Little Box conversation
Ilya, please tell us about yourself.
Well, It's the most difficult question, because I really don't know who am I. To be honest, I've never met a person who knows. The most fair answer is: I'm a conscious presence. What can a conscious presence tell about itself? Of course, I could tell you that I'm a professional doer-of-nothing, that I used to work as a journalist, as a street musician, that I'm interested in deep psychology, visual arts and music, especially early music and some contemporary jazz-avant garde fusion... That I live in St. Petersburg now and have moved here from the Russian Far East ten years ago. But is it all really important or interesting? I doubt it.
When did your passion for photography begin, why did you become interested in it and why is it important to you?
It's a strange thing, because it happened twice. The first time was when I was a schoolboy. My parents bought me a Smena 8m, a very simple film camera, and I used to photograph everything - friends, members of my family, interesting views, all that seemed interesting to me. Of course I knew nothing about the photography language and documentary tradition. There were no books. It was Soviet Union at the end of 1980s, but truthfully, I wasn't interested in studying photography, I just had no idea that it was possible. So when I was 20 I gave it up, for about 15 years. And then something happened – I got my first mobile phone with a very small toy camera, and this was the instant revival of my interest and passion.
I cannot respond in an intelligent way to the question “why did I become interested in it”, because it's a kind of obsession, and an obsession never asks you, "do you want it or not?", nor does it tell you why it comes. It just comes. That's all.
To tell you why it's important to me is more interesting. I think for me photography is a way to get in contact with something that is bigger than me, with some larger intelligence, or some inexplicable presence. You know, many photographers claim that a good photograph is always a gift. But if there is a gift, there is a giver, right? So I can tell you that I'm interested in solving the mystery of the Giver, that's why I keep photographing.
Please share with us a little about what it is like to be a street photographer in your hometown?
St. Petersburg isn't my hometown, but I think there is no big difference. For me one of the most important things is to get in contact with the spirit of the place, whatever that place is. If you can feel it, it gives you the possibility to see something interesting. And to get it, you should work hard on your own perception, be attentive and look harder. It's always a two-way street.
Do you prefer capturing specific subjects and is there a style of shooting you prefer? If yes, why so?
I prefer to be surprised. You know, there is a Russian folk tale which is called “Go don't know where, bring don't know what”. It's a very precise description of a street photographer's process. And if you read the tale itself you'll be surprised to which degree it's precise! To summarise, it's a story of a lucky soldier who has a very beautiful wife. The evil king meets his wife and wants to own her, so he gives the hero three very hard tasks. His wife is an enchantress, so she helps him to perform the first two tasks. But the third is completely impracticable, so she cannot help. But she has some friends in the fairy world, and she knows one who could solve this riddle. So she gives her husband an enchanted ring or something like that and this ring leads him to the house of a wise old woman. This wise old woman sends him to yet another and more powerful “fairy helper”, and finally he finds that “don't know what”, brings it to the king and becomes the king himself.
Doesn't it sounds familiar? “To take a good photograph”- isn't it an impracticable task as well? It's ridiculous indeed to say “Well, now I have to go out and take a good picture”. But if only we had a wife like this soldier who could give us a magical ring... The good news is there is such a figure beside each of us. In the Jungian paradigm she is called Anima, the Soul. She is the part of the Unconsciousness that serves the bridge between the Ego and more deep levels of the Collective Unconscious. And it's this Collective Unconscious that gives you a picture. So, to take it, you have to be in contact with your Anima, whether you are aware of it or not.
Of course, it's only “the map that isn't the territory”. There could be other perspectives and other interpretations of the process. For example, last year I constantly meditated on the famous phrase by ACB – “On ne doit pas prendre des photos, c'est la photo qui vous prends”. What does this mean exactly? Maybe a possible interpretation is that an image has its own substantive intelligence? In this case all that I should do is to listen to them, be attentive, and to help them materialize, to appear. Who knows…
To say more, if we recall the word epiphany and call it the epiphany of an image, it becomes yet more interesting. The greek word epiphany, consists of epi-, to, and phainein, show - it implies a relationship. It means that there should be one to whom an image is shown, or presents itself. An observer. And of course as an observer I have my own aesthetic preferences – I love colours, I love structures, I love a picture to look flat like a collage etc. As I've said already, it's a two-way street.
Your work is all in colour. Do you ever work in black and white? Can you tell us why you prefer colour?
I prefer colour because I like it. I love colours in paintings. My favourite artists are, to name just three, Gaugin, Matisse and Diebenkorn. All are great masters of colour. With photography it's the same. A black and white image, even the best ones, seldom seems to me as beautiful and as interesting as a good colour photograph. Colour is an emotion, and colour combinations have their own music... I don't know, colours enchant me, their voices are a siren song for me.
Street photographers sometimes talk about getting into the zone while shooting. Does this happen for you and if yes, please share your experience.
Yes, I think it's the most natural thing to get into the state of flow when you shoot in the street. It happens when you stop concentrating on yourself and turn your living attention to the world around. You have to stop thinking and stop asking yourself "is this interesting or not?”, and just start following your attention to wherever it leads you.
Our natural concentration, natural attention always switches from one thing to another. It’s a normal process. Something that attracts my attention at this particular moment is the most interesting thing around. That's the rule. In the next moment it will be something else, and it will again be the most interesting thing. But when we are shooting on the street we usually keep our attention on more than just one thing. We try to pay attention to complex structures rather then simple ones - distinguishing a figure from the background or looking at several figures simultaneously while at the same time paying attention to several levels of the background. It requires all my attention, all the mental energy that I have. So I just have no choice but to get into the zone.
