What One Photographer Learned While Shooting Stylish Russian Babushkas

Anyone who prefers their street style a little less glossy and label-centric (a.k.a. a little more human) will find a lot to love in Igor Gavar's Oldushka Project. The 28-year-old Russian photographer started a street style blog in his hometown of Omsk, Siberia, but quickly found himself drawn to photograph the senior-citizen set rather than the student crowd. And so, with the goal of showing the world the “diversity of the sunset years,” Oldushka was born.

The project features a dazzling array of senior style, from jaunty and well-groomed gents of a certain age to artfully layered ladies with a flair for color (and often, major skill with a headscarf). On Instagram, it's an addictive follow, but on the project's blog, Gavar shares his subjects' stories, which are funny and arresting (even via Google translate).

In an email interview, we spoke with Gavar about the meaning behind his project, how his subjects have surprised him, and the fascinating true tale of how one of his impressively coiffed models became a Russian movie star. Fans of Humans of New York and Advanced Style, your next follow is here.
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
What inspired this photo project?
"I set up a street style blog after university in my hometown of Omsk in Siberia. Elderly looks seemed more distinctive and engaging, and I started to focus on them. The more I photographed, the more I saw examples that didn’t fit in with the typical impression of what pensioners look like.

"In Russia, it’s convention to feel sorry for old people, whereas Oldushka, on the contrary, suggests that people admire them. It’s completely normal to be bright and vibrant as a young person. But being like that in old age is something that stands out from the typical perception. I wanted to explore this 'abnormality' on my Instagram account."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
Why were you drawn to seniors as subjects?
"The issue of aging in Russia is a difficult one for many reasons: small pensions, negative stereotypes, and age-based segregation. But the brightness of many people in the project exists despite the beliefs about aging in Russia.

"If we focus just on the negatives, then it will be impossible to change the conventional model, where old age itself is seen as a misfortune. In some ways, it depends on your own attitude: Some people give in to the stereotypes, while others live happily and independent of them."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
What is the goal of the Oldushka project?
"To broaden the perception of this period of life and to show that age can be looked at from different perspectives. The project demonstrates that beauty does not run contrary to age, that a woman can look incredible at 75, and that an old lady from a village in a headscarf is also a matter of aesthetics, taste, and style."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
How do your subjects react when approached for a photo?
"Most are surprised, because it’s not common to pay attention to older people in terms of beauty and style. Some agree to be photographed straight away; they don’t have any problem accepting themselves and their age. Others are dumbfounded and say: 'Why are you taking pictures of old people? It’d be better to photograph young people.' Responses like that are saddening."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
What have been your challenges with the project?
"To be honest, I was worried most people would say no. I thought elderly people wouldn’t be keen to interact with a stranger and that they’d be uncomfortable having their photos somewhere on the Internet. But they smile and are happy to pose and tell their story. Out of 100 people, two or three refuse, while the rest are happy to play along. This experiment has actually debunked my own stereotype about elderly people being closed and uncooperative. It all turned out to be the other way around."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
What do you think the perception of older people in Russia is?
"In Russia, old age is linked to pity — it’s common to feel sorry for old people. The typical notion is a bland old lady, sitting on a bench outside a building. She’s either ill or poor. These stereotypes are often the only model of aging — there are no other representations. The project’s aim is to show an alternative way of aging, and broaden peoples' perception of this period of life."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
Do you think older Russians' style differs from Americans'?
"I haven’t been to America, so I can only judge from the Advanced Style blog, of which I’m a big fan. It would be correct to compare elderly people in New York with those in Moscow. New Yorkers are much more edgy, experimental, and distinguished by their braveness — they wear things that are of interesting proportions, and aren’t afraid of the grotesque, like huge bracelets, rings, and beads.

"New York is also a melting pot of people from different countries, and there’s no way that can’t influence the way its residents look. People from different cultures need to live together, and I imagine that the notions of individual freedom and tolerance in New York are very well-developed: It’s normal to look strange there."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
Is strangeness less well-tolerated in Russia?
"The Russian mentality sees strangeness as something foreign or alien. Russian people are too serious about clothes. In our culture, standing out from the crowd is not the done thing; that’s because of our history. To look vibrant, a Russian person needs a special reason — a celebration or event. For the elderly generation of Russians, the conservative culture is stronger than the culture of individualism. There is a notion that 'modesty [is] the choice ornament,' so innovation in taste and style has a hard time here."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
Why do you think difference is frowned upon?
"The historic events this generation has lived through also did nothing to help the development of individualism: the Second World War, post-war period, and food shortages. For the people featured in Oldushka, clothes are more about practicality, whereas for those in Advanced Style, clothing is a game. But if we compare the style of elderly people nationwide in the two countries, I suspect we would find a lot more common features than differences."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
How do you think older Russians approach style, versus younger Russians?
"Their generation was formed in completely different circumstances. Today’s generation grew up in an era of rapid technological progress; it’s more focused on the individual. Pensioners grew up in the age of collectivism and are more focused on the community. They also lived through the war and the post-war period. That gave people from this generation a certain way of thinking and brought them closer together."
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Photo: Courtesy of @gavarigor.
What's the most surprising reaction you've gotten from one of your subjects?
"After I showed one woman her photo, she said it was the best picture of her as a pensioner. Sometimes, people give me something as a way of saying thanks: One woman bought me a box of tasty pastries and another gave me a doll she made herself. There are some people with whom the artist-model relationship has grown into friendship; we call each other from time to time, and we meet up when I come to Omsk."
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
And your favorite story?
"My favorite is how one pension-age lady suddenly became an actress. Her name is Albina Evteshevskaya, and she spent her whole life working as a spinstress at a textile factory. Once she started receiving a pension, she earned extra money baking buns at a bakery and as an artist’s model at a school.

"Then, one day, she was spotted in the metro by an acting agent who invited her to come in for casting. In the end, Albina was chosen as the grandmother of the female lead in Anna Melikyan’s film Mermaid. At that time, she was 64. She’s still acting now and has done over 120 projects, including films, TV series, and adverts. Albina told me: 'I’m most interested in coming into contact with talented people; everything else comes after that.'”

Editor's note: Albina, a frequent subject of the Oldushka project, is shown here.
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Photo: Courtesy of @oldushka_.
Do you have a favorite outfit you've captured?
"I like old ladies dressed in traditional village style clothing: a skirt, blouse, sweater or jacket, and headscarf. Often, each item is brightly colored and covered in decorative patterns. They are very similar to flowers. That’s how my great-grandmother dressed; she was a teacher in a village."