A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
An Interview with Vlad Sokhin
Vlad Sokhin is a talented photographic artist, whose visual work powerfully illustrates the stories that he encounters as he travels around the world. His work has taken him to some far- flung, seemingly impenetrable, places- from the dead city of Chernobyl to cataloguing shamanic practices in Africa. He has deservedly been awarded a Grand Prix at the International photography festival in Uglich, Russia- proving that raw talent is the most important ingredient in impactful shots rather than complicated digital manipulation.
Fabelist caught Vlad, in transit as he begins his new life in Australia. Amidst juggling children, visas and luggage he kindly spent some time answering our questions under the watchful ,guiding eye of his editor and ever- supportive wife.
F: Your photographic collections are called ‘stories’ and, open with written descriptions of the tales behind each group. Do you see both the writing and photographic processes as being one and the same- photography as a means of writing?
Vlad: In our days text and photography practically do not exist separately- especially in photo journalism. On one hand, the text is often referred to as “crutches” of photos. When the photographer was unable to visually express what he wanted to show in his pictures, he uses the text. I believe that any photographer should strive to ensure that his photos speak for themselves, so they had all the fullness of that image only, and nothing more.
However, viewers often want to know what, where, when, why and how and that is what I am writing about in the descriptions of my stories. I think that if you don’t do it, then the audience will not be clear of the whole idea of the story.
Another question is whether- do I like to write. Definitely not. But unfortunately, nowadays, is very difficult to sell a photo story without writing. Many magazines have been asking for some time photographers to write texts to their photographs, saving money on writing journalists and it’s not enough just to shoot well, one needs to write well. In my opinion, this is bad, because you need to think about totally different things at the same time. This affects the quality of the photographer’s work.
F: What would you identify as being the characteristic that makes your work definitively ‘you’?
Vlad: Honestly, I do not think I have reached a point where someone can look at my pictures and say – it’s Vlad Sokhin. I work on topics that I like, and photograph the way I like it. And the last thing I think about while I’m shooting is whether the next image corresponds to “my” style, or not. There are different cameras and different situations. Moreover, I believe that having your own style puts you in a certain situation, which interferes with your artistic growth.
“The Spirits of Mozambique” is a photo-documentary project about religious life and spiritual traditions in Central and Southern Mozambique. During 2010-2011 photographer Vlad Sokhin worked in Tete province and Maputo city, documenting 3 different spiritual communities: traditional witchdoctors; secret society of Nyau (Gule Wamkulu); and Zion Apostolic Church of Mozambique, where charismatic Christianity and exorcism practices are mixed with African paganism.
Witchdoctor Chimarizen Ranges (49), Niapende village, Tete province. Name of his spirit is Niagona. In the beginning of 2007 Chimarizen was very ill. His wife called the witch healer Elvira Chimpali but she, instead of “prescribing” for the sick man the usual medicinal herbs and roots, found that he became one of witchoctors-mediums. “This is not an illness – she said – the Great Spirit Niagona found a new home in his body.” Elvira conducted a three-day initiation ceremony for Chimarizen. Since that time any work is prohibited for him besides healing people.
F: Do you learn from your subjects about how to approach them through the camera’s lens as much as lending your own visual angle to them?
Vlad: In most cases, before I start shooting, I already have in mind an idea of how I will do it. If the photo-session is not spontaneous, I pre-negotiate all the details of what will happen. It’s like going to the theater with a playbill: You have never seen the play, but you know it’s a rough plan. I do the same with the camera: I stand near my subject, watch what happens and periodically release the shutter. The subject lives it’s own life and I don’t interfere.
Seventy percent of the time I can say that I know in advance what will happen next. For example, before I started work on a feature about a young African albino who was abandoned by his parents, I knew in detail most of his daily life like daily routine, things that he usually does, places he visits… And I just followed him and photographed a few days of his life. I knew his next step, but did not tell him what to do. He lived his life and I documented it.
But there are situations when you do not know in advance what to expect. I went to the Mozambican city of Beira, along with the American journalist Annie Murphy, to produce a story about the Grand Hotel – one of the biggest hotels in Africa, built by Portuguese in the 1950’s, and that, during the Civil War, turned into a gigantic squat. It is still the home to around 6000 people. We didn’t have any plan to what to shoot or, even where to start. We just walked in that huge frightful building, where in each room lived families, we knocked on doors and talked to people. Many of them allowed me to photograph them. Finally, after three days it’s all turned to story. A sense based story.
Vlad Sokhin from: A Time of Crocodiles
F: Is the fact that your work itself crosses the boundaries between story and photograph one thing that has drawn you to study groups and individuals who don’t fit the mould- albinos, witchdoctors who slip between the definitions of spiritual and medical healers, as well as spaces that function as both commercial and play venues?
Vlad: There is a category of photographers that shoot unusual subjects, marginalised people, strange communities, religious practices or Roma people, for example. These stories are easy to find and they are visually very attractive: both for the photographer and for the viewer. But there is another category of photographers who shoot simple, most ordinary things, however they show it in an original way as if you are seeing it for the first time. I guess I belong to the first category, but ideally, I strive to be in the second one.
F: Where do you think the boundaries are between photographer and voyeur?
Vlad: It is only a superficial resemblance. In contrast to the voyeur, a photographer changes things with his photos and, shares what he saw with the others. If you continue to develop this comparing, then you can call all readers of newspapers and magazines also voyeurs. In my point of view, a photographer is a visual transmitter.
F: Do you see your photographs as being a door into further imaginative creativity on the part of the viewer- a conversation rather than an answer?
Vlad: You should ask them but I hope that the viewers of my photographs feel this way.
F: Where is your next ‘story’ coming from?
Vlad: I have several projects coming up soon. In November I’m going to Papua New Guinea. I also have one project in the Hunter Valley, Australia, and a photo-story, which involves Internet technologies and social networks.