The language barrier

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I don’t notice the Russian policemen in my viewfinder until I take the shot.

And they aren’t happy.

The guidebook advised against taking pictures of officials, but I hadn’t seen them in the Moscow Metro crowd.

They walk toward me, Kremlin-faced.

As they approach I begin preparing my watertight defence, should things turn nasty. ‘I didn’t see you,’ that’s what I’ll tell them.

They’re standing in front of me, dressed in black with the hems of their pants tucked into their boots, which are also black. One stands with his thumbs hooked in his belt. He says something in Russian but I only understand five Russian words, and he’s using none of them. I shrug and pat myself on the chest. ‘Australian,’ I say, as though this fact should dispel their concerns.

But his face doesn’t change. He looks at me sideways. He wags his finger. ‘No photos’, he says, his voice low and rumbly as a tank entering Red Square.

I’ve forgotten my watertight defence, so I just say, ‘Sorry.’

And then they’re gone, their uniforms blending back into the stream of eight million commuters that ride the Metro daily.

But then I think, did he mean no photos of police, or no photos altogether in the Metro?

A photographer’s dilemma: I’m in one of the most beautiful rail systems in the world, a picture opportunity at every angle – ornate plasterwork, wall murals, mosaics, chandeliers – and I have a camera in my hands.

I decide not to risk my friends in black boots, so wait for a train to take me up the line. And it doesn’t take long – trains are only two minutes apart.

At the next station I find a woman sleeping in a platform booth. I want to take her picture, but I hesitate. Her booth looks official, but she doesn’t. After all, would an official be sleeping?

I decide to risk it, raising the camera and clicking the shutter at the exact moment she wakes. It turns out that she is an official, or perhaps just officially infuriated. I raise my palms in apology, but it has no effect. She raises hers in rage.

She signals me closer to abuse me more thoroughly. She vibrates with anger then shoos me away.

But there is an upside to this exchange. The language barrier has been smashed: I don’t even need my five Russian words to understand her.

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