Dean O'Brien's Blog

352mc Professional Photographic Practice: Anastasia Taylor-Lind interview

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Research into my project in Ukraine project ‘Destination Unknown’ has come from areas and many photographer’s.  One of those has been Anastasia Taylor-Lind.  Her projects which have included Women of the Cossack Resurgence, Slavic Blond and Siberian Supermodels.  At Perpignan last year I never managed to catch up with Anastasia, but did contact her after and we have communicated via email ever since.

As my own project has started to developed in Ukraine, I wanted to know a bit more about what drives Anastasia and her projects.  It was at this point that I decided to approach Anastasia for an interview which was conducted through Skype.

How did you first get into photography and was there any reason behind it?

I did A level photography and thought it was quite cool.  I always valued photography for the fact that you could record something that was gone afterwards.  Through A level photography I then discovered documentary photography and thought ‘wow’ and that this could be a way out of Devon, which is where I was growing up.  All I wanted to do was travel when I was younger so it made me think about how I could travel and make money.  I never had any grand ambitions about being rich or anything but have enough money to pay the rent, travel and stuff like that.

Whilst doing my A level I knew that I was going to be a documentary photographer and I learnt about Don McCullin and all the work that he had been doing.  I feel that he is the biggest influence of our generation of photojournalists and documentary photographers.  So I asked my teach how I could learn how to do this and he suggested that I should go to Newport to study documentary photography there.  They taught me everything that I needed to know.  I was a visiting tutor for 3 or 4 years after I graduated, but since moving away I could not do it that regularly.  My schedule and life does not allow for it anymore which Is something that I am sad about as it is an amazing place and I love hanging out with the students there.

Having looked at many of your projects I can’t help but feel that it goes beyond photography.  There seems to be so much contained within the bodies of work than just ‘making images’.  Can you expand on this for me?

To me photography is not really about photography, it is everything else that goes with it.  The way they taught us at Newport has a big part to play in that.  They taught us that we have to spend time with people, pick subjects that we really care about and are interested in personally.  My projects and the way I work is based on genuine friendships, so all of my own self initiated and financed projects are with people and places where I would want to go anyway, even if I was not  a photographer.  So in a way the photography is secondary really.

Regarding your projects.  Do you take a subjective or non subjective approach?

I don’t believe within reason that it is possible for photography to be objective, because cameras are operated by human beings.  There are always examples that go against that.  But being human affects what you are doing such as being influenced by your gender, personal experiences, religion or culture.  My photography can only be a representation of my view at that particular time.  A photograph is only a tiny slice of time put onto a piece of paper.  What I do try to do with my pictures is not to be judgemental, so although this is a reflection of my experience I do not want to be seen to pass comment on ‘Is this right or is this wrong?’  But in another sense you can see that I do tend to photograph people that I feel very sympathetic towards.

Without trying to sound patronising, some of your projects (in particular the PKK) carry with it a certain amount of danger.  What precautions do you take to ensure your safety whilst out in the field doing such projects? 

Well I started shooting the PKK project in 2005 and I have learnt a lot since then.  There are a lot of precautions that photographers can take to protect themselves from potentially hostile situations. The Rory Peck Trust offers scholarships to do hostile environment training in the UK and they offer a scholarship to cover half the fee, and if I had known about that I would have done that.  So my advice is when starting out is that there are plenty or organisations out there who support photographers and the Rory Peck Trust is a good place to start.

You can borrow a flak jacket and helmet free of charge from Reporters Without Borders in Paris, although you might need to check on this.  So there is training and support out there.  However,  anyone going into these situations should have first aid training for the kind of trauma that you will encounter on the front line.

I feel quite passionate about that and feel that it is something that we all have a responsibility to promote.  It’s great because even if you don’t have loads of money you can still do it.  Falmouth University make all their students do hostile relations training as part of their course.  They get a group discount and I feel that this should be introduced into all the courses out there.  Should you came across a car accident, you could use these skills in the UK so it would not be totally pointless.

Do you go into projects knowing what you want to get from them or do you just let things happen around you and then let the narrative start to form itself?

