Category: VII Stories

“Last Prom”

Photo by Zackary Canepari / VII.

“Prom in Flint is more than just a dance. It’s a celebration of triumph and survival—and this year was Northwestern High School’s grand finale.”

Featuring portraits by Zackary Canepari and video by Jessica Dimmock and Zackary Canepari, this story on National Geographic takes us inside the last prom at the Flint, Michigan high school before the school shuts down.

“DollMates” by Valentina Sinis


By Valentina Sinis / VII Mentor Program

China’s latest population data reveals that despite the implementation of the “two-child policy”, the gender imbalance is a continuing social problem. There are 33.6 million more men than women in this country of 1.4 billion people, and among those born in the 1980’s, the ratio of unmarried men to women indicates a severe gender imbalance. As of 2017, the market for silicone dolls was very large, and with a yearly growth rate of about 30%, the number of factories and suppliers is also steadily on the rise. Manufacturers hope to make dolls lifelike enough to cure loneliness among the country’s huge unmarried population.  

As China economy rapidly diversifies, sexual subcultures are diversifying alongside. Among these, the diversification in the use of silicone sex dolls is apparent through the proliferation of DollMates groups on Chinese social media. In these groups, “Mates” exchange photos of the dolls, tips on how to use them, the defects of different brands, how to wash them, dress them and care for them.

The DollMates market in China is segmented into three main groups: those who buy silicone dolls purely for sexual use, those who buy them because they want a life partner – someone to love and take care of without the economic and mental pressure of human-to-human relationships – and those who buy them to dress them up and take pictures for use on social media.

Another interesting aspect is the emerging market of second-hand dolls. The high cost of the dolls, coupled with the immediate indifference of many buyers who purchase them out of curiosity but then fail to relate to or find pleasure in them, has led to a thriving market of buying and selling previously-owned dolls. DollMates, many of whom were born in the 80s, have mastered the art of buying second-hand dolls, and have developed the best techniques to wash, clean, disinfect and use them without fear of contracting disease.

True silicone doll aficionados typically pass through three emotional and physical stages. The first stage is the purchase of a doll for dedicated sexual use. The second stage is the development of emotional attachment towards their dolls, at which point Mates may begin to use other sex toys for personal fulfillment, as they begin to see the dolls as daughters or sisters or friends who must be spoiled and looked after. In the third stage, dolls lose all sexual association as Mates begin to think of themselves as collectors and become wholly dedicated to their dolls. This final stage, according to those interviewed, is the moment when the line between “doll life” and real life blurs, and the two worlds become indistinguishable from one another. 

The First Stage: The Sexual Use

Jerry is 34 years old and lives in Nanning, China with his wife who, they have just discovered, is pregnant. He owns a 24h convenient store with home delivery service and he is quite happy about his accomplishments at work, which have provided his family with a comfortable life.  Jerry is a lover of silicone dolls. He bought his first in 2013, though he had been curious about them as early as 2008. Since developing this passion for silicone dolls, Jerry has rented a room in a building different from the one in which he lives with his family. This room has become his secret, hidden place where he keeps and interacts with his silicone dolls. He visits once a week to spend time with his dolls, the room has a projector in order to watch movies while hugging and cuddling his dolls. After having sex with them, he showers them and lies between them playing with his cellular phone. Jerry’s dolls weigh around 35kg each so he built a suspension system so the dolls can sit up on the bed with no effort. Jerry admitted that his wife doesn’t know anything about his secret doll boudoir. Maybe she suspects about it, he says, but he feels like it’s not a problem because he is very nice to his wife and cares for her needs. He is aware that they are only dolls and says he has not developed any real love for them, but they provide a great deal of pleasure when he grooms and has sex with them. Jerry says that he knows that sex with dolls is different from the sex with real women but he appreciates that he can experiment on the dolls and try things that he always wanted but couldn’t propose to a woman. He states clearly that one could never replace the other but insists that his relationship with the dolls supplements his sexual relationship with his wife, increasing his sexual interest and his overall happiness. Jerry doesn’t feel that he is cheating on his wife but he admits that he would never accept his wife one day buying and playing with the male version of the silicone dolls. 

