An Interview with Yuriy Ogarkov by Hon Hoang
Spontaneity seems to diminish as we age. Our inclination to act on desires of exploration are stricken by thoughts and memories of things that tell us we shouldn’t. With these inhibitions comes missed opportunities, whether it’s places left unseen or moments left inexperienced. As I continue these series of interviews with photographers, these interactions have shown me to pursue my interests and capture what I find to be beautiful, intriguing, or whatever my thoughts may be in the moments before the shutter snaps. In this interview with sport, fashion, portrait and travel photographer, Yuriy Orgakov is an example of what beautiful splendor life can offer, if one were to live with less inhibitions and more action.
What were some of your early experiences with photography? Did you know in those moments that photography was something you wanted to pursue?
Throughout my childhood, photo cameras accompanied me. My grandfather used to photograph a lot. Together we climbed the hills of Kiev, photographed panoramas of the city and after we would develop the films in the bathroom where my grandfather had a dark room.
My parents had a friend, Alexey, who worked as a staff photographer at the university. We visited him often and every time, I was hypnotized by his photo studio in the basement. All dark, the smell of the chemicals, photo materials everywhere. Alexey was surely an inspiration for me. Sometimes he appeared in a working suit with the rubber gloves, sometimes in an elegant suit. Some sort of an alchemist. He had a great sense of humor.
Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer?
As I can remember, I was experimenting with the camera at the age of 8, 12 and 17. Those were the short phases. At the age of 19 I had a web camera that could make around 40 pictures in the resolution of 600px. My first digital camera was Olympus with 5MP. The focus was so slow that I could photograph only non-moving, or slow-moving objects.
It was the year 2004 when I have moved to Germany to live with my father. In Essen city I met a designer and photographer Artur Heger, who showed me tips & tricks in Photoshop that I use even now. That digital camera and the Photoshop skills helped me to pass the exam into the School of Applied Science in Düsseldorf in 2007. This is where a friend of mine, Maksim, who studied with me showed me all the “good” books: Magnum, Life, National Geographic etc. From that moment on, I realized that everything I photographed is nothing in comparison to what I saw in those books. I was emotionally awake while looking at those images. Such strong portraits, such soul-touching documentaries.
As I saw the works of the early masters of the street photography, I couldn’t believe that those photos were not staged. Maksim gave me a gift, his Yashica T4, borrowed Canon AE1, I bought a huge box of expired Kodak ISO400 films and started to photograph almost every day. I wish I had more technical knowledge back then and knew what the Parallax Effect is. Because of that lack of the information, a lot of my photos from the Yashica T4 were badly composed. I thought my compositions were weak only because I suck. But as I switched to the Canon T90 the composition had improved because it a lens-through camera. From the year 2006 until 2013 I was in love with my band Selectamood. I thought I would be a professional musician, that’s why approximately until the year 2012 I wasn’t even thinking to become a professional photographer.
Answering the question, I would say that I am an autodidact. Photography in the School of Applied Science was just one of the courses, while the focus of the school was set on typography and graphic design. The biggest source of information at that time was the library, internet and learning by doing.
The individual style develops when a photographer analyzes, really studies the styles of other photographers. But the most important thing is to analyze honestly your own work and never stop developing to perfection.
Your subject matter ranges from sports to travel, fashion to portraits; do you approach each genre of photography differently? How do you prepare for projects with such varying subjects?
It is useful to understand the rules of each genre. Once you have nailed it and can perform well in a particular genre, try to break the rules. But before you break the rules you have to know the rules. When you play by the rules you are the craftsman. When you play beyond the rules, you are an artist. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t put an artist above a craftsman or vice versa. Sometimes you need to do a service for what you were hired, and sometimes you need to experiment to come up with something new.
The preparation for each shooting can be different from each other. Mostly it’s a meditation on the image that I want to achieve. Usually, a photo session can last from two to eight hours, but the preparation can take days or even weeks. To find the right talent, to find the clothes, props and the location. Find the right assistant (very important), makeup, stylist.
In the case of travel photography, to find connections in the country where you are going. A photographer is more like an organizer, a producer before it comes to the actual act of photographing.
Do you plan photography projects or do they happen organically? If planned, what is your process like?
In the last 1.5 years, I try to plan the projects. At the beginning, most of the photos were spontaneously emerged situations that I recorded. There are only two projects that I have finished by now. One was about the Shamans of Siberia and the second one is sports portfolio on which I am still working. There is a bunch of other projects that I haven’t finished yet.
You often learn a lot about a person by taking their photography, was there a specific person’s story that stuck with you?
Yes, as a photographer who photographs people, especially portraits or documentaries, you need to be completely involved in someone’s story. Photographing the shamans was mostly listening to the stories. Two, three hours of conversations before you make the first photo.
On the travel to Tuva, I met Kara-ool Tulushevich, the supreme shaman of Tuva. He has stories to tell! About the God Tengri that is incarnated in the stone, which is in his cabinet. But before the stone appeared in his cabinet it belonged to his grandfather. After the communists killed his grandparents, the stone was arrested, as Kara-ool says, but after the end of the Soviet Union Tulushevich could get the stone back. Another interesting story is that Jesus origins are from Tuva and actually Jesus was not alone he had a twin brother.
