“I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get,” Bruce Gilden, one of the most iconic street photographers of our time, once said. The same quote comes to mind when looking at some of Russian photographer Gosha Bergal’s raw-yet-highly-technical work. From capturing Moscow’s youth-led protests since 2011 to perfecting the art of shooting everything that surrounds him and everything that he considers important, here’s what advice Bergal had to share with Screen Shot Pro.
For someone with close to no idea as to how certain photographers manage to capture certain moments with such strong emotion, I had a good feeling that Bergal had somehow been influenced by the skateboarding community prior to his photography career. Not to compare his work to the likes of skate photographer Atiba Jefferson for example, as that would downplay the former’s wide range of subject matters, but Bergal’s work seemed too honest and revealing for me not to link it to the skateboarding community’s similar free-thinking approach to creativity. And, as he told me himself, I wasn’t too far off from the truth.
When asked when he first started experimenting with photography and what led him to it, Bergal explained, “I was skateboarding with friends, and of course all of it had to be filmed. That’s the first time I consciously held a camera in my hands.” However, he ended up getting injured and had to stop skating. “I always thought that I would stay in the skateboarding industry as a photographer, but photography simply had other plans for me,” shared Bergal.
Bergal decided to go to university in Moscow instead, where “I began to study photography techniques and technology. I also went to Berlin under a student exchange programme, and took a photography course at the Berlin photography school Focon.”
After four years of studying, when Bergal graduated, he had already begun to switch from digital photography to film photography. “I learned how to develop and print photos myself. That was back in 2011.” Speaking to the photographer, it’s clear to see how much respect he holds for his education, or pedagogy in general, which I’ll get back to shortly. That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would promote autodidacticism photography over it.
“I believe that receiving a certain type of education when it comes to photography is essential, both for professionals and artists,” Bergal told me. “Photography is all about optics, mechanics, chemistry, physics, and art. Therefore, it would be very difficult for a young photographer to craft their skills without theoretical knowledge.” You know how it goes, “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
First and foremost, photography is a technical skill. In order to truly appreciate how light and shadow can turn a simple picture into a photograph of interest, a basic understanding of the mechanics of photography is required. The very fact that anyone with a camera can take pictures means professional photographers need to be exceptional in one way or another. Otherwise, why would your work stand out from the rest, right?
“But, it is not at all necessary to go to study photography at university,” adds Bergal. “Besides, institutions often follow the path of wider conjuncture, which is the complete opposite of art. I read books on photography by old Soviet masters, and I also draw inspiration from there.”
Of course, the photographer also has his teachers and mentors to thank too, “A.V. Agafonov, N.M. Udalova, Y.M. Ydilevich, V.N.Kornyushin, and Mukhin I.V. They are all heirs of the Soviet school of photography, and I would like to think I’m here to continue this glorious tradition.”
But if you’re not sure whether paying a substantial amount of money just to go to university, Bergal has the answer you’ve been looking for, “Most of the information that schools or universities are trying to sell us in the form of photography courses, master classes, and modern books is nothing. Don’t waste your time and money, it’s available on the internet for free! Masters rarely share their real experience, and you can find the operating instructions for a particular device yourself. Probably the best advice is to take pictures. Shoot and don’t stop, don’t waste time on dubious connections or profits. It is important for your creativity to be completely disinterested, for the sake of your creative process.”
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When asked to describe his take on photography and what influenced his style, Bergal compared the former to “an eternal search based on the study of space and its behaviour.” The photographer’s subject of choice is people as well as the way they live, move, breath, behave, and so much more. “Photography is not just creativity, it is my teacher of life […] I study visual means and artistic techniques in order to establish contact with space, with its metaphysical manifestations,” he once told the Paris-based photography edition PARAD.
Bergal’s favourite photographer is Maxim Petrovich Dmitriev, a Russian photographer of the 19th and 20th century, and one of the pioneers behind documentary photography. “He left a cosy studio to go and film the hunger in Nizhny Novgorod [a large city on the Volga River in Western Russia].” In a way, one could say that Bergal’s work draws some inspiration from Dmitriev.
