, is "very determined. She knew what she wanted and she has been able to get it," he says.

But Hollinger herself dispels notions of a "master plan," and when telling her stories she gives the impression that she is very much carried by the momentum of circumstance. Still, there's no denying that Hollinger has a compelling presence and one quickly senses that she is more than capable of making things happen on her own.

She graduated from Modern Languages and Literature, specializing in Russian and Spanish, but throughout her studies also nurtured an on-going love affair with the camera. After having received a "good" camera at the age of 12, she assumed the role of family photographer; later she worked at the McGill Daily (where she was photo editor) and the Mirror, a widely distributed Montreal weekly. Nonetheless, she recalls, "It was more like a hobby. I always wanted to be a professional, but my mom would say 'Oh, that's not a serious profession.'" The lesson, she jokes, is "Don't listen to your parents."

Her interest in politics began with a photo assignment for the McGill Daily which brought her into contact with British socialist folk-rocker Billy Bragg. She and Bragg went out for three years, and his commitments proved influential. A friendship with a Chilean refugee, Pablo Garrido, who told her of the atrocities committed in Chile under Pinochet, also contributed to her education. She journeyed to Russia for the first time in 1991, and in 1992 she returned to stay, initially to do graduate studies focussing on Russian opposition parties. But how was a young Canadian to get in contact with these people?

Photo The infamous photos of right wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovski. Below: Heidi Hollinger in Westmount, Que. Photo

The camera again proved handy. "I went to a demonstration," she recalls. "In Russia the politicians take part in parades, in the first row. I just took a few pictures." From there, her interest snowballed. The parades formed a perfect venue to approach her subjects, and the camera facilitated her research immensely. "It was very easy to meet politicians as a photographer," she explains. "I appealed to their vanity. I would just say 'Hi -- can I photograph you?' They usually said yes, and I would give them the picture after." She staked out the Duma, the Russian parliament, in search of subjects.

But more formal photo shoots were less easy to come by and getting appointments required persistence and hard work. "In some cases I would have to call for a whole year, every day." Eventually, the labour paid off. Indeed, Hollinger has established herself not just as a good photographer, but a celebrity in her own right -- the Annie Liebowitz of the Duma. "Because I've photographed so many, a lot don't say no. Now my secretary can make a call and set up a photo shoot with no problem."

Part of her success is no doubt due to sheer determination, but she can also be very disarming. An air of vulnerability causes her subjects to trust her and want to befriend her.

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