Our art editor, Cynthia Close, recently spoke with Ekaterina Vasilyeva, Issue #5’s featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her journey into photography, her search for the magic in people and places, and the influence of her Russian culture and folklore on her work.
When did you first realize you were interested in photography?
It happened quite late, when I was 32 years old. I am a librarian and worked for three years in the library of St. Petersburg Medical University. Then there were eight years of work in the tourist industry, which helped me see a lot of countries.
A serious interest in photography arose in 2009 during my two years of residence in the United States, in Alabama. Simple, amateur pictures of nature became unsatisfying to me. I often remember one random picture I made at the beach of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. A couple walking along the beach among a lot of birds and the man suddenly raised his hands up and waved them like wings. At that time, I also realized that I wanted to change something in my life. Maybe even my profession. This time also changed my way of life essentially; I had more time to be alone with myself. Living in a foreign country, being quite closed off, helped me to find, I can confidently say now, my matter of life.
I decided that after returning to St. Petersburg, I was going to study photography. It happened. Over the past 6 years, I’ve studied reportage, documentary, and contemporary photography. In parallel, I take commercial orders, cooperate with the German agency Plainpicture, with the St. Petersburg newspaper Nevskoe vremia and with the Chinese magazine Civilization.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a photographer?
The biggest challenge for me as a photographer is working with people. It requires a certain amount of courage and responsibility.
How do you decide what will make an interesting photograph?
I like to surprise myself. I want to see something beyond everyday life and something that is filled with encrypted symbols. And sometimes just filled by memories and by the air of a unique place. Or unique personality. Mostly, I’m always looking around for magic.
Your work has an enigmatic feeling, a touch of surrealism, and most of the images imply a sense of loneliness and isolation. Do you think this is a particularly Russian sensibility?
For me the ‘Russian Season’ is a personal project and I take the pictures from my understanding and vision of Russian nature and Russian soul. Certain illustrations of this series especially refer the viewer to Russian fairy tales and folklore. It is also close to me, this connection of a certain abandonment, mystery and aesthetics of the snow-covered Russia. I think winter is in general a very Russian concept, a very Russian condition, and a very Russian space. In the love of winter is manifested a special concept of our national character: dreaming, reflection and detachment. Snow-covered space symbolizes the so beloved, typically Russian rest and sleep. Unfortunately, the winter in St. Petersburg is often characterized by high humidity, with wet and almost melting snow these last years. I think that it is also for me a kind of challenge—to create the perfect image of winter.
If you could go anywhere in the world to take photographs, where would you go?
I would like very much to go to Iceland, would like to travel more in Russia (for example along the Volga River and Baikal Lake). In any case, these places are more connected with nature than with cities.
What do you hope to achieve with your work?
As in the ‘Russian Season,’ almost all of my series talk about a mystery and magic of the hidden world and the amazing discoveries that can occur in front of everybody. You need only to look around carefully. With the documentary style of my work, I strive to endow each photograph with a sufficient degree of strangeness and mystery. I think this is the most truthful reflection of my inner world and attitude towards the life. Despite the quite rational mind, the analysis of things and actions, in my soul I also feel the presence of a child whose mother often told and read her tales.
What are your current projects?
To my regret, I cannot do only one project at once. I have in mind a few more parallel projects and do a few at the same time. It’s my nature and there’s nothing to be done about it. Two of my long-term projects are the ‘Russian Season’ and ‘After the Firebird.’ They started in 2010 and continue to the present time.
My story ‘After the Firebird’ begins long time ago when my grandmother and grandfather, both from the Pskov region of Russia, met in Leningrad (St. Petersburg now), got married, and stayed there for the rest of their lives. But it could have turned out very different. I, now a modern city dweller, could have been born among those flowering fields and hardworking people.
In his village, my grandfather used to be called a gypsy because he could predict the approaching of someone’s death. As for himself, he always knew that he would survive two wars and wouldn’t be injured.
And so it happened. Concerning my grandmother, he said that she would outlive him by exactly 10 years. This prediction also came true.
Over the last five years that I have been documenting people from the small village Andrushino in Pskov region, I have been subconsciously looking for overt or covert manifestations of people’s magic. I think that it is as much a part of our being as history and geography. Faced with a fabulous world of folklore, you soon realize that it is rooted in a totally real ground and that all the beliefs and superstitions, charms and rituals, tales and fables are not just a warehouse of archetypes of the collective unconscious, but an immediate response of the collective soul to the mysterious currents of the natural elements.
Besides all this, I will soon finally develop a collection of my films and edit the final version of three new stories. This is a very poetic series: ‘Saudade’ (Portugal), ‘Tales for Lola’ (a black-and-white story about time and memory for a little French girl), and a series of portraits of mathematicians made in the Black (magic) Forest, the German Schwarzwald.
Check out more of Ekaterina’s work at www.ekaterinavasilyeva.ru.