Storytelling is something we humans have always been doing, to some degree. Telling all sorts of tales has been an important part of our lives for millennia. Themes that all great storytellers use; birth, growth, destruction, death, and rebirth are important aspects of what it is like to be human, and what its like to experience life. There are a number of Russian folktales that speak of a mythical firebird whose feathers glow and can even protect the person who possesses it, but the firebird can be both a blessing and a curse. Variations of this story include princes and princesses, magical creatures, omens of the future, immortality, and lessons that test the virtue of the people who encounter the firebird.
Ekaterina Vasilyeva’s project, After the Firebird, uses these themes as a springboard to show us what life is like in the village where her family has lived for generations, and where she has been photographing for the past few years. Her selective use of color, light and environment set the stage for these scenes. The people she photographs include her own family members. Without romanticizing the lives they live, we can view their homes, their activities, and their village through the transformative lens of myth. Vasilyeva captures magical scenes of life – those little parts of common everyday occurrences that suddenly transcend into something more. Her scenes allow us to see a common object as a talisman suddenly made visible, or the relationship between two specific individuals as something that crosses over into a universal relationship for all of mankind… but only if we are watchful.
After the Firebird – project statement
The Russian village is rapidly sinking into oblivion. The sad statistics show that in Russia over the last two decades almost 25 thousand rural settlements disappeared within the map of Russia. Moreover, according to the sociologists, about the same number of them is on the verge of extinction.
My story begins long time ago when my grandmother and grandfather, both from the Pskov region (Russia), met in Leningrad (St. Petersburg now), got married and stayed there for the rest of their life.
But it could have turned out very different. I, now a modern city dweller, could have been born among those flowering fields and hard-working 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. With regard to my grandmother, he said that she would outlive him by exactly ten 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.
Cary Benbow: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
Ekaterina Vasilyeva: One can ask yourself this each year – and respond it every time in different ways. At the moment, I would say I do not take pictures in a normal, casual way, as much as I do it to visually study or research something. I consider photographing only in conjunction with the history, geography, mythology and literature on the theme of project. So, the photography becomes a reflection of the knowledge I’ve gained or its interpretation.
CB: Why did you become a photographer? What was your start into photography?
EV: My 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 was 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.
CB: How does ‘After the Firebird’ relate to your other projects?
EV: This project is the only one which is connected, though not directly, with my family and my ”roots”. I am dedicating the book I’m preparing, After the Firebird, to the memory of my grandparents who were born in the Pskov region. And, of course, it is the most mystical among my projects.
The connection of After the Firebird with other projects is the important subject of the relationship between people and nature. For creating my story I was inspired by Russian fairy tales and folklore, literature on Slavs mythology, paintings by famous Russian artists such as Viktor Vasnetsov and Ivan Bilibin, Palekh miniature (Russian folk handicraft of a miniature painting), and movies based on the books of Russian writer Valentin Ivanov (”Russ at First” and ”Russ Great”)
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
EV: I think that first of all, in view of your one’s personal experience, it is an opportunity to surprise yourself. Second, the photograph should resonate with a viewer, regardless if he/she is the editor of a photo magazine or an ordinary visitor of an exhibition.
CB: Where do you get the ideas for your personal photography?
EV: Everything somehow connected with me and the place (territory) where I live, which I love to visit or that I want to explore.
CB: Is it relatively easy, or do you find it a struggle to be an artist where you live? Do you feel isolated in the larger artistic community?
EV: I do not think there is a lot of ”rivalry” among photographers in Russia who are engaged in contemporary photography (the example of contemporary photography for me is the ”Institute” Agency). And almost no magazines, galleries (except Moscow), or good photo competitions, or people who are interested in purchasing photos.
This market is very poorly developed in Russia so far. Therefore, I concentrate on foreign audiences and opportunities offered by the foreign photographic industry. Due to the Internet, and the fact that I occasionally live in Europe (thanks to my husband’s work), I can visit photo and art exhibitions, search and buy books on photography and art.
So there is a minus, but there is also a plus. You need to work harder to delve into all of this, and so you probably only get stronger. By nature I think I am an optimist.
CB: Do you keep a journal or do you keep notes or write about the places and people you see?
EV: Unfortunately, I do not keep a personal diary. For each project I just collect useful information from different sources: quotes, images for inspiration, excerpts from articles, books, etc. I write a plan and some words for the better understanding of what I do want to find for my project. All this is mostly working materials.
CB: Who are your personal photography inspirations?
EV: I am inspired by so many things. For example the movies of such film directors as David Lynch, Wim Wenders and Ingmar Bergman. So I love weird movies. As for photographers – I’m currently attracted to the energy and temperament of Cristina de Middel. And because of calm judgment and a nearly perfect photography narrative, I’m a big fan of Alec Soth.
Art plays an important role for me. Some of my favorites are Americans artists: Edward Hopper for his brevity, realism and melancholy; and Andrew Wyeth for his ”wind” in pictures, a singular style and fantastic sense of place and home.
CB: I would love to learn more about the “mysticism” in your work. What parts of your work are mystic, and how you wish the viewer to “see” the photographs?
EV: I like the idea of combining documentary photography and a certain mystique conditionally. Each viewer has to decide for himself where is the truth and where is fiction for him. Given the fact that I do not make the staged photos and everything happens as in reality, it becomes itself a strange and mysterious. If we want to see something unusual, we will see it. I am convinced of that each time I work on a project.
After the Firebird talks about the 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.
I want to see something beyond everyday life, filled with encrypted symbols. Or maybe just something that brings back memories and the atmosphere of a unique place. More generally, I’m always looking around for magic.
CB: Also, I would like to understand how the relationship between man and nature is important to you? Many people do not live close to “nature” settings, and some people are very connected to the natural world… how does nature influence the way you create?
EV: For me the relationships between nature and people play a very important role . I think that without a clear understanding of its important role in our life, a person to some extent deprives itself of its support, and even health. All my projects are in some way connected with nature, with long hiking (10, 15, 20,… km) combined with deep attention to the environment around me.
I would like to believe that my projects could assist a new understanding and interest in the nature around us and respect for it.
Ekaterina Vasilyeva is an independent photographer from St. Petersburg, Russia, working at the intersection of the genre, documentary and art photography.
In most of her projects, she explores the theme of a particular place (space, territory, it changes in the context of time and historical landmarks, environment problems, interaction with human activity, personal relationship and the myths of the place. To see more of her work, please visit her website: http://www.ekaterinavasilyeva.ru/
This is an edited version of the interview published in Art Narratives in March 2017.