Russian Artist Exposes Gay Asylum Seekers

by Jason Dzubow on November 1, 2012

In his native Russia, artist and filmmaker Alexander Kargaltsev was beaten by police at a gay pride event and detained after he left a gay club.  He came to the U.S. in 2010 and received asylum in 2011.  Last week, Mr. Kargaltsev held his first solo exhibit at a new gallery, called 287 Spring, in downtown Manhattan (which hopefully is not now under water).

The exhibit is entitled “Asylum” and consists of large photos, each depicting a nude gay or bisexual Russian man, with New York City shown in the background.  The men have stern expressions, and many were photographed provocatively in public areas, such as Central Park.  Under each photo is a caption: “Granted Asylum” or “Asylum Pending.”

The artist, strategically placed in front of one of his photos.

According to curator Ivan Savvine, “The models’ nakedness is a powerful visual statement imbued with symbolism.  They are not nude but naked, for they had courage to shed the many layers of fear and come out to the world uncovered, vulnerable, yet proud.”  He continues, “Their naked bodies thus also reveal their experience as refugees, for every person seeking refuge rebuilds his or her life completely ‘naked,’ starting from scratch with no family or friends and often without the language they can speak or understand.”

As a humble immigration lawyer who received most of his artistic training from Bill Alexander, I can’t help but find this type of artist speak a bit pretentious.  Also, I really can’t imagine many of my clients posing nude in public (and–no offense to my clients–I don’t want to imagine it).  But I suppose Mr. Kargaltsev’s exhibit raises some interesting points.

I agree with the idea that refugees start their lives over “naked.”  But to me, the more interesting analogy between asylum seekers and nakedness is the idea of exposing one’s past history to the scrutiny of an Asylum Officer or an Immigration Judge (not to mention to the asylum seeker’s own lawyer).  Depending on the person, and on the problems he faced in the home country, relating the story of past persecution can be humiliating and traumatic.

I have represented rape victims and torture victims.  When such people apply for asylum, they need to tell these stories.  Sometimes, people do not behave honorably under the threat of persecution.  They need to relate those stories as well.  I remember one client who fled his home when government soldiers broke in to look for him.  He left his wife and children behind.  My client had to explain this to the Immigration Judge, which was extremely difficult for him to do.  This is the type of “exposure” I think about when I think of refugees.  And in some ways, it is similar to exposing oneself naked before the camera, flaws and all.

Mr. Kargaltsev’s photos are of gay asylum seekers from Russia.  The photos I’ve seen depict good-looking young men whose nudity is nothing to be ashamed of.  In my experience, the exposure endured by asylum seekers is a lot less attractive than Mr. Kargaltsev’s images.  While Mr. Kargaltsev’s photos certainly add to the dialogue about issues faced by asylum seekers, in my opinion they gloss over the ugly truths about refugees and the pain that they have endured.  A more realistic and challenging exhibit in this vein would be less pleasant to look at, but more useful to understanding the real lives of refugees.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivan Savvine November 1, 2012 at 11:27 am

Dear Jason,

Tank you for your post and critique of our project! Both Alexander and I – and the models in Alexander’s portraits – went through the asylum procedure here in the U.S.; I guess we attempted to present our own experience of fleeing persecution in Russia and starting a new life in the U.S., while we did not in any way claim that our experience applies to all of the asylum seekers. The message of the exhibition was the one of hope and newly found freedom; hence the images depict the asylum seekers who were lucky to escape and re-settle in the United States, no matter how challenging it might have been for them (or us). If we were to explore the horrific conditions in which many LGBT individuals live in Russia or in many other countries in this world, this would have been an entirely different project. Once again, thank you for your attention to our project. You can read the full essay I authored for the Asylum exhibition catalog here:

Very truly yours,



Jason Dzubow November 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm

That is an absolutely fair point. My criticism was probably a little harsher than it should have been, as I certainly respect the difficulty of seeking asylum here and then going public about it. I think it will be very inspiring to other LGBT people who follow them (and you) to the US to see that they are making a new start in the US and that they are no longer afraid.


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