Ruslan Hrushchak’s photography has always been defined by a great interest in nature and in his fellow human beings. In Greece, he discovered a place where timeless quiet has persisted for centuries: the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Mount Athos. With a Leica M10 and three different lenses, he was well equipped to highlight both of his interests, as he captured the particular atmosphere of this autonomous peninsula.
How did this project come about?
I had long dreamt of visiting Mount Athos, inspired by old photographs I had seen when I was young. I was fascinated by the exclusivity of the place, and the idea that time had stood still there. I wanted to know about the people, and how it feels to live in this secluded landscape. Organising a trip to Mount Athos is not easy, however, as you need a special permit. Consequently, I had to nurture my interest for a long time and with lots of patience.
Where is Mount Athos located, and how did you get there?
Mount Athos is a holy site for the Orthodox Church. It is home to a total of twenty large monasteries, as well as a number of smaller monastic settlements – all spread around a peninsula in northern Greece. Mount Athos defines its own rules, which are very archaic in some cases, and difficult to comprehend in this day and age. One of its best known laws is the one that forbids women to go there. A special entry permit, known as a “diamonitirion”, is required to enter the area; and a request for that permit needs to be submitted long before you intend to travel. There are only a limited number of places for visitors, but you don’t have to belong to a particular church to get the permit. It is assumed that the spaces are allocated through a lottery process.
How would you describe a church service on Mount Athos?
A monk goes through the monastery courtyard, using a mallet to hit the rhythm “to talanto, to talanto” on a piece of wood, to call the other monks. The monks enter the church, bow deeply before the icons, kiss them, and then take a place in the chancel. During the service, the door in the icon wall is open, so that the view to the altar is unimpeded. This has a deep meaning for the Orthodox monks, because the open doorway symbolises the open Gates of Paradise. The monks have left the world behind to find God and, through the liturgy, they gain a foretaste of Paradise.
What did the photographic making of your project look like? Did you start out with a particular approach you wanted to follow?
For this project, I let myself be fully guided by my intuition, my love of travel, and my curiosity. I tried not to take any “catalogue pictures”; I found the personal encounters far more significant. Even though I prepared myself for the journey, I don’t believe that just one trip to Mount Athos is enough for the final project. Next time, I’ll continue the project with a slightly more experienced eye and knowledge of the customs.
Were there photographic challenges to be dealt with?
When I look back now, I see two big challenges related to this project. The weight of the photographic equipment shouldn’t become a burden. The paths between the monasteries are very strenuous, long and steep. On top of that, there’s the weight of water and provisions. Images taken inside a church require a trained and confident eye for the lighting and the decisive moment. Using a flash is forbidden, and getting the desired picture is often a question of milliseconds.
How was it to work with the Leica M10? Which lenses did you use, and why?
I’m glad I opted for the Leica M10 for this project. An analogue Leica would have also been a good choice – maybe even better, considering the longer battery life. The Leica M is light, quick and, thanks to its manual focus, is very appropriate for taking pictures in discreet places. I had three lenses: a Summilux-M 50, Elmarit-M 28, and a Thambar-M 90. The Summilux I used for indoor shots; the Elmarit and the Thambar for landscape images. The peninsula’s dreamy and medieval-like setting benefited, in particular, from the unique Thambar look.
How did you choose your protagonists, and how did they react to being photographed?
There are a few visitors to the peninsula, with whom you quickly get into conversation. You can also have a talk with the monks, as long as you don’t disturb them at work or at prayer. After the evening meal, most of the monks have time and interest in speaking with the visitors. In some churches taking photographs is forbidden. Primary rule: as a photographer, you shouldn’t disturb or look for sensationalism. The monks could consider that an attack on their world.
How long, in total, did you spend in the Monastic Republic, and which aspects of the project will you remember, in particular?
As a visitor, you can stay on the peninsula for five days. Yet, even after this relatively short period of time in this other world, I could feel the difference afterwards in the loud, hectic everyday life of Thessaloniki. So, I felt an appreciation for the quiet, and a particular clarity of mind. Along with the herb tea from the monastery, this experience had a positive impact on me for a long time after I got home to Leipzig.
Did this project teach you something on a personal level?
As a non-religious person, I was very fascinated by the mystical atmosphere; the monks’ lack of pretension, and their enormous hospitality, mitigated all the critical thoughts I’d had beforehand. One thing I should mention here: the stay on the peninsula – the lodgings and food in the monasteries – is free for visitors. You can take part in the church services, and join the community for breakfast and for the evening meal. The monks see this hospitality as an important part of their mission. Mount Athos is supposed to be a place where you can enjoy the quiet and seclusion, so as to concentrate on the inner journey. It’s a place of spiritual energy and natural beauty.
Ruslan Hrushchak is a portrait and documentary photographer born in Ukraine and currently lives in Leipzig. He studied Photography at the Ostkreuzschule Berlin, Journalism in Lviv, and Information Technology in Leipzig. He is also the founder of appPlant GmbH, a software development company, and has taught Software Technology at the University of Leipzig. Over recent years, his work has been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Berlin, London, New York and Tokyo, among other places. His first photography book The Road Beyond was published in 2022 by Kominek Publishers in Berlin. You can find out more about his photography on his website and instagram profile.
The Leica. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.