Russian photographer Varya Kozhevnikova gave birth to her daughter Lera when she was 17 years old. “When I was 16, I met a guy and I fell madly in love,” she remembers. “The feeling was mutual and from the first day we met, we were inseparable. Of course we both knew about contraception but we had agreed that if I were to fall pregnant then we’d get married and start a family. And so, when it happened, that’s exactly what we did.” 

Becoming a mother before her 18th birthday plunged Varya into the reality of adulthood. “I don’t have a romantic story about a nurse I’ll always remember placing my newborn baby on my chest, and I didn’t have any sort of rose-tinted glasses on at that time. Rather, all I could think was, Is this child really mine? What should I do? Can’t I just sleep right now and figure it out later?” As soon as she had Lera, she sensed, in that emotionally perceptive way that women sometimes do, that her relationship with Lera’s father was going to end. They broke up soon after and Varya embarked upon her path as a single mum.

Varya is 32 now and Lera is 14. They live in St Petersburg with Varya’s husband, who is a father figure to Lera. They are exceptionally close and remarkably similar in temperament and appearance – even members of their family struggle to tell them apart from behind because they have the same build. When Lera turned 13, their relationship entered a period of conflict as she began vying for her own identity amid the turbulence of adolescence. Struggling to know how best to respond to the changing dynamic between them, Varya suggested they begin making photographs together. Lera agreed and the resulting project is entitled 13.31, named for their respective ages at the time. 

Born in a city called Sverdlovsk – now Yekaterinburg – in 1988, Varya didn’t know anything about her father either, and almost immediately after she was born, her mother sent her to be raised by her grandparents in the small town of Sibai, near the Kazakhstan border. Her mum lived between the two places, visiting Varya only on holidays. “It was beautiful there, but every time my mum left it felt like an injury,” she says. Her relationship with her mother was fraught and though Varya loved her, she couldn’t accept the way she tried to control her life choices despite barely being around. “She was particularly fearful of me being in contact with boys too, and I truly think my desire to start a family young came from wanting to rebel against that.”

Now, from the perspective of an adult with a teenage daughter, Varya finds herself some way towards understanding her mother’s actions but says she still wants her relationship with her own daughter to be different. She wants them to be as close as possible while leaving space for them to be their own people, too. Here, Varya and Lera share the story of their collaboration, and choose some of the images that have stayed with them along the way.

“When she was 13 years old, I felt that my child was pulling away from me,” Varya says. “A series of conflicts and upheavals made me think that this would be the perfect moment for us to spend time together and get to know each other better. Who is this new person she’s becoming? I wondered. What does she want? How can I interact and communicate with her? So I invited Lera to photograph the answers to these questions and she did. We had just left St Petersburg to spend the summer in a village far from the city, which was ideal, because it was an all-new context in which to get to know each other again.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
“The idea to make a project came to me at pretty much the same time as the idea to take the first photograph. I had spoken to Lera, and she had agreed to shooting. We didn’t take a picture of that first situation in the end, but others were born from it.” Varya and Lera worked together, kept a shared diary in which they wrote letters to each other and made a virtual mood board. They wore each other’s clothes and found spots around the village to set up pictures. Sometimes they planned photoshoots in advance, sometimes it was completely spontaneous. “Every time we selected photos, we would ask ourselves what each one is about. If we couldn’t find an answer, then we refused the image,” says Varya.Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
“I never thought that Lera and I looked alike, apart from maybe from the back, but Lera, on the contrary, thinks that we do, very much so. All of her friends are surprised by our resemblance when they see us. I think that we are almost as one person in our character and temperament, but Lera doesn’t think so, and sometimes even becomes ill at ease from this comparison.

“When I have looked at her – really looked at her – when she has been 8 or 10 or 13 years old, I can see myself at all of those ages. I hear my laughter in hers, and I see my grievances and tears. More precisely, I see the same ability to hide them. Her actions seem identical to mine and I know their motives, because that was me too. I know her every step before she takes it, but I don’t necessarily delight in this knowledge. It’s like looking at yourself from the very beginning without the ability to fix something, which is not so cool.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.

