"Botlikh. Between Heaven and Earth" is the name of the photo project that won the VI Russian Geographical Society’s photo contest "The Most Beautiful Country". The author of the series of photographs is a photographer, military retiree, Stavropol citizen, Andrey Smolnikov. He defended the Botlikh region of Dagestan from militants in 1999, and 20 years later returned to these places not with a machine gun, but with a camera. Read the story of love for people, native land and photography in our material.
In August 1999, the Second Chechen War began – militants invaded the Botlikh region of Dagestan. At that time, Andrey Smolnikov served in the 247th Air Assault Regiment in Stavropol. His battalion was immediately sent to the mountains – it was necessary to storm the strategic peak Oslinoe Ukho (eng. Donkey's Ear), occupied by the militants. During those terrible events, many of Andrey's comrades died. He did not think that someday he would return to the places where he survived the horrors of war. But it turned out differently.
“In 2019, I was invited to the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the bandit formations. And so I returned to Botlikh region, but not with a gun, but with a camera. I wanted to tell about the local residents through photography. During the war, these hardworking and courageous people defended their homeland together with Russian soldiers," says the military retiree.
In fact, Andrey Smolnikov's passion for photography had begun long before his return to Botlikh. A soldier who took part in the hostilities in Chechnya and Dagestan, was awarded the Order of Courage and the Medal of Suvorov, took up photography as soon as he had retired. It turned out that this is his talent. He became an honored art photographer of the International Federation of Photographic Art, an art photographer of the Photographic Society of America, a member of the Russian Union of Art Photographers. His photographs have won over 150 international awards.
“Photography is my way of life. I return home from some trip, go through the footage, and after a couple of weeks I feel the pull to photograph again,” says Andrey Smolnikov. “I started by shooting nature – mountains and forests, rivers and waterfalls – but later I realized that my true vocation is to photograph people. I will add that I am not a commercial photographer. I shoot for the soul, for the heart.”
Andrey Smolnikov photographs exclusively in his native North Caucasus and does not plan to change the shooting location until the end of his days. The photographer traveled to all the republics of the region – he filmed in Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Dagestan. He knows very well many of the people he photographs, and is close friends with many.
"The highlanders are close to me in spirit, in mentality, because I myself grew up in the Caucasus. I enjoy taking pictures of these people, and then giving them their portraits. I also give the pictures to the Stavropol State Museum of Local History. They are stored in the archive together with detailed descriptions – where exactly the photo was taken, who is depicted on it. Even after 50 years, this information will be available," says Andrey Smolnikov.
The photographer believes that in addition to genuine love for his craft, visual experience is important to get great shots. In this, according to Andrey Smolnikov, participation in photo contests and the study of catalogs with the works of the winners will help.
“I used to bring 1000 photos from trips, now I can bring 250, because I know that many pictures do not need to be taken, because they will not be interesting to anyone, and they will remain in the computer folders. I did not come to this understanding right away – practice and visual experience are important here... You can learn to frame a picture and press buttons, but it is equally important to be able to see, feel, understand. I can never teach someone to see like me," says the photographer.
But it is quite possible to do without expensive photographic equipment, according to Andrey Smolnikov. For example, in Botlikh, a photographer was shooting on an "amateur" Nikon 7200 camera.
"If you have very expensive equipment, this does not mean that the pictures will be good. Of course, a professional camera helps to solve some technical issues, but for a great shot it is not needed at all. Even with a mobile phone camera, you can take great pictures. But you need to get enough experience to use professional equipment. I took photos with my amateur cameras, which have won more than 150 international awards," says Andrey Smolnikov.
Despite the rich experience of victories in Russian and international photo contests, Andrey Smolnikov did not expect to win in “The Most Beautiful Country”.
“I took part in the Russian Geographical Society competition three times. I reached the final two times, won the third time. The competition, of course, is very strong, I did not expect to become a winner. I believe that this is the best competition we have in Russia with large coverage and great prizes," says Andrey Smolnikov.
We would like to remind you that you can submit you works to the VII Photo Contest "The Most Beautiful Country" until April 5, 2021, on the website photo.rgo.ru.
This year, the works for the competition are accepted in ten categories: "Landscape", "Wild Animals", "Those Funny Animals", "Russia from a Bird's Eye View", "Art of Wildlife (fine-art photography)", "Many Faces of Russia", "Taken on a Smartphone", "Photo Project", "Live Archive" and "Magic of Water". Also, four special categories have been established: "Behind the Scenes", "Reserved Russia", "Russia in the Faces of the Older Generation" and "People's Choice Award" – its winner will be chosen by Internet users through open voting.
The main innovation of 2021 is that, for the first time, you can send not only photos to the competition, but also videos – the short (up to three minutes) videos about how a particular picture was taken. A special "Behind the Scenes" category has been established for the best video.
Read more here.