Maxim Emelyanov Interview
Maxim Emelyanov is young expressionist photographer born in Russia and currently taking up residence in Northern Thailand, where he is collaborating on a film project with Maria Kechaeva. His work is research driven and explores societies connection with nature and the ephemeral state of his surrounds. You cannot help but immerse yourself in his photographs, entering a world that should be familiar but seems distant and forbidden. Maxim was kind enough to speak with us about his new project and also gave us an exclusive set of new imagery from his time in Thailand.
Megan Christiansen: Can you tell us about your childhood growing up in Russia?
Maxim Emelyanov: I was born in 1986, the year of Chernobyl catastrophe. I spent my childhood mostly in Moscow, bright days with fluff falling down from the trees. I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers, I had 3 grandmothers and one grand-grandmother. In the summer I lived in a village. Our house had about 10 cats and 5 dogs, sometimes more. It was nice to explore around, to go into a forest on a lovely hill behind a small weedy pond. The world seemed so large. Small walks in the hills and fields to the big river were a big adventure. But when I was a teenager I was really a city boy. I didn't like to be out in nature so much. I just liked to spend time after school classes listening music and walking. Usually I went on a subway to the city center and just walked around for many hours before until it was late, and the really good times I spent with my friends.
MC: So you are in Northern Thailand right now, what are you doing there?
ME: I departed Moscow in autumn and flew to Thailand and planned to travel around south-east Asia, but spontaneously settled in small town called Pai. It's a special place. Here I started to learn some martial arts, found new friends in local people. I found this place good to explore, because local tribes have their arts, crafts, they do really beautiful things, and look also very colorful, I want to explore this culture. It's surrounded by wild nature, this is important for me. I like to get things straight from a source, so I like to be here because of fresh cool air from the Himalaya mountains coming down into the valley of Pai with the river.
I am collaborating with Maria Kechaeva, we are making a video together. It's a project that came from Masha's idea for a performance, but it transformed into a video we made together. It has a good story with metaphoric details and characters. This should be a part of the exhibition I'm dreaming of doing this year. I have a puzzle with pieces I have to put together, and now I see how it happens and I have a photographic map of my ideas and their connection to the world, to my experience.
Last couple of years i was working as photographer and last year as video operator and editor in viewmakers studio. I wanted to change things and push more energy into my projects, my artistic being, and my development. I want to be closer to a nature. Now, after 3 months in Thailand I feel different, and I feel more connected to the world, because people around here are so different, and I can see the world from different angles. It is abstract art where I can relax and be like a mirror, reflecting the sun. My aim is to show the beauty of things, of nature, of humans and their connections. That's why nature is so attractive, here I can go to many different rivers, caves, canyons, and find material for experiments. Aso here I can buy wheetgrass shot for $1 and fresh papaya-coconut-orange juice with spirulina. It's very tasty!
MC: So you studied Cultural Studies at university, when and how did the transition into photography happen?
ME: My first photographs on a film camera where made during 2005 when I was studying at university. From the very beginning of university I was already involved in some other activities, I played music with my friends in a garage we built, and designed a music studio there, then I realized I did not want to go down that path. Gradually, I started to make photographs for magazines, galleries, sites and other customers. So I worked a few years, mostly as a reporter and portrait photographer.
The transition happened in a couple of ways. I was posting my photographs on a blog at livejournal.com at the time, I got a lot of comments and good responses about my photos. That inspired me more and more to try photography more seriously. Also I liked to spend time at rock concerts and my camera was with me, so I was not bored. At university I helped to organize some photo exhibitions in a hall, and my photography was also shown there a couple of times, so my classmates observed my photographic development. My parents had an issue with how I could earn money (from photography) they wanted to see me as something like a good businessman, but I was interested in making beautiful pictures, and believed that it could bring me some cash. So one time a photo editor from Afisha magazine noticed me and I started to shoot my first editorial projects. Slowly I started to work constantly, I think it happened just after I finished my studies.
MC: What ideas and theories do you try and explore through your photography?
ME: I always liked spontaneous art. Like a musical improvisation. With many layers and possibilities to expand. I've been interested in Tibetan Buddhism for many years, I think it's important to work with yourself, meditate, see things clearly, to see reality like a magical illusion. This cosmogony describes how everything is made of 5 elements: water, fire, earth, wind, space. You can see how it compares to the human body or planets, I like how Buddhist philosophy has parallels to the quantum world. Science should try to use spiritual practice to explore new things. Because you can't get something new if you don't try to do it in a new way!
I also like street photography and I really enjoy walking with my Olympus OM2 on the street and catching cinematic moments on a black and white film. I value the moment very much. Every moment is important, and you shouldn't loose it, you've got to be there.
MC: Your work has been described as research driven, can you tell us a little bit about your research process and what that involves?
ME: About one year ago, or little bit more, I realized that I needed to change something in my life. It happened because of some different reasons. I was interested in what happens in our world, and noone speaks aloud about it. I mean something like the situation in Mexican bay with BP oil, or what happened in Japan. I think it's crazy how we live sitting on a bomb like all these nuclear reactors…So I see how we live in over consumption. Fake values set up in many ways and all we can see is what happens now. Many things are changing, and many people are awake and start to change their lives. For me it's important to live according to my values, that I find right. And sure there is no right and wrong, it's relative. The area of my research is mostly deep inside myself but I'm very interested how the world reflects things inside me.
MC: Can you tell us a little bit about the new series of images you have given us? The process and ideas behind it?
ME: I continue to involve some substances in processing my film. This time it happened like this, I went to visit a huge cave, there is a river inside this cave, so I shot a film and soaked it in this water. Also I found some oil from a candle in the water, and I added it too. All this stuff just soaked in a plastic container with film for a couple of weeks. One day I brought the film to lab in Chiang Mai, but they told me it wasn't possible to develop this film, and they wanted to put it in a trash can! But I saved it and sent it to Moscow to my friend in a lab, who developed it by hand and sent me the scans.
The cave is some kind of a natural attraction, and I really enjoy the many things you can explore there. The walls look like they are alive. If you compare the cave to the human body, it feels like you are inside of some organ of human body! Textures of walls, stalactites and stalagmites are good models because they are very abstract, and it looks like some sort of natural painting or sculpture. So my camera is just a frame for this beauty, and soaking film in a water from cave and oil from a lamp that gave us light inside is like mixing colors in palette.
MC: What is it about the process of film photography that aids your commentaries and theories?
ME: I would like to be as open as possible and allow opportunities to occur. I use spontaneously arising circumstances to imprint another layer of reality to the physical media. Probing the interaction of all levels of complex processes as they carve out on themselves - in this case, on film. The best that can happen is when the subject is not only captured on film with the camera lens, but also penetrates into the very physical media, and an absolutely original layer is superimposed on the primary image, a cryptic message which understanding is the opportunity to see the layering of the world and its presence in it.
When you're working with hand film development and analog printing, the whole spectra of exposure may occur on tape, the picture becomes an evidence, a talisman from shamanic ritual. One case when I was filming a play on black & white film, and it ended in the middle, I wanted to shoot the second part of the performance, so I shot the same film again. It turned out a superposition of interesting scenes sparkled with new meanings, combining two time periods. My canvas is the film undergoing interaction with the material world, the more unique the process, the better. This produces images that plays in contrast with familiar eye reality.
MC: How do you want someone to feel when they look at your images?
ME: I want to be a guide. I want to show another layer of reality. I want someone to feel as if it just opened a new world, as may happen when you see the underwater world for the first time. Coral reefs and all this colorful fishes and other creatures. Or I like to see images that create termites on trees.