Sasha Arutyunova

For Viewfinder

Weaving a sense of community between work and life.

 
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Portrait by Kyle Johnson

 

Sasha doesn’t photograph just famous people and strangers. She also bravely directs the camera at her own family. The camera can be too revealing for some, but with it she understands her past and present. Thankfully, we get intimate images to savor as a result.

I started seeing Sasha’s photos pop up all over major media outlets a few years ago. Who was this artist taking these dark psychological portraits? They were refreshing to see in venues where daring artistic vision wasn’t so commonplace. I saw politicians, dancers, and artists, but who I really saw was Sasha.

I was eventually lucky to meet her in the flesh: Sasha, with her intense and curious energy, her Mamiya 7 always casually draped on her shoulder. She comes and goes between countries, assignments, and intimate stories of others. Those who roam often have the ability to instantly connect with others, and this skill is clearly reflected in Sasha’s portraits. She has a deep need to feel connection—but it’s not one-sided, she’ll give back tremendously to her viewer through her images.

Perhaps Sasha’s vulnerability is her greatest source of creativity. This is why her unflinching family work is so riveting. To be authentically vulnerable is not easy. The emotional roller coaster takes us through the troughs of isolation, but also the peaks of true intimacy. Thank you, Sasha, for taking us along for the ride.

Rose Marie Cromwell

Photographic & Video Artist
 
 
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Photos courtesy of Sasha Arutyunova
 
 

By Mo Mfinanga

August 26, 2019

Estimated 20 minute read

Mo: How does this summer feel, personally or creatively, compared to other summers?

Sasha: I'm excited to leave town and force myself to take a break. This summer feels a bit lighter in that way. I can rarely plan ahead when it comes to work—things usually materialize at the last minute—but I'm feeling pretty optimistic.

Mo: Are you an optimistic person?

Sasha: I don’t think I would be able to do this job if I wasn't in some way. There are obvious moments of frustration and self doubt, but optimism comes in handy with the ebbs and flows of all of the freelance inconsistencies. 

Sasha: From the editorial side, there's a lot of doom from editors and publications about what's happening to the magazine industry. So many are folding. How will any of us be able to keep working? It’s likely naive, but I don't really share that doomsday feeling—about images at least. Whenever one form of media goes away something new comes up around the corner; the industry adapts in some way. Our society will always crave images one way or another. Maybe I’m just telling myself that to keep going despite the odds.

 
 
Taylor Stanley,  The New York Times ,  A Ballet Hamlet Becomes a God (Apollo, That Is) , 2019

Taylor Stanley, The New York Times, A Ballet Hamlet Becomes a God (Apollo, That Is), 2019

 
 


Mo: Are you good at relaxing and disassociating from work?

Sasha: I’ve had brief glimpses of being completely disconnected and it was almost a religious experience. An email about a job could derail a whole “vacation”. It’s hard to let go of it. I’m always shooting wherever I am, so am I ever really disassociated? Going anywhere away from New York relaxes me regardless and reconnects me to my humanity in a lot of ways. This place takes up so much of that functional, work section of my mind. Even if I'm leaving for a job, as long as I'm leaving the city, it feels like a chance to reset the rhythm a bit, come back a little bit different and newly appreciative of home. That coming and going is very sacred to me. It makes living here possible—but it’s also been the foundation of my life narrative in a way, too.

 
So much of our lives are shaped by the people we come across and what we can glean from them.
— Sasha Arutyunova
 

Mo: When did you come to the states?

Sasha: 1994—I was six

Mo: How was that?

Sasha: Confusing.

Mo: What part of it was confusing?

Sasha: Moving into my stepsister’s bedroom who I had just met, and not really speaking English at the time. She was great about it. I remember us raising tadpoles and that she had a waterbed which was a completely foreign concept to me. My stepdad took us to see Casper, and that was the first time I had been to the movies. I think everything about it must have been strange. Now it all seems strangely normal. An intrinsic part of the story. 

Mo: How was school for you?

Sasha: In first grade so much of my time was spent figuring out what was remotely going on that I don't have many memories. The following year I had switched to a better school and started speaking English. My teacher then, Mark Stansell, took me under his wing in a way and really helped me feel comfortable in a foreign space. Stumbling on a mentor-figure that early on to help with school transition and language transition was something I really needed.

Mo: Leading up to now, have you had a series of mentors?

Sasha: It’s been a challenge to find a mentor figure as an adult, although I see my wise friends as that in a lot of ways. The term has been elusive for me. But so much of our lives are shaped by the people we come across and what we can glean from them. I was fortunate to have an invested and motivating high school art teacher, Victoria Englehart, who made me feel like I could really accomplish what I was after. She's someone that I still keep in touch with when I go back to Florida.