As I mentioned before, Bergal has been documenting anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow for a little over ten years now. “Over the years, the opposition in Russia has been literally killed,” he told i-D in January 2021, after he shot a series of images on Pushkin Square for the publication. “People are almost accustomed to the fact that it is impossible to change something in this country; many do not vote in elections. But thanks in part to Alexei Navalny, other opposition bloggers, and the internet, a new wave of socially active citizens has emerged among young people,” he continued.
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In perspective, leaving your “cosy studio to go and film the hunger in Nizhny Novgorod” and regularly putting yourself in the middle of anti-Putin protests for ten years both sound bold to me. But then again, what’s photography if not a constant search for something, be that the exploration of the mundane or even the violence in life?
“Most often than not, photography is of an applied nature, but one should not forget about its social side either. Today, documentary photography is dead, because any eyewitness with a smartphone suddenly becomes a ‘documentary filmmaker’ and it’s easier and faster for editors to buy unprofessional materials,” explained Bergal on the topic of candid (or candid looking) photography.
“But it also has its positives,” he added. “It makes young photographers look harder for an interesting topic, work with drama and other expressive means of photography. In my opinion, today’s documentary photography has moved into the category of art.”
When asked about his number one tip for working with people behind the scenes, the photographer explained that his process is as simple (meaning difficult) as it gets, “You can seize the moment, or you can try to recreate the situation. But my trick is as simple as possible: ‘Hello, my name is Gosha, I’m a photographer. You look very interesting! Let me take a picture of you?’ This does not always work, I often end up with a refusal, sometimes it is even dangerous, but I am not cheating on myself.”
He further shared that there are times when he knows he can’t ask, “you just need to shoot right now. Photography teaches not only composition, it is also psychology, and most importantly, it teaches you to look three steps forward, assess the situation from all sides, so you need to shoot more.”
When it comes to photography, having an engaged (and engaging) social media presence can be tricky, to say the least. Instagram photographers are a thing, and many actual professional photographers think they don’t deserve that title. But what if you’ve gained theoretical knowledge first and are now looking to expand your reach?
“I love the internet, it allows you to think much wider than the boundaries that are built by society and the state. It was social networks that helped the clients I’ve worked for find my work in the first place. It was unexpected and pleasant—the first publication that commissioned me was Neon, a magazine based in Hamburg, Germany,” shared Bergal.
“Daily posts on your social pages will provide you with an influx of subscribers, so think about a content plan for the week ahead, and adhere to this strategy,” he continued. “Imagine that your page is someone’s favourite series—do not upset your viewers, publish new works! Of course, it is difficult and it is not always possible to keep such a rhythm, but it will help you find your audience.”
In the end, it all comes down to the same point Bergal made previously: as long as you’re willing to put in the work and master the technical aspects of the art, then why shouldn’t you take advantage of the exposure social media platforms have to offer?
“At the moment, I am shooting with a Leica M5, and I’m very happy with it.” Debuted in 1971, the Leica M5 is an interchangeable lens 35mm film rangefinder camera. Although reviews tend to be mixed, depending on the shooter using it, the Leica M5 can be either “singularly elegant or uniquely cumbersome,” reads the first review that showed up through my Google search. Another one simply reads: “it’s the camera that nearly put an end to the Leica rangefinder after it was balked for being too big, heavy, ugly and incompatible with what came before. Despite this, the Leica M5 seems to have been given a second chance.”
“For beginners, I would recommend Japanese or German SLR cameras, which have good optics and a reliable mechanism—everything a photographer needs,” adds Bergal. “And for all aspiring creators, I recommend that you learn the basics of exposure and composition before picking up your camera.”
Speaking about the artists he looks up to for inspiration as well as the artistic movements he dislikes, Bergal admitted, “I do not like institutional art, it is too loaded with theory. The ordinary viewer does not understand it, and artists in pursuit of conjuncture are losing themselves.”