I guess that is the difference between an assignment and your own work.  With an assignment I have a shooting list, an agenda and usually the writers article so I know what I need to say about it.  But with my own projects it is very much like an assignment from university and exactly the same format.  Just like a project where you pick a group of people or a place that you want to spend time with and discover more about.  I go with an open slate.  I have no agenda and go and see what I will see.

I have noticed in some projects that your images are square (such as 6×6 images I believe taken with a Bronica for the Cossack Women project) and in other projects landscape (possibly digital?).  Is this something that you intentionally do to suit the project / subject or is there another reason for this?

When I shoot 35mm now I shoot digital, especially on assignments.  I pick it depending on the story.  My heart lies with 6×6 film really. When I was shooting the Siberian Supermodels project I went with 200 rolls of film, but I always carry digital as a back up.  But on this project I really struggled with the Bronica, it was too slow and I really struggled with it in dark conditions.  The only thing I could have done was used flash and I really didn’t want to go for that look.  One thing digital cameras are amazing at is shooting in low light.  With 35mm you can move more easily and be more fluid.  I couldn’t really use a tripod and they can be quite fleeting.  In my last project I mixed the two, but I really wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.

Lots of people tell me that you should pick your format and stick to it, but I love 35mm for some things and I love 6×6 for other things.  I think that it is okay to use both.  I have a consistency that I always use colour and I do try to keep a similar aesthetic between the two of them.  Our careers and lives are long and we do not have to do the same thing forever.

Are your projects commissions or personal projects that you then submit for publication?

Most of my projects are personal projects that are then sold afterwards. I have been working on assignments now for a couple of months but I am itching to go and do my own thing and that is the wonderful thing about being at university.  I miss being at university as you can work to your own agenda.

Books seem to be something that many photographers are producing now.  Have you considered this or do you have any plans for one?

I don’t have any plans for one and I think a book is something that we all aspire to one day.  Donald Weber’s book ‘Interrogations’ is an example of a great book. It is such a tight idea and concept.  It is an example of a really great book.  I think you have to have a reason to put a book together.  Just because somebody makes nice work it doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be a book I guess.  A book has to be an entity on its own.  This is what Donald’s book does really well.

Of all of your projects, was there one that you really wanted to devote more time to but could not and had to bring it to a close, for example due to time limitations or budget?

I am very lucky that my stories are self limited, so I can work on it for as long or as short as I like.  I suppose with my PKK story I wish that I could have done it now rather than then, due to my level of skills.  It cost £1000 to fly out there and I flew there once a year for three years.  I think if I had done it now it would have been completely different and shot in 6×6.  Time is the key not the money.  Even if you throw money at something you still need the time.

Who, if anyone continues to inspire you today?

I think the pictures that I find most interesting to look at today are still traditional 35mm reportage.  I still look at them in awe and wonder.  Ron Haviv was my mentor at VII before I joined as a member and he is like a very traditional war photographer.  The work he did in the Balkans inspired me.  It is still that traditional approach to photojournalism that I really love looking at.

I am just looking at the books on my shelf now.  I have Larry Burrows ‘Vietnam’, Gilles Peress ‘Farewell to Bosnia’, a couple of Don McCullin books.  The basis of my education is still on that sort of photography.  Donald Weber is someones work who I take  a lot of inspiration from.

Finally, as a photography student in my final year, completing my BA, any advice for me?

Well enjoy your final year.  Don’t be afraid of being skint.  There are worse things in the world.  The fear of being skint is what stops a lot of  people from achieving what they want to do.  Don’t be afraid to take risks or of throwing the last of your money into a project knowing that at the end of it you might have nothing.  You have to gamble.  The only thing you will have is the project and hopefully that will move you forward and allow you to do the next one.  It is not that bad when you do a job that you love.

Just enjoy being a photographer.  We can go anywhere that we want, meet anyone we want, live anywhere we want and experience all these lives that are not our own.  We don’t have to sit in an office.

Just keep working on things that you are interested in and passionate about.  Don’t be distracted by what you think will sell.  I think peoples most successful work comes from doing something that they really believe in and then the money will follow.


Written by Dean O'Brien

May 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm

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