The Second Stage: Emotional Attachment

Bob came of age during the 80s in China. He entered the world of silicone dolls in 2005, prior to divorcing his wife. Bob says that his generation loves playing console and computer games, so they are attracted to women who resemble the heroines of digital games rather than real women with real bodies. For this reason, they prefer silicone dolls whose exaggerated, sexualized bodies and faces come from fantasy worlds. Bob collects dolls made in China because they reflect this imagery in contrast to dolls made in Japan that more closely resemble the bodies of real women with more imperfections. Bob says that for him, the dolls are not sexual objects but are more like daughters or younger sisters whom he loves to spoil and adore. He buys clothes and perfumes for them and treats them with great care. Bob estimates that his relationship to the dolls comprises about 70% of his life, so he still manages to maintain a connection to real life with the remaining 30%.

The Third Stage: The Two Worlds Become Indistinguishable

L.S. is a 28 year old Chinese boy who began to be interested in silicone dolls after the end of a tormenting relationship with a girlfriend. L.S. recounts that the worst part of his relationship with his ex was the exhausting daily quarrels that strongly traumatized him. L.S. says that the relationship he has established with his dolls has helped him to find  serenity again. L.S. loves to return home, sit on the sofa and drink tea with his dolls. He says he can spend hours talking with his dolls without having to be afraid of argument. At night, L.S. also finds comfort in embracing his favorite doll and occasionally having sex with her. He considers the dolls to be an integral part of his life.

The Dolls as Sisters

WeiShuying is a 17-year-old Chinese girl who studies art in high school in Nanning, China.  During the week, she lives in the dormitory of her school but on the weekends she returns to the home of her mother, divorced long ago from WeiShuying’s father. It is there that WeiShuying keeps her beloved collection of silicone dolls. WeiShuying owns 4 silicone dolls varying in size from 85cm to 145cm in height. In China, such dolls are produced principally to satisfy the sexual desires of male buyers. WeiShuying is aware of the nature of her dolls but admits that she is not bothered by this. In her mind they are simply beautiful female figures whose perfect bodies she admires. WeiShuying says that the first time she approached the world of silicone dolls was years ago. She had always been attracted to the world of cosplay but being very shy she never actively participated in it. She always preferred to admire and dream. She lives through her dolls and they provide the entry point to this world of costumes and make-up. WeiShuying began researching the various silicone doll factories on the Internet at the age of 14. She frequented social media groups associated with this type of dolls in order to find out about prices and varieties. In the end, she asked her mother for financial help to buy her first silicone doll. At the beginning, WeiShuying’s mother was skeptical but soon realized that nowadays in China these silicone dolls attract many different types of customers, many of whom do not necessarily use the dolls in a sexual manner. She thought her daughter might use the dolls to help improve her drawings skills. After two years WeiShuying has developed a profound attachment with her silicone dolls. She loves to make them up, dress them and she considers them to be sisters with whom she can spend time while she is at home. WeiShuying admits that she really misses her dolls when she is at school and if she has the opportunity to study abroad in the future, she will take at least the small one with her. 

Valentina Sinis

Valentina gravitates toward the quirky and unusual. She is attracted to offbeat realities and people existing on the margins. Her photographs illustrate the deep bond she forms with her subjects.



Featured Stories by Nichole Sobecki

Featured Stories by Nichole Sobecki

Nichole Sobecki

Nichole Sobecki is an American photographer and filmmaker based in Nairobi, Kenya. She aims to create photographs and films that demand consideration for the lives of those represented – their joys, challenges, and ultimately their humanity.




Wind, Sand and Stars

by Linda Bournane Engelberth

I am a Norwegian/Algerian artist raised in Norway by my Norwegian mother, and without knowing my Algerian father and his family. I have always been curious about my other country of origin. As a teenager I finally made contact with my father and more recently, my wider family in Algeria. When my Berber grandmother turned 100, she wrote me a letter so that I wouldn’t forget about my father’s homeland. This project is an attempt to research my own identity as a western woman investigating this foreignness that makes up half my bloodline.

As a stranger, with a feeling of being on the outside, I have walked the streets of Algiers trying to connect. I have documented everything from the city to the life of my family. I have been interested in the smaller details: street signs in Arabic, a cactus growing through the fence and people in the streets. These photos are attempts to absorb the nuances of life in Algiers. They are my first steps into a culture that feels like it should be part of me, but which I do not yet know.