Kara-ool Tulushevich is a very interesting character and in order to tell all the stories that I was told, we probably need to sit in a bar for a few hours.
How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? When do you decide to engage with your subjects and how?
What is “yourself”, that’s the question. The one who plays a role or the one who is deep inside that we all try to get to know? Every day I get to know myself better through photography.
Engaging the subjects depends on the purpose. If I am working on a sports portfolio, I search for people who are in congruence with the images that I have in my mind. In sports photography I direct the photo session. In street photography, you want to be invisible. In documentary photography, I don’t direct, but let the subject take me into his or her universe and I just go where ever the life takes me. In staged portraits, I direct. In the non-staged portraits, I direct less and try to put the subject into his or her natural environment, so that he or she forgets about the camera.
In your travel photography, specifically the Shamans of Siberia, how did you discover these people and how did you get them involved in the series?
In January 2017, I went to a bar where I met Emre Akan. A Turkish guy who lives in Barcelona. We started to talk about music, the band from Tuva Huun Huur Tu, Baikal Lake, and shamanism. Emre is a huge fan of Khoomei (traditional throat singing). The last 15 years his dream was to travel to Tuva. This is where the idea came to go there, to meet the shamans and to learn about their culture.
One month before flying there we were doing intense research and trying to find people who could connect us to the shamans. I have contacted locals via social networks, wrote to photographers who have been to that regions and did stories on the shamans. And of course, when you are there everything evolves very fast. One person knows someone who knows someone who knows a shaman, and so on. You just need to be spontaneous and see where the story will bring you.
What were some of the most interesting moments that have stayed with you during your travels?
During my travel to Siberia, a few strange things happened. On my birthday, me and my travel partner Emre were invited by one shaman to join the ritual in Khakassia. For that ritual shaman took his Eren. Eren is the shaman’s helper during the journey to the world of spirits. Erens usually looks like a doll. This one was a female wooden doll. After 20 hours of ritual, we are on the ground and all exhausted. Behind me is the sacred tree and under the sacred tree is the doll. The shaman took a photo of me with her smartphone. As we saw the photo we were shocked, because the doll had wide opened eyes and the screaming mouth, although the face of the doll was clearly normal before and after the ritual, and on all the photos I did. I am not an esoteric person, but that situation I cannot explain. I have studied the doll after if it has facial mechanics, but it doesn’t.
The second story happened in Kyzyl, Tuva. After one ritual, where I did photos, Emre and I are packing our stuff in the rented apartment in order to move to the shaman’s community and live with the shamans there. During my backup routine suddenly the SD-Card with important images is gone. We were searching everywhere for three hours. No result. As I told the story to the shamans, they said, that I shouldn’t worry. While I sleep, the shamans will fly into the past and find the card. On the third day, I wake up in a yurt. One shaman asks me if I have nail scissors. I pass him the scissors that I took out of my bag, turn to my bed and see the missing SD-Card. My happiness was overwhelming. The shaman acted as it was a normal thing: “I told you”, he said –“we will find it”, and shined to me with a bright and peaceful smile. How could it be? I have searched everywhere at least three times. I mean really searched, every millimeter. In all my clothes in all the apartment. And the way the card was placed on my bed looked so symmetrical as if somebody put it there for me as a present. Those shamans in Kyzyl they don’t even use smartphones, so how could they even know how my SD-Card looked like? This is a mystery for me.
For your street photography, what was the most tense moment you have experienced? What did you do in this situation?
Street photography is like fishing or like shooting with a sniper rifle. Sometimes you go on the same spot five days in a row just to catch the right moment in the right light. Sometimes it’s a struggle. Especially when people get angry when you make pictures of them and it puts you down for a while, so you need time to get back into the flow to be able to do street again. Sometimes you sit there and wait and wait and wait… Street photography was the first genre that I was doing. Now I do it more as a hobby, because I don’t know how to make living as a street photographer. When I have free time I go shoot street. The street is the best school. You have to be fast, know your camera well, predict the situation, sometimes be involved in a conversation with the strangers, work with layers in the composition, see the light and and and…
Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?
Right now I am focusing on advertising and commercial photography. But I am looking forward to continuing stories about religious groups in different countries as my free projects. It is interesting to see similarities between different spiritual teachings in different parts of the world. I like the visual aesthetics of religious groups, especially the ancient ones that managed to survive the time and live in the modern world. The clothes, the accessories, the music, the rules etc.
If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
Get yourself a mentor. Go assist other photographers. Make connections with the students and professors while you are studying.
Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Don’t be afraid. Experiment. See what speaks to your heart. You will go through the phases, where people will start to call you a “photographer” but you will have doubts about if you are ready to be called so. You will go through the phases where you will think that everything you do is worthless and you suck.
You will reach the point where your work will be valuable and it can even feed you. This is where you have to organize yourself and see photography not only as a hobby but something that is valuable for other people. The responsibility comes into play. You will have time where you will think, that you never going to make it, it is too hard and complicated. This is where you have to tell yourself: “Don’t be afraid. Follow your heart. Be honest with yourself. Have a plan”, and one day you will eventually get there, where you want to be. Everything is just a game.
Photos Courtesy of Yuriy Ogarkov