“For a long time I had the illusion that due to us being closer in age, we would be like sisters or friends, but actually I learned this is impossible and unnecessary. You can choose your friends but parents and children are not a choice. The main task of a parent is to take care of their children, teach them boundaries and guide them. In the end, parents ensure both the emotional and physical safety of their children, regardless of how the child behaves. I think your parents are the ones who should always say, ‘Hey, you are here, everything is fine and we love you no matter who you are.’ Lera and I have a warm, trusting relationship and I don’t want to be her friend. I want to continue to be her mother.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
Lera says that sometimes, when she was smaller, she imagined she might be fostered or that Varya was really her sister because of their closeness in age. She began to pick up on how the world treats the two of them differently from other mothers and daughters. “I remember this moment when my mum and I went to the store to buy cigarettes,” she says. “At the checkout, the saleswoman asked if we are sisters. When she found out that we were mother and daughter, she was in shock. Then she asked for Mum’s ID. It was really funny, and I’ll always remember that.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
“There are probably no parents that are truly ready for their kids to become teenagers,” Varya says. “When it all started, Lera was arguing with me all the time and I felt almost crazy with it. If I had said that the sky is blue, she would have argued that it isn’t. I was losing my authority with her and she was striving to grow up faster than she was ready for. I was like this too, I saw myself in her, but I desperately wanted a different script for her. I know it can’t work that way without building boundaries and accepting each other though, and we did that the hard way.” Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
“I haven’t fought our similarities in the same way as Lera has, and actually, I think at times I’ve often imitated her. Two years ago she gave herself a new curly haircut inspired by a character from the series Stranger Things and I liked it so much that I did it too. Last summer, when we were working on this project and changing into each other’s clothes, I took a lot of Lera’s style for myself. It seems to me that we were as similar as we were ever going to be at 13 and 31, and after that our paths began to diverge in small ways. Lera also says that last summer we were more similar in appearance than now. She’s changed a lot since then – her hair and makeup and style is all different now. It was a voluntary separation and I didn’t interfere with it. Lera rebels when I come up with rules that don’t suit her very much.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
“Lera and I are always looking for new ways to communicate and this photo project isn’t our only game. Sometimes, when we go somewhere we play with associations – I’ll give a word and she’ll give an association back. I’ve learned that it’s a great way to find out how your child is doing. Our new game is putting on headphones, turning the music up to volume and trying to hear what the other person is telling you. I like that we play these games. I like that we care about each other, and that we want to see and hear each other.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
“No matter our similarities, we are distinguished by the fact that she is a teenager and I’m an adult woman. All the difference is in experience and the ability to use it. Lera says that she likes my kindness and cheerfulness most, and that she is a little jealous of the shape of my eyebrows. She often says she doesn’t like when I build borders for her. ‘Well, baby’, I tell her, ‘sometimes we can’t live without them’.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
When asked to pick a favourite picture, Varya points immediately to this one, of the two of them sitting side by side, echoing each other’s position, Varya with a cigarette in hand. “I adore this photo,” she says. “I sat on that bench smoking, and when Lera sat next to me she began to imitate me. I ran for a tripod and asked her to continue the parody. We took several images and made a GIF from it too. She’s mocking my bad habit and she’s laughing at me as she joins me there. I see myself at her age, and I see her at my age.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
Varya brings up this photo too. “This is a portrait of me that represents our common desire to cut ourselves off from each other. It’s both of us in this picture, even if it’s just me physically. This is one of the last images we took for the project. We grew tired of each other in this way in the end, and tired of observing all of our resemblances so closely.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
Lera says this picture is one of her favourites, commenting on how beautifully the light falls on them. “I like how good the white sheets look against the background of grass,” she says. “Mum went for a walk around the village and found this field. She told me about it and suggested taking a picture there. I agreed and the next day we went. After shooting, we selected pictures but my mother didn’t really like them, so we decided to retake. The next day we went there again but there were boys playing football. We had to wait a long time for them to leave the field. While we waited, we played a game called ‘truth or action’. My mother asked a lot of personal and unpleasant questions but according to the rules of the game, it was necessary to answer. The boys left after a while and we went to take photos. For me, this photo is about those times when someone enrages you, and you almost want to kill each other.” Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.
Finally, Lera chooses this photograph as one that will always stay with her. “We put makeup on each other for this one, and my mother got the idea to photograph the process itself and then the result. It feels like there is just one person in this photo, because my ear is positioned as if it were my mother’s, and it’s the same situation with my hands. For me, this photo is about us being one.”Photographed by Varya Kozhevnikova.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

The Photos Showing Why Representation Matters

An Intimate Look At Breastfeeding Mums (NSFW)

Inside The World Of Privileged Adolescence