Algiers, Algeria. I lie awake in the night, the intense warmth keeps me away from much needed sleep. My nightgown sticks to my body, my breath is slow, I run a hand along the wall and its deep crevices, all that should be familiar is unknown. I try to imagine my grandmother running her hands against these walls, these details she knew so well, perhaps she made these markings herself, one day when she was young and in love and pushed the bed against the doorway so no one could enter. I am trying to live another woman’s life, smell the scents she smelled, imagine that the etchings in the wall represent my own life lived. But they are not. No matter how much I pretend that this is my life, this is my life, this is my life…it is not.

As I walk slowly out of the airport, I see them smiling at me, I smile back. We pretend to know each other; we pretend that this situation is a perfectly normal one. Lynda takes my luggage to her car, we don’t speak the same language. The car drives away slowly, eventually landing us right into the busy traffic. I open the window and try to take in the smells; such an unfamiliar scent, the scent of a land I know nothing of.

This is an ongoing project.

Linda Bournane Engelberth

Linda Bournane Engelberth is a Norwegian/Algerian artist based in Oslo and Berlin.



Children on the Line

Ashley Gilbertson / VII for UNICEF

A Ukrainian Military position on the very frontline in the war against the separatists in the Donetsk Peoples Republic, in Avdiivka, Ukraine on December 2, 2017. The foliage on the trees has been stripped by shrapnel and gun fire.

For the past four years, Aleksey Agapin, a 14 year old boy, in has listened to artillery and mortar shells exploding around his home. On the dirt road outside, tanks and military hardware rumble between frontline positions. Over the past four years, he’s also heard the cracks of bullets as they zip by. Aleksey lives here with no electricity, no gas and no running water – facilities that have been knocked out in four years of conflict. With winters that drop as low as -20 degrees, his home is heated by firewood gathered from the forest.

UNICEF estimate that Aleksey is one of 220,000 children that live along the ‘line of contact’ between Ukrainian military and separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Even prior to hostilities, the region was wracked by poverty. Aleksey’s parents are unable to work–his father was badly injured in a coal mine collapse and his mother suffers from a skin condition. They’re also alcoholics, an all too common issue in this depressed region. To put food on the table, Aleksey and his siblings trap rabbits and catch fish from a nearby pond.

Students participate in the fourth anniversary of National Day of Dignity and Freedom, which celebrates the Euro – Maidan revolution, at secondary school number 5, in the town of Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on November 21, 2017.

Principal Elena Mihatskaya, 51, at the now abandoned secondary school number 2, in the frontline town of Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on November 21, 2017. The school, which had been in constant operation since it was rebuilt after being bombed in World War II, was shut down in May, 2017, after a shell struck the building causing massive damage.

“My first feeling was shock and pain. I looked down and saw the fingers were hanging from my hand. My whole life changed. I can’t chop the wood, it’s hard to tie the fishing line, and it’s hard to set the traps to catch animals. Sometimes I’m getting upset up until the moment when I break into tears.”

Two years ago, Aleksey was heading to the pond when he picked up an object that had fallen from a passing military convoy. He thought it was a pen, he said, until it exploded up in his hand.

“My first feeling was shock and pain,” Aleksey says, “I looked down and saw the fingers were hanging from my hand. My whole life changed. I can’t chop the wood, it’s hard to tie the fishing line, and it’s hard to set the traps to catch animals. Sometimes I’m getting upset up until the moment when I break into tears.”

This is Europe today.

The ‘line of contact’, as defined by the Minsk agreements, is the most forward position between fighters on both sides. By default, it’s also the new border separating Europe from Russia. At least ten ceasefires and agreements, brokered between the warring sides by European diplomats, are violated daily, and Europe’s longest running conflict since WWII shows no sign of abating any time soon.

An armed police officer outside the room of first graders at school in front of sand bagged windows in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 22, 2017.

Ukrainian military oversee civilians crossing the Kurahovo entry-exit checkpoint between Ukraine and Donetsk Peoples Republic in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 23, 2017.

Misha Sigarev, 9 y.o. and his mother, Lubov, 29, who live in the “grey zone”, or no mans land in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 22, 2017. Marinka is right on the line of contact between Donetsk rebels and the Ukrainian army and at various points only 200 meters separates the sides.

