Russia-based visual artist Alena Zhandarova creates her own language by using her unconventional portraits as a method of visual storytelling. Inspired by the absence of borders, coupled with a curiosity for everyday life and exploring herself, Zhandarova attempts to penetrate deeper into the spheres that provoke her. Breaking the conventions of the ordinary, she creates her own rules of communication with her surroundings.
Looking at the world around her through a removed lens, she refamiliarises herself with the simplest things we’ve grown accustomed to. Through combinations of colours, shapes and randomness, her unusual outlook on reality creates a unique atmosphere to her work. She investigates the border between the ordinary and the unfamiliar, using photography as a way to digest the world. Zhandarova creates intimate imagery, using her body as the subject of vulnerability. Finding the relationships with the spaces around her, she explores the connection between inner and external worlds. Read on and let her take you on an inward glance at her creative process.
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What does photography mean to you and how have you used it to reflect on your own perspectives? How did you use photography to create a new outlet to express yourself?
Photography for me is a tool that helps me speak my own language. I like its obedience and clarity when I need it and vice versa the camera can become a co-creator, helping to choose the moment (as is the case with the self-timer, for example). Each photo is a search for an answer or a question on the contrary. This is a work with feelings, combinations of colours, shapes and randomness.
How have your perceptions as an artist changed? How has that been reflected in the evolution of your work?
It changes with me, as with a living person. Each of my projects is essentially an attempt to penetrate deeper into the spheres that excite me, the opportunity to comprehend them and open them from other sides. For me, the feeling that the photograph conveys and the aftertaste that remains of it became more important.
You’ve explored the world of self-portraits, even putting yourself behind the camera lens. How has this provided you with a sense of introspection and self-reflection, understanding yourself as an artist?
Self-portrait for me is a