Mo: When was the last time you were there?

Sasha: March. I go there every winter. My mom and stepdad are there and my grandparents—my mom's parents—come and visit from Moscow. I shoot a large chunk of my family work during those visits, too.

 

 
 

Давай Помечтаем

"Davai Pomechtayem"

An ongoing personal project shot between Russia, Europe and the U.S. about family, immigration, opportunity, intimacy, travel, and belonging.

 
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Mo: I feel like being self aware allows you to be informed about what you can utilize around you.

Sasha: Yeah, being curious and hungry is a big part of it too. It’s a privilege to be exposed to a variety of life experience early so that you can see what naturally pulls you in. 

Mo: What were some of those things for you?

Sasha: Photography right away. It was a very lucky combination of discovering the interest at the right time and having enough social isolation at school that I fell into this so fully. The internet helped, too. I'm so grateful to have had stubbornly made up my mind early on and to have the support to be able to realize it. That’s not a career choice that most families take lightly and I really had to prove that I meant it.

Mo: Did it seem like this [career] was obviously going to happen?

Sasha: It wasn't obvious to me in the beginning but I think to my family it actually wasn't that surprising. I was always interested in video when I was very little and my mom has always been an artist. I think they were just surprised at how quickly I took it so seriously. I was 14 when I first started shooting and it just went from there. By the time I was applying to college, I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else, even though I definitely tried.

 
 

Community

 
 

Mo: One of the things that has mainly inspired me from you is seeing how contributive you are towards creating and nurturing community. When you first discovered photography, were you aware that would be a part of your life?

Sasha: I don't think so, but I always loved talking about photography and I loved community settings—maybe it was the immigrant thing, too. I was always trying to build my own, new sense of home. Nomadique came along towards the end of college. As a student I was really interested in getting to know people from outside of the photo department. I took film classes over the summer and was just hungry to take advantage of a university (NYU) where there's lots of different people working in lots of different ways. I wanted to meet everyone and learn about what they were doing—I was really caught up in that energy of discovery.

 
Paris, 2014

Paris, 2014

 


Sasha: Nomadique was born as my friends and I were graduating, and realizing that we needed an outlet to keep meeting to talk about our work—holding ourselves accountable to finishing our projects, as well as making new, meaningful connections. The shape of it has changed over time but I think the general ethos has been, How do we cultivate and grow our widespread community in New York when everyone is so busy?

Mo: How have you navigated around that?

Sasha: The Artist Workshop Dinner series that we've been running for almost 7 years now has been one of the ways. Every month, It’s a scramble to figure out a date when people are available to help set up and cook and to find an artist to feature who we're all excited about. It always comes together a week in advance, sometimes less. Every time we pull it off I feel so accomplished. It's been really important to me to push for it to happen, because I realize that personally I need some kind of consistency in my life amidst the freelancer chaos, especially as it relates to my artistic community here. Knowing that I'll be in a certain place every month and that there will be a new person whose work we can all be inspired by is so special to me. I love having new people to feed, too. [both laughing]

Mo: I mean, what else brings people together so organically other than food and drinks?

Sasha: We got deeply lucky about two years ago when we met Justin Wee, who's a great photographer and also happens to be an incredible chef. He was excited about this community and started heading up the cooking, and that’s really become his baby. That really elevated the experience; he's so intentional about it and the food is so damn good.

Sasha: He’s someone I’m so grateful for [because] we can offer people experience that is not only really intentional from an artistic standpoint but also from a culinary standpoint. That doesn’t answer your question at all actually but food, to me, is just the best way to connect people. The rest is about people being there to truly listen to each other. I think the context of people being connected to the arts creates a level of comfort too. 

Mo: What has surprised you the most from doing this?

Sasha: My excitement really renewed last fall. We shifted focus from Works in Progress showings to Artist Talks, and the new structure led to a more concentrated effort of bringing in new presenters—researching more, scouting shows to find people. I think, similarly to you when you said earlier how you’re surprised when people agree to do the interviews, I get so invigorated when new artists whose work I have recently come across will come to dinner or agree to give a presentation. It means so much that people are willing to be generous, to watch people get to know each other in that way.  

Sasha: At this stage, the main way I’ve been able to learn new skills is by throwing myself into something and doing it. The space of the dinners has taught me a bit of a curatorial practice which gave me confidence to reach out to people whose work I love; this helped me grow as a person in general—it also spiraled outward to themed exhibitions that we put on as a group. There was so much born there. And I think that’s been the case for other people involved, too. There have been collaborations and even new relationships born at our table.

