Nikita Teryoshin has an eye for the technologies that exist outside of the public consciousness but have a massive impact on our day-to-day lives. His latest project Hornless Heritage sees the photographer turn his lens to the world of milk production and the Turbocow. Millions of tonnes of ‘normal udder secretion’ is consumed as milk and milk products each year and the demand for dairy is increasing as a result of globalisation. In 1990 a cow produced an average of 4710 litres of milk, in 2016 this had almost doubled to 7620 litres.
In Germany, the Holstein-Friesian breed is one of the most profitable cows. The breed has been turned into Turbocows – capable of producing great volumes of milk. “The curved lines of their bodies remind me of modern racing cars, when they are on display on the red carpet of “Schau der Besten” (show of the best),” says Nikita. “Breeding, however, comes with health problems. With a life expectancy of up to 30 years ‘turbocows’ only live three to five years on average, until they get sick or lose their childbearing potential. The cows cannot be used for milk production any longer and are slaughtered. Even a perfectly well cow is not perfect at all: its horns are removed out of concern they might hurt workers or cows with them.”
Having spent many years documenting this phenomena, Nikita is now sharing his images. Here, we publish a selection of the images and speak to him about the origins of this remarkable project.
What is a Turbocow?
“Turbocow” comes from the German media. It is a comparison with a turbo car used in order to describe the difference between a high performance cow and a usual cow. It’s not necessarily a positive expression. The breeding of the past 20-30 years with an emphasis on high performance [high mile yields] was caused by the low milk price in the european market. So the diary industry had to find the way to produce more milk in the most efficient way.
What sparked your interest in this particular subject?
Visiting Eurotier [a trade fair for animal production] I was kind of shocked and fascinated by the way the animals in general, like pigs, goats, chickens and cows, are reduced to efficiency and combined with technical devices. So for example, the arms of the milk robot reminded me of the matrix films and other dystopian books and movies. When I took the picture of the two business guys under the slogan “Don’t let cows waste your money,” I had the feeling of injustice. So I wanted to get a deeper insight into the topic.
Where did you first learn about Turbocows?
A friend of mine, the German author Johann Reißer told me about Eurotier in Hannover. He knew my work from and told me that this could be also interesting.
Where did you discover this strange community and the shows and farms that you shot?
I started at the fair and usually you find loads of flyers advertising different companies and breeding clubs. So I visited different shows, which usually was no problem at all, or tried to get an accreditation, access to laboratories, institutes and insemination stations.
Where exactly did you shoot and who are the people you depict?
I shot the series across Germany in Northern Rhine Westphalia, Rhineland Pfalz, Lower Saxony and Berlin. The people you can see are breeders or business men. Usually I took the pictures anonymously, because, like in other projects like Nothing Personal, it was important for me to show the process. It does not matter how every screw in this ‘dairy machine’ looks. I tried to find symbolic pictures and details which could explain the topic.
What are the most astonishing things that you learned when carrying out this project?
That industrial cows lose their children after birth and live only 5-6 years (as long as they can become pregnant) instead of 20-25 years. Even after the death every part of their body is used as food, animal food, gelatine and so on. Still, for me, it was important not to produce Peta style hardcore images. My goal was to give an insight into the world of modern breeding, even if it might be shocking for some people.
How many shots did you take over the course of the series? Why did it take so long?
My goal was to create a new picture of the industrial cow, so it was important for me to visit many different places. Some of the shows like “Schau der Besten” (Show of the Best) in Lower Saxony takes place only once a year for example. I can’t really say how many shots I took. It would also be possible to make 8 different short stories out of each visit. So the challenge was also to make a selection and then the next one and the next one. I try to take as many pictures as possible usually. The opposite of how I would work with a film camera.
The style of the shots echo the images you took at arms fairs? Is this style a conscious aesthetic consideration or is it borne of technical challenges?
I started the work on Hornless Heritage two years before Nothing Personal. For me both are topics that don’t have enough publicity in the mainstream media. The flash technique is a kind of crime scene photography and it destroys the original setting/staging of the industry – the way the industry wants to present itself. So there are many parallels within these two bodies of work.
Do you have a favourite shot in the series? Why?
It’s hard to say that there is a favourite shot for me, because the topic is pretty unpleasant. There are couple of shots in the series, which work for me in different ways. For example the picture with the red carpet and white trousers of the cowboy and white cow leg following the master. Or a professional cow photographer preparing the cow for the shooting. This one is just funny in a pretty simple way, but it works in a general context of the series. Otherwise it shows the hard work of man and animal and their fusion to quench the thirst of the industry. (Okay, maybe I’ve over-thought this a bit).
How do you hope the project lives on? What plans do you have?
I produced 300 copies of an 80 page booklet in German with pictures and quotations of breeders. After getting many requests via instagram from all over the world I found a way to translate it into English, in the next weeks I hope to get the English version printed.
There is a part of the project I still haven’t been able to realise so far. I would like to show the export part of the process. I’ve been trying to get into a Slovenian harbour to take pictures of a German cow on a ship to Egypt, but it wasn’t allowed. I won’t give up.