Stepan is a 28-year-old brown bear that is quite well-known in Russia for a good amount of reasons. As a cub, the infamous Russian bear was abandoned by his mother, but luckily enough, he was adopted by a pair of very loving humans, Svetlana and Yuriy Panteleenko.
Given that the bear grew up around people for the majority of his life (adopted as a 3-month-old cub), Stepan pretty much became a domesticated pet bear. To find out more about how the Russian brown bear became who he is today, you can check out our previous post, which focuses on the story of how the lovely couple nurtured and adopted him.
Nowadays, Stepan is not only a friendly and human-loving bear, but also a model for the famous Russian photographer Mila Zhdanova, who came to know about Stepan through his owners.
Mesmerized with the Zhdanova's work, Bored Panda reached out to this incredibly talented photographer to learn more, and you can find an interview with her below!
Mila often features Stepan in her fairy tale-inspired scenes that will most likely remind you of a Disney movie. Various models have flown from all across the world and waited even as long as 5 years to have a chance to work with Stepan. And to create an even further illusion of a fairy tale, most of the models are posing in traditional Russian dresses alongside Stepan for truly mesmerizing shots.
Fascinated with Mila’s work, we obviously wanted to know how she came up with this whole idea and what was the reason behind it.
“I was creatively and mentally exhausted after a very big project. To me, it seemed like I was on the verge of depression and I even considered stopping taking photographs altogether. However, there was one small desire. I wanted to do a photoshoot with Stepan the bear. For several years, I watched him. I looked at how his owners were treating him (for me, the attitude towards an animal always comes first), and I thought that this would be a great end to my photography career.
After the long-awaited meeting and a photo session with Stepan, I realized that I wanted to continue photographing, I felt like there was no trace of depression I carried, so this experience only served as the next step in my career.”
The photographer also had several other reasons that continuously gave her inspiration for this project.
"Let’s be honest, most foreigners have very few associations with Russia, so to most people, a photoshoot with a bear sounds nearly impossible or even bizarre. However, the girls in the national Russian costumes look amazing, and next to such a large beast, it really does seem like a fairy tale. I should probably also thank my husband, as he helps me a lot—all the costumes 'A la Russe' are the work of his hands. Sometimes I truly do not understand how he makes such beauty, but that's maybe just because he himself reminds me of a bear."
We also took some time to find out about Zhdanova's favorite photo from this whole project.
"My favorite photo from this project was taken during our first meeting with the lovely bear. In it, you can see Stepan holding a lollipop between his paws!"
Zhdanova believes that her photos represent a few different things, which are not only related to her.
"Using my photos, I try to tell different stories—about myself, about the world, about my country. Many people think that people don't smile in Russia, and this is a completely false statement! Even the giant bear smiles in my photos, even though most people would assume it's Photoshop, which, of course, is not the case."
When it comes to inspiration and motivation for her projects, Mila has one particular person in mind.
"There are many photographers and they are all good in their own way, as each has their own unique style. However, I would like to mention my friend. Her name was Irina Pirogova. She was a very good person and to be honest, she started photographing animals way before me, and that even included Stepan. I admired her style a lot. Unfortunately, Irina Pirogova died of cancer, but today I often find myself remembering her, and I even have her picture on my table.
I would like to wish everyone who reads this article health. Please take care of yourself and be kind, especially during these difficult moments that have fallen upon our world this year."
The photographer's working process with Stepan is not only pretty interesting, but also very amusing at times.
"I manage the filming process, but one also needs to understand the specifics of shooting with Stepan. When we are at the shooting area, we have everyone adjust to the bear's mood. The model does not pose, but rather contacts the animal naturally. Stepan is never forced to do something, but is nicely asked. Sometimes he doesn’t want to, so we don’t insist. However, on the set, there are always jokes about arguments with the bear."