 
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Mo: Your recent set for The New York Times Magazine's New York issue is one of my favorite editorial projects. I know you've talked about it elsewhere a little bit, but what scared and excited you the most about it?

Sasha: Thanks so much. This thing felt so epic and it meant so much to be asked to do it. Going into it, I was nervous about the technical aspects because I hadn’t worked with a lot of that gear—that was something I got over fairly quickly. I had worked on many different video projects over the past decade as a camera op and directed a couple music videos, but I've never directed something so massive. 

Sasha: Scheduling over a dozen shoots in completely different scenarios was wildly complicated. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal but it resulted in so many production puzzles. The way I shoot video is very visceral and emotional, too, so I had to be continuously open and vulnerable to deeply connect with all of the different stories we were covering—while thinking 10 steps ahead in the back of my mind. That’s a kind of challenge I’m really onboard with.

Sasha: It was motivating to think to the end of the three month process, and to imagine having a brand new body of video work that, hopefully, would give me confidence to go further in this medium. That in itself was such a gift. It was also very meaningful to be able to hire a crew of friends who had taught me most of what I knew about video in the first place, to bring them along for the ride of meeting these incredible performers. That was very nourishing amidst the inevitable stress and I felt like I was able to give back a little bit for everything they had taught me over the years.

Mo: Let’s talk about the feeling of when it was completed and out into the world.

Sasha: It felt really good. It's a huge relief. The response to it was incredible and overwhelming. I'm still thinking about it. I’m not sure what it means for a video project to get such a big response when I see myself as primarily a photographer. It lead me to think about the difference between the way that people on the internet respond to video versus stills and what all this meant for my identity as an artist. 

Mo: What were the observations from that?

Sasha: Is video more interesting and seductive to people because there's a time element in it? With a motion project you innately become invested in a character over time—there’s so much production around it to entertain and distract you. But with stills, it feels like a lot more is asked of the viewer—to take a moment with the balance of a still frame, with what can be communicated in one instance or within a great sequence. It takes more work.

Mo: Yeah, looking at Viviane Sassen's work through a phone isn't the most contributive form factor but if it's a video then that's what the medium is built for.

Sasha: Right? My most powerful experiences seeing photo work for the first time have usually been in books and shows. Sometimes new work will be so powerful that I'll get really excited about it on the internet and it stays with me—or that experience is a jumping off point to dive deeper. But I am always looking to be inspired so I'm in a way predisposed to liking things. It was interesting to see something that pushed me to so hard in every way to finally emerge, for there to be this flurry of energy around it for a minute, and then for it to disappear into the abyss of the internet like all projects do.

 
 
George Takei,  The New York Times ,  'The Terror' Summons the Ghosts of a Real-Life Horror Story , 2019.

George Takei, The New York Times, 'The Terror' Summons the Ghosts of a Real-Life Horror Story, 2019.

 
 


Sasha: I thought a lot about what it meant for my career to have produced a massive project in a medium that was comparatively new for me—there were some growing pains, figuring out how to make sense of it. Feels a little silly now, how much I thought about it. But it was a bit of what we were talking about earlier: Developing new interests when you're older which challenge your sense of identity—and the confusion that follows when you realize you may be really into them. It made me wonder what is the best way to keep discovering what I can do with video without encroaching on a photography practice that is so deeply significant to me. How do you give intentional time to both?

Mo: I feel you. And who knows if someone discovers you for the first time through that video project, and initially thinks that you’re a filmmaker. How do you feel like that project informed your photography?

Sasha: Yesterday I showed one of the videos at the end of a meeting with a magazine I had met for the first time. I was nervous—still wondering, What am I communicating by showing this? In the end, I was excited for the editor to see the ways that I framed and moved in the space. I felt like it actually said a lot about the way I think about stills, in a way—like seeing the shoot happen in real time.

Mo: What did you notice?

Sasha: Feels strange to verbalize it, but a certain moodiness, energy, softness, intimacy… But also within all of that, a feeling of joy, too. A lot of what I try to do with still work is create images that feel cinematic, where the light itself has a story, so it was exciting to see the overlap. I was trying to find a way to make the image vibrate with a certain energy. It was like seeing myself from the outside; it somehow feels more vulnerable to watch someone watch a motion piece I’ve made, maybe because I know how much sweat went into it.

Mo: Is there a narrative in your work that you want to continue pursuing that's still in its infancy?

Sasha: That’s hard to answer. I'm just trying to continually develop images that I'm excited about and keep learning, to not be easily swayed into the direction of what other people are doing. I try to remind myself that I'm getting hired because I've already demonstrated a type of vision and I don't have to be somebody else. That's something Ike [Edeani] reminds me about a lot, too. I want to keep looking and being surprised by what I see, and have the images reflect that feeling. 

 
 
Lisbon, 2017

Lisbon, 2017

 
A lot of what I try to do with still work is create images that feel cinematic, where the light itself has a story.
— Sasha Arutyunova
 
Titus Kaphar,  The New York Times ,  An Artist Rises, and Brings a Generation With Him , 2019.

Titus Kaphar, The New York Times, An Artist Rises, and Brings a Generation With Him, 2019.

 
 


Mo: What is something you're curious about in your work and the photo community that you feel isn't explored?

Sasha: In my personal work, it's continuing to dig at what’s what’s at the heart of my long term family series, which is a continuously elusive process. 

Sasha: With the photo community, the question of representation needs to be continually addressed. What are the gatekeeping institutions doing to ensure that the artists who are given a platform to create and be seen are actually representative of our population? 

Sasha: If the majority of the people that are creating the media that we consume everywhere continue to be either white or male or straight, our media landscape won’t push forward; our culture won’t push forward. It’s actively dangerous. The stories that the public at large is consuming are not going to be representative of the world that we live in. It feels like it should go without saying at this point, but here we are. Diversifying the landscape isn’t a fad. It’s crucial. If a company is trying to check a box just to appear progressive and then goes on to hire ten white photographers in a row, they’re not doing the work.

Mo: I feel like the editorial landscape is one of the landscapes of pushes that idea in a tangible form.

Sasha: Yeah, but it's really important for that to be pushed in a commercial landscape, too. As a photographer, shooting commercial work is one of the few ways that you can survive long term. So if we're trying to sustain a diverse workforce in the photo industry then we have to make sure that people are getting the work that pays so they can actually eat and stay in it long enough to push forward.

Sasha: If you're only sustaining from editorial work, it's a real challenge to buy the time to invest in your personal practice so that you can push your own career to be in the running for those higher paying jobs. So institutions and editors have to think about how they are using their power, who are they investing in, and what is that choice offering the world at large?

 
Claire Kretzschmar,  The New York Times ,   Rehearse, Ice Feet, Repeat: The Life of a New York City Ballet Corps  , 2019.

Claire Kretzschmar, The New York Times, Rehearse, Ice Feet, Repeat: The Life of a New York City Ballet Corps, 2019.

 


Mo: We talked about it briefly, but what are you engaging in with in your personal work?

Sasha: I’m thinking through the personal work that’s centering my family in Russia and the U.S., wondering where it’s going to ultimately lead. The project looks at the way opportunity, intimacy, and belonging play out in my family across continents at the cross-cultural webs and fractures that transpire over time, and distance—my place within them. I've been shooting those images for over a decade, so I’ve finally started considering the first chapter of the project in book form. I’m curious what a great sequence can tell me now in retrospect that I didn’t know before.

Mo: Do you feel like you're at the tail end of the first chapter?

Sasha: It's tricky. It can go on forever. It's hard to know when to stop or when it's just starting to get interesting. It feels like a poem I wrote in a past life that I’m trying to bring to the current one, but maybe it was written in a language I’m still learning how to speak. I'm eager to get to the point of working with an editor to help me get to the root of it. I’ve recently started thinking about that work from the perspective of the way fantasy weaves into the narratives we tell ourselves about where we’ve come from. That idea has freed me a bit from my expectations about what the images communicate—which has made me newly excited about the possibilities for this work.

Mo: What do you feel like your work contributes towards either to yourself or a community? It's a grand question, I know.

Sasha: I won't have the hubris to say that I'm changing or fixing anything. I want to make images that feel like something, that’s the question I’m always asking myself. If I can contribute stories or images that poke at something tender, open something up in people or encourage a visceral reaction, whatever it may be, then I’ve accomplished something.

 
 

Sasha: If people see the work and see something about themselves in it or respond to it on some level, amazing. I can't expect more, so anything beyond that is a bonus.

 
Photo from  Davai Pomechtayem . “At the wedding, St. Petersburg”.

Photo from Davai Pomechtayem. “At the wedding, St. Petersburg”.


Further Reading

  • Christopher Anderson
  • “I seek answers just in the way that I live my life... Photography is the uniform I put on while I’m searching.”