Nikita Teryoshin, Nothing Personal

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by GOST Books (here). Clothbound hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 210 x 285 mm, 182 pages with one gatefold pullout and 100 color photographs. Includes an essay by Linda Åkerström. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As photographers know better than most, war is ugly. Recent pictures from Ukraine and Gaza are merely the latest carnage in a trail reaching back centuries, the grist for numerous photo exposés, books, and careers.

Such images are barbaric enough on their own. But they take on a crueler dimension when contrasted with the genteel community which keeps wars locked and loaded. The global weapons industry was a $2.2 trillion business in 2022. As with any commercial enterprise of this scale, it involves thousands of agents, dealers, and purchasers working the scenes— and behind them—of various product conventions and trade shows. Since war is a global phenomenon, these weapons conventions are dispersed worldwide. The locations may vary but not the substance. Venues typically host a rotating network of arms manufacturers, merchants, and military brass, wearing tailored suits, sampling hors d’oeuvres, and chatting near marketing displays, a million psychic miles from any battlefield.

These trade shows are the subject of Nikita Teryoshin’s monograph Nothing Personal: The Back Office Of War. As with many wars, his photo project was the fateful result of chance events. After emigrating from Russia to Germany at age 13, Teryoshin later earned his photography BFA at the University of Applied Science in Dortmund. The school happened to be next door to a giant expo hall, and Teryoshin began to photograph the various fairs hosted there. He shot gatherings of animals, funerals, guns, and whatever else passed through, developing an impromptu style of high-key color and candid fill-flash into a keen photographic voice. 

One trade show followed another. In 2016 he began to focus on the international weapons circuit, beginning with the MSPO in nearby Kielce, Poland. Over the next seven years Teryoshin traveled to five continents and thirteen countries—Poland, Belarus, South Korea, France, Germany, South Africa, China, UAE, Peru, Russia, Vietnam, USA, and India—attending and documenting these conventions as a spectator. Nothing Personal was honed into final form by a successful Kickstarter in 2023, and published in 2024 by GOST. The photos were exhibited recently at Freelens Gallery in Hamburg, Germany.

The book follows an eclectic sequence. Verticals take up a single page each (the same aspect as the book’s orientation), interspersed with a roughly equal number of horizontal photos filling double spreads across the gutter. Locations and dates shift with each page turn, with detailed captions reserved for a rear index of thumbnail grids. There we find odd acronyms goose-stepping around the world, from IWI to IDEX to DEFEXPO to SITDEF and other recondite abbreviations. 

With annotations withheld to the end, the reader initially absorbs the photographs as pure visual information. Each one provides a tantalizing new glimpse, and slightly more nuance, into the peculiar clandestine rituals of defense contractors. Every few dozen pages, the point is driven home with a single full-page slogan dreamt up by a large corporation, accompanied by their latest revenue figures. NEXTGEN LETHALITY boasts the German company Rheinmetall (2022 revenue: $6.7 billion), while Elbit Systems of America (2022 revenue: 1 billion) brags UNMATCHED LETHALITY AT ANY DISTANCE. Murderous intent expressed with businesslike efficiency. The absurdity feels like something out of Dr. Strangelove, but the mottos are quite real.   

At the weapons shows it was not unusual for attendees to appear in full military uniforms. Pin stripe suits, abayas, or floral blouses were also acceptable, as evidenced by a photo of two well-heeled executives picking at a fruit tray. Demonstrations and displays tended to follow martial decorum, with podiums, salutes, banquets, and red carpets providing a visual drum beat. Meanwhile, servers with cocktail flights circulated the sterile exposition halls, while posters and models advertised the latest killing tools. In one photo Teryoshin captures men clustered near a large brown battle tank. In another they share a quick coffee underneath a clutch of ICBMs. Every surface depicted in the book, down to its bright shiny reproductions, appears clean and corporate friendly. A floor mat of worn green astroturf is about as close as the artifice comes to real grass, puddles, or fox holes. 

The book’s title Nothing Personal is a double entendre. The phrase describes war’s indiscriminate consequences. In addition, somewhat amazingly, Teryoshin has managed to exclude virtually every face from his book. There are plenty of people depicted in its pages, but one would be hard pressed to identify any by facial recognition. He employs a quiver of clever tricks toward this end, shooting subjects from behind, obscuring heads behind plants, cups, books, and statues, or aiming through narrow gaps to mask undesired content. Some views skew downward at legs or skyward over hats, both vantages avoiding personal description. On the occasions when he couldn’t avoid capturing faces —which must have been common while shooting crowded floor shows—Teryoshin remedied the faults in post-production by cropping upper face parts from his frame edges. Just like that, pesky eye contact was eliminated. Strictly business. Nothing personal.

In one sense, this approach gives arms dealers exactly what they want. Most would prefer to operate behind the scenes—in war’s back office, so to speak—reaping profits without public scrutiny. Teryoshin fulfills their wishes, but he exacts their dignity in the process. By depersonalizing these death merchants, he transforms them into robotic figures. Their visages are defanged, and roughly interchangeable with cardboard cutouts or lighting stands. For a discounted price you feel you might take home a display model, or at least a photograph.

Teryoshin’s approach helps distinguish his photos from previous projects which photographed the same trade shows in a more straightforward manner, such as Spencer Murphy’s “Architects Of War” and Guillaume Herbert’s “Weapons Shows”. 

Apart from the battle field or convention hall, Nothing Personal may also be shaped by Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws. These privacy codes place tight limits on public photography, facial recognition, and personal consent. In Germany where Teryoshin is based, they have essentially eliminated faces from the nation’s contemporary street photography scene. Although Nothing Personal is not restricted to Germany, its impersonal approach feels rather German.  

Some photographers might be discouraged by GDPR, but Teryoshin seems energized by the restrictions. Confronted by the continual challenge of hiding faces, he was forced to innovate. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Nothing Personal features a variety of solutions. A soldier’s face is darkened by a bystander’s shadow in one photo, for example, while a rear-view hat brim in anther inscribes the rivets of a background radar dish. One frame shows a man in military regalia lifting his hand and staff into just the right blocking posture. In another shot, an executive’s head is perfectly obscured by a floral arrangement. A woman’s face is overexposed by Teroyshin’s flash in another. The highlights are blown out entirely. But he’s cropped out the eyes as well, just for good measure.

Such photos evidence a wily observer, ready to react and move quickly. They also risk an ironic edge which sometimes bogs street photography into juxtaposed visual tricks. Teryoshin’s style is somewhat rooted in street photography, and Nothing Personal does feel street-adjacent, but it manages to rise above the genre’s tedium. His innovative approach—excising personalities like a neutron bomb—provides a ready stockpile of materiel. The resulting project is a heat-seaking missile aimed at the defense industry’s private bunker. If they feel unfairly targeted, it’s nothing personal.

Collector’s POV: Nikita Teryoshin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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