But there is one more interesting moment. It often happens during this natural attention flow. It’s 'surfing' from one thing to another which leads to something really interesting, to a moment of unexpected beauty. You just go from one thing to another and on, and on, until suddenly there it is, and the whole scene reveals itself, unfolds before you just for an instant and then it's gone. And you are aware that unless you are in this attentive state of 'flow', you won't notice it or find yourself in the right place at the right moment.
Arnold Mindell, the founder of Process-oriented psychology, writes in his books that there are two kinds of perceptions. At each moment we perceive a huge number of different signals, but it's usually too much. We consider most of them unimportant for our actual interaction with the environment and marginalise them. It happens constantly – we perceive something and momentarily forget about it. Usually we pay attention only to something stable, to something we can speak about and share this experience with others. These stable perceptions we can call signals in full sense of this world. But there also are these quick, little, uncertain perceptions which we tend to forget about, or marginalise. But they are very important, as Mindell writes, because they can tell us a lot about our true nature. Mindell calls them "flirts". But to be able to work with flirts, a psychotherapist have to be a “fast cat”. He has to enter an altered state of mind. Most of the psychotherapists, says Arnold Mindell, are lazy cats who prefer to stay in the usual state of mind and work with solid signals. I think that most photographers are lazy cats as well. They don't notice these quick flirts. But when we start to follow them, then this self-revelation of an unexpected beauty happens. It's interesting, that a great Russian photographer Georguy Pinkhassov says the same thing. He says that “a photographer has to be a fast cat”.
Have you ever faced any negative encounter or scary situations happen while photographing? If yes, please share the incident.
I cannot remember anything really scary but of course sometimes I have a negative encounter. It's just a part of the process. Most of the time it means that I have this negative attitude in myself but don’t accept it. It may be the hidden aggression or something like that. Or it may be a part of my own psyche that calls for attention. If I'm so blind that I don't see it inside of me, it projects itself on the outside, and says – "I'm here. I need your attention. Look at me!" So the best way to deal with a negative encounter is to say thanks to it!
But sometimes such situations are rather comical. Ten years ago, when I just started to shoot in the street, I lived in Khabarovsk and once I came to a small street market in the north side of the city. People are very suspicious there, as it often happens in small markets, and they were even hostile. This encounter ended in throwing a potato at my head (ouch, it hurts). I forgot about it soon, and I moved to St. Petersburg. After several years I returned to Khabarovsk for a while. One beautiful day I found myself in the same street market. The light was wonderful, and I noticed an interesting colourful scene and took a shot. Immediately a woman lashed out at me and started quarrelling – telling me that I don't have the right to shoot there and so on... She was very rude and she demanded that I show her the picture to check to see if she was in the frame. I told her that she wasn't and that I wouldn’t show her anything because she was very rude. Then she grabbed the strap of my camera and pulled me up and down the whole market for around 20 minutes! But the funny thing is that at one stage, one of the men from the market said – "last time you were here we hit your head with a potato. Isn't it enough for you?" Can you imagine that they still remembered this incident after five years!
Do you have any projects you are currently working on and if so, can you tell us a little about them?
I will tell about about just two. The first came out from my natural interest in how changing the instrument changes the approach. When I started to take pictures with an iphone, I found that it's a different game. It’s not the same as shooting with a bigger camera. First of all, it's a game, where the square frame dictates certain graphical conditions and constraints. But at the same time I felt as though I had more freedom. The shots are made for pure visual pleasure and nothing more. They are completely non-narrative and pictures about nothing. And it's interesting to see how it's possible to use the relatively bad quality of the camera as an artistic feature – specific colours, noise etc. I call these pictures Shtuchki. You can hear that this word also echoes my name. But there is something more. In Russian the word Shtuchki means “little things”, or “little somethings” or even nothings, bagatelles. They are not important, they have no reason for existence beside pure curiosity, but I love them.
The second project is the natural extension of the first. As I've said, in these square frames I'm trying to find different examples of visual pleasure and harmony. But harmonious opportunities of the square itself are limited because it has rectangles. It's obvious that the most harmonious of all figures is a circle. So I got the idea to fit a square picture into a round frame. But what kind of a round frame should it be to make a picture more harmonious? Maybe, it's possible to draw it by hand, creating a pattern that interacts with the photo's patterns? It turned out to be an interesting game, and, besides this, it's a kind of mandala drawing practice. A mandala transforms the profound space into the sacred. So maybe while drawing these round frames (by my finger, on the iphone), I harmonise not only a picture but something else as well.
What do you think are the most important qualities or elements of a memorable photo?
It's the second most complicated question. I can easily explain why I find this or that particular photo good or not, but what are the most important qualities? Well, I immediately recall the words of Raghu Rai - “unless the supernatural comes and plays a part and reveals itself, the picture is only good and nice as information can be”. In other words, there should be something inexplicable, something that you cannot put into words.
Is there a particular photographer who has influenced your work?
There is a really huge list! I could name, for example, Georguy Pinkhassov, Harry Gruyaert, Alex Webb from one side and William Eggleston, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Marc Bustamante and Thierry Girard from the other. After writing these names I see that Wolfgang Zurborn is definitely missing here. And so on, and so on...