“In the beginning there was very heavy shelling and we were very afraid.” Anya Esaulova, 13, says, “but now, they’re shooting less and I’m not afraid anymore. Of course it’s not normal, but it’s so much better than it was.”

Anya’s house was hit by two shells. The first one killed her grandmother and destroyed the ceiling. After it had been repaired, and just before the family moved back in, a second shell destroyed the walls of the house. Today she lives with her sisters and mother at her other grandmother’s house. The last military outpost before Ukrainian controlled territory is just three hundred meters down the road.

“The children have seen everything here, including grad rockets,” says Olga Nikolaivna Prais, a teacher in Avdiivka, “our students can distinguish between different guns–they can tell what types of weapons are being used by the sound.”

Many schools, struggling with dropping attendance and the concern of students being injured, have been cut to two hours a day for three days a week. On days shelling is heavy, buses are unable to ferry students to school.

Four years of combat have weighed heavily on the population–particularly children. Statistics provided by UNICEF, who, with German government support, lead relief operations here, say that 3.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance because of the conflict–the majority of them women and children; that over 40,000 homes have been damaged leaving families stranded; over 700 education facilities been damaged by fighting and over 700,000 teachers and students are showing cumulative psychological impacts including post traumatic stress disorder.

While combat generates shocking statistics like these, it is also creating a new generation of children who know nothing but conflict.

“I remember just a little bit from before the war… I remember the summer and running with my friends in the warm rain.” Says Vadim Ignatenko, a nine year old from the battle scarred city of Avdiivka.

Third graders play with a toy pistol at school in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 22, 2017. Children are constantly exposed to weapons here, with frontlines just meters from their homes, combat soldiers all through their towns, and armed guards in schools.

A residential building, nicknamed the ‘storybook’ destroyed by shelling and now occupied by Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka, Ukraine, on November 25, 2017. This city of about 20,000 people sits right on the line of contact between seperatists in Donetsk and Ukrainian forces. There is daily shelling here, and at some points opposing sides face off at just 300 meteres, resulting in regular small arms skirmishes.

When Vadim was 6, he was hit by shrapnel as he played outside with his brother. A year later, waiting for his grandmother to come from work on a farm, he was struck by a passing armored personnel carrier. His leg was broken and his skull crushed. And then, his apartment complex, nicknamed “the coloring book”, for its multi hued facade, became a military target and he was displaced. On days shelling is light –only three or four nearby explosions every hour– he’s able to get to school. When it’s heavy, he’s supposed to take cover in a bunker, but he doesn’t have one.

In cities and villages up and down the line, soldiers and militias occupy homes and municipal buildings, converting family abodes into fighting positions. Mortar tubes are fired just a stones throw away from the local school. At night, children take cover under their blankets as snipers fire from abandoned homes on their street.

“These children live at the front line in the battlefield. You can’t say that shells might land on children’s houses–shells will land on their houses.” says Oksana Deynega, 42, the director of a school in Avdiivka. “If I had to describe the conflict and its impact on the children in one word: it’s horror.”

Aleksey Agapin, 14, from Vozdvyzhenka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on November 29, 2017. Aleksey lost a thumb and two fingers when a grenade plug he found exploded in his hand.

Anya Esaulova, 13, at her old home in the frontline town of Avdiivka, Ukraine, on November 26, 2017. Anya and her family lives at a relatives house after their home was twice destroyed by shelling.

When civilians are killed and wounded, their tragic stories are weaponized by Russian and Ukrainian media–and this is the other frontline, fought online by partisan media outlets and armies of trolls.

Fake news has become a major issue in Europe and the United States over the past year, though here, it’s not a new phenomenon. Nationalist bias and outright lies in media coverage are a fact of life since Soviet times. We call it fake news, here it’s called it for what it is: propaganda.

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” Wrote Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian, however, the enduring casualties are civilians. For the children trapped here, unable to move to a safer part of the country due to crippling poverty, who pulls the trigger or fires the shell doesn’t matter.

Vadim is able to name the warring sides –they’ve both occupied his city of Avdiivka at different times– though he doesn’t understand why the men fight. All he know’s, he says, is that he’s afraid.

“Whatever they do,” Vadim says, “they end up killing people.”

Ashley Gilbertson

Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photographer and writer living in New York City widely recognized for his critical eye and unique approaches to social issues.



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