As for inspiration, “I turn to myself—I remember my childhood, the films I watched, the books we read with my grandmother. Actually, my grandmother did the reading while I looked at the pictures! Maybe that’s why some people call my work ‘honest’. And if I go to shoot something extraneous, then I put myself in the hands of curiosity, trying not to forget to correctly set up the camera and build the composition.”
Because he mainly shoots on film, Bergal hardly edits his pictures. “I run everything through Adobe Lightroom, and, if necessary, make preparations before printing in Photoshop,” he told Screen Shot Pro.
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“Good question! I see myself in a circle of creative, talented people, who are working on large commercial projects, which allow us to engage in independent creativity. And of course, I am engaged in pedagogy. Both now and in the future. I think that it is necessary to change the pedagogical system in Russia, it is simply outdated.”
In recent years, ‘multidisciplinary artist’ has become somewhat of a buzzword, used by many as a catch-all term meant to help redefine what can really be described as the act of blindly dabbling in everything. As a result, many of us have forgotten what it truly is like to be a multidisciplinary artist in 2021’s digital age, as well as the amount of work, planning and creativity it takes to gracefully mix digital with real-life art. Fear no more, because we managed to speak to one of the real ones out there, writer, director, and performer Alejandra Smits, about publishing her second poetry book while simultaneously maintaining her already impressive career in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smits’ second poetry book, titled Poetry Scam, initially started as “a very traditional poetry book,” only to then shift into a mix of what can only be described as ‘Instagram poetry’. “I started working on it three years ago, then slowly, as I started editing it and thinking about its layout with my team of designers, we felt like I wasn’t really portraying myself in it, so we decided to add my own memes, which I usually share through my Instagram Stories,” Smits explained about the concept behind Poetry Scam.
The book consists of a compilation of poems and images by the artist, containing both English and Spanish editions. “In the middle part that divides the Spanish version from the English version, there’s a whole chapter of memes separated into different chapters. It started as just poems and then quickly evolved into a piece of art, more than just a book.”
Through Poetry Scam, Smits’ first intention was to create a play out of the book—bringing her own words and images to life, in a way. But then, you know what I’m about to say: COVID came. The show had to be cancelled after the performer had already found a location to present it. Speaking about potentially turning the play into a video performance, which Smits has a fair amount of experience with, she shared herself that “I was also getting into that idea but now, everything is so difficult when it comes to managing artists—because I had a lot of collaborators who wanted to interpret the poems I wrote—but I’m simply not a producer, I’m an artist, and I’m terrible at managing other people.”
As a result, Smits decided to lay this idea to rest, at least for now.
You only need to look up Smits’ Instagram account to notice that the artist has an influential presence on the platform. With more than 45,000 followers to her credit, the artist admits to finding it hard to block out the dependency that comes with social media influence. “I’m super addicted to my phone, and I’m a bit worried about that relationship because it doesn’t allow me to be in the present moment. I’ll be watching a movie and constantly checking my phone at the same time, just because I’ll have this sort of anxiety.”
After realising that she was going through what most of us can probably relate to—those who actually don’t feel the need to check their phone during a movie are one of the few lucky ones—Smits decided to take a well-needed break from all of it. “Yesterday actually, I disabled all of my notifications as I’m trying not to check my phone as often. If something is urgent I’ll get an email or a call instead. Right now, I’m trying to go into a detox with Instagram.”
But fighting a habit can be hard, especially if there’s an army of behaviour scientists, data analysts and constantly evolving algorithms working against you and your newly found resolution. Ever since our conversation, Smits has posted a few times on Instagram, with one of those posts receiving more than 10,900 likes.
Of course, my aim is not to criticise the artist’s relationship with social media, but more to highlight the presence and role that social media play in her life, as well as in her career. Insta detox put aside, it simply cannot be ignored that Smits’ way of approaching the digital world is as ‘down with the kids’ as it can be.
Instagram has become, without a doubt, an important tool for artists like Smits to promote their work and get cast for different kinds of projects by brands. “I get a lot of jobs thanks to my Instagram so I want to be grateful towards the app but I just feel like I need to change my relationship with it in order to not get so wrapped up in it.”
On the app, Smits’ feed is a mix of her art—from poems and memes to videos of her performances—as well as pictures of her modelling for some of Instagram’s trendiest brands such as La Manso, Miista, Paloma Wool, and more.
Although Smits does admit to modelling for many brands, including some that she doesn’t feel the need to post about on her own feed, she didn’t plan on getting involved in the fashion industry at first, “It happened by mistake almost, I actually started modelling for Paloma Wool a couple of years ago, maybe 3 years ago and I was working with one of my best friends, Carlota Guerrero, who’s a photographer. She took me in for a couple of campaigns and after that everything snowballed. My agency, which is from London, contacted me and I said ‘yes of course’. I quickly realised that it was an easy job to have on the side because it gave me a lot of freedom and it’s lucrative.”
But Smits never planned to go down that route when it comes to her career, and faced an internal dilemma knowing that she played a part in the fashion industry, therefore in all the sustainability and human rights issues it represents too. “I’m also trying to shift into a different source of income,” she explains, “in order to stop modelling in a couple of years or so.”
With modelling comes almost instantly the discussion of body positivity and the vulnerability that it involves. As a performer, Smits’ body is a very important medium used in her art, and so is vulnerability: “I grew up thinking that I should be smaller, because my friends were super skinny and I had a lot of insecurities about my body and my curves. Even nowadays, I still feel insecure sometimes although I love my body. It’s a really long journey to loving your body completely, and I’m still on it.”
For Smits, using her body as the main element of some of her artwork is not about finding self-love, but more about getting an understanding of her strengths and weaknesses in order to overcome them. “Knowing that, no matter what, when I overcome them, I’m fine, that’s what the process is about with my body and my work. When I do a performance and I’m exposing my body, even though I’m feeling insecure, getting used to that ‘friction’ is what I’m interested in. I feel uncomfortable, but nothing bad is happening. It’s about being comfortable with not being comfortable if that makes sense?”
What she calls ‘friction’ is a strong reminder of what women can go through on a daily basis. At the risk of sounding cheesy, know you what they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, right? Her approach to narration, creatively used in more than one medium—through writing, imageries such as memes and Instagram Stories, performances using her own body, film—is what makes Smits such a versatile artist; a multidisciplinary narrator.
By revealing her body as well as other aspects of her life online, Smits acts as a gentle reminder that we’re all, in a way, performing, only the artist uses her whole life as a performative exercise, one she constantly learns from. “I think most people that follow me on Instagram think that I love my body unconditionally but it’s not like that.”
Smits’ work is interlaced with humour—anyone who can’t see that after scrolling through her poems and memes, which could also be qualified as digital poems, is clearly missing the whole point. By exploring existential topics such as death and trauma using digital mediums that were never truly appreciated in the art world until now, the artist offers her audience a type of performance that is both funny and highly relatable.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question: are memes a valid piece of artistic expression? Of course, everything is arguable but in Smits’ case, the conversation could easily be pleaded in her favour. After all, memes are often created to make social or political commentary, just like many other art mediums. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Smits’ art (be that memes, videos, or written poetry) should therefore be considered as valid pieces of artistic expression.
Through her work as well as her digital presence, Smits has managed to not only make a name for herself as one of the most exciting emerging artists of our generation but also as a highly needed breath of fresh air on both the art and fashion scenes.
On top of Poetry Scam and her on and off Instagram presence, the artist has recently launched her own newsletter called Unsolicited Existence, which focuses on “all things existence.” Whether you’re a multidisciplinary artist yourself trying to navigate the digital world or simply looking to improve your meme-making skills, Smits’ artwork will, without a doubt, have something to offer you. And as the affirmation goes: have fun, take detours, find your (multiple) callings and all in all—exist loudly.