August 30, 2023
Photography by Anastasiya Pentyukhina
Story by Melanie Meggs
If you ever struggled to learn or to keep up with your chess, imagine doing it with your eyes closed. Documentary photographer Anastasiya Pentyukhina has shed light on the unique challenges that visually impaired people face in the world of chess. Born in 1993 in the village of Pokrovo-Prigorodnoye, Tambov Oblast, Anastasiya spent her childhood and received her education in a small town 500 kilometers from Russia's capital. Growing up there has sensitized Anastasiya, making her more understanding and aware of the issues of people who live outside of the political arena, busy attending to their everyday lives. Anastasiya has been living in Moscow since 2015 and her personal projects have sought to address this social inequality and promote inclusivity.
In her latest ongoing project, Anastasiya has explored the world of blindfolded chess, which is a practice used by many chess players to increase their skill level without actually seeing the board – a challenge that is taken for granted for the visually impaired. Players must rely on their memory and spatial thinking skills to play the game, which can only be developed through regular practice and solving problems.
The chess community is also an invaluable asset for visual impaired players, as it provides the support needed to attend tournaments and competitions. However, these activities are not always supported by government grants, and the organization of tournaments and team management often have to be funded by enthusiasts.
Anastasiya Pentyukhina’s documentation of blindfolded chess provides an insight into this often overlooked world of sports, and sheds light on the unique challenges faced by visually impaired players. Through her work, Anastasiya hopes to draw attention to the importance of inclusivity in sports and the need for better support for visually impaired chess players.
Anastasiya's journey into the world of photography began modestly, with just her smartphone camera in 2013. Her passion was truly ignited two years later when she received her first digital camera, inspiring Anastasiya to explore the dynamics and art of street photography. By 2019 Anastasiya sharpened her focus delving deeper into the world of photography by exploring and expanding her knowledge of visual storytelling. Her new discoveries led her to documentary photography, where she was driven to captivate her audience, embracing the viewer while allowing them to experience that moment in time. Over the next year Anastasiya's passionate work in documentary photography led her to develop a new interest in the art of photo stories, learning how to create a narrative arc and tell complex stories with her pictures - a true testament to her desire to learn and grow.
Chess is an important part of the culture in Russia. it has become part of the fabric of Russian society. The story of Soviet chess begins during the Russian Civil War, when chess was enlisted as a training tool for military recruits to sharpen their critical thinking and hone their strategic skills. Chess has been part of children's curriculum for most Russian schools for more than 40 years. Adolescents were encouraged to play chess at a very early age to increase their problem solving and reasoning skills. The Soviets put vast resources into developing a league of grandmaster champions and a profound chess culture.
It was in the summer of 2021, in the city of Klintsy, Bryansk Oblast, on the border with Belarus and Ukraine, that Anastasiya first encountered Blindfold Chess. Unfortunately, due to miscommunication and schedule changes, the competition had already taken place a week before Anastasiya's arrival. Nevertheless, Anastasiya decided to stay and glean as much information as she could about the world of chess for the visually impaired.
Anastasiya learned from the head of the All-Russian Society of the Blind in Klintsy, that there were a lot of players and that tournaments were held often. Seizing the opportunity, Anastasiya took a portrait of Nadezhda Vekshina, serving as the starting point for her project. Through her diligent exploration and commitment to her studies she made valuable connections in the Blindfolded Chess community. She found her heroes through authentic conversation, giving her a greater understanding of the world of Blindfolded Chess in Russia.
Inspired by her studies and conversations, Anastasiya decided to travel the length and breadth of Russia, interviewing and photographing the players of Blindfolded Chess. She wanted to capture their unique perspectives and document the game from their point of view. Anastasiya was particularly interested in how they perceived the game differently than sighted players and if certain techniques or strategies were employed differently.
“I talked with people there and realized that this topic touches me and I wanted to go into more detail. Few people think about the life of the blind community. A lot of my friends were surprised to learn about the existence of chess for the blind. I myself was just as interested. Before that point, I had no experience working with the visually impaired. I read many articles about chess for the blind, but they weren’t comprehensive enough. I mostly got information from my heroes.”
The chess players have to rely on their own creativity and inventiveness to make the game more accessible for them. They use their hands to feel the pieces, and they develop a system of verbal descriptions that allow them to communicate the moves they are making. For tournaments, they use specialized board markers. It is a testament to everyone’s ability to adapt and find creative solutions, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
During her time with the players, Anastasiya witnessed the profound joy that the game brought them. For many of them, it was a way of life, something that brought them together and helped bridge the gap between sighted and non-sighted people, giving them a valuable sense of community. Anastasiya has gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the game of Blindfold Chess and for the amazing people who play it.
It is a unique experience, one that she will never forget.
“As I traveled to different cities in Russia over the weekends, I began photoshoots at the heroes' homes, chess clubs, and workplaces. It was important for me to create a comfortable and familiar atmosphere, so I spent approximately 3-4 hours with each sportsperson. During our time together, I made sure to delicately ask about their biographies and health, and we often talked and joked about different topics.”
As Anastasiya documents the lives of the people she meets, she notices that these role models are strong, dedicated, and incredibly brave. She is inspired by their determination, and passion for life despite their visual impairments. She understands that these people want to be recognized for who they are and for what they can do.
What Anastasiya has learned is to never give up. They have taught her that even when things seem impossible, there is always a way. Their dedication, strength, and courage will always be a source of inspiration and admiration for Anastasiya. Anastasiya hopes to continue her project and share with others the stories of these remarkable role models.
Anastasiya Pentyukhina’s inspiring journey into the world of blindfolded chess provides a unique perspective on the challenges faced by visually impaired players. The story of these players serves as an inspiring reminder of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, and the courage and determination it takes to overcome adversity. Follow Anastasiya's journey on her website and Instagram and be inspired by her visual storytelling.
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