The first part of a ten part interview with Sergei Vasiliev, whose photographs feature in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I – III.
In part one he explains how he first came across the phenomenon of criminal tattoos while working for the police in Chelyabinsk, Siberia, during the 1960s. He tells of how the inmates would undress for him to show off their tattoos – from the highest-ranking criminals to lesbians in the women's prisons.
Sergei Vasiliev explains how he managed to capture intimate portraits of lesbians in women's prisons across the USSR, and how he first met Danzig Baldaev (author of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I – III), following a prison riot in 1989.
Sergei Vasiliev tells how he tried to help a number of inmates following their release; and of one inmate that he regularly photographed who was later killed inside the prison.
Sergei Vasiliev talks about the characters who inhabit the prisons and labour camps, and what drew him to photograph them. He explains how they often become institutionalised, how prison becomes their home, a place where everyone lives under the rule of the criminal boss – the pakhan – and the effect this has on juvenile inmates.
Sergei Vasiliev explains how he photographed women inmates in the 'Lenin Room' of the prisons, and how the men would attempt to pass him notes to give to their lawyers.
Sergei Vasiliev talks about the type of work carried out by men and women serving time in the labour camps and how this work is divided according to the rank of the inmate. He also reveals the methods used by lesbian prisoners to revenge the infidelity of their partners following their release from prison.
Sergei Vasiliev explains how the penal system of the USSR didn't work, and how the criminals maintained control and influence within it.
Sergei Vasiliev tells of how the status of tattoos has diminished among prisoners as they have become ubiquitous across the prison population.
Sergei Vasiliev talks about how he first became interested in photography: how he would spend his evenings printing photographs in his room, to borrowing his first camera.
Sergei Vasiliev explains how he had to join the Communist Party and then the police force, and how the establishing of a new newspaper in Chelyabinsk led to him being appointed its lead photographer.
He discusses the differences between photography and art, and why he does not consider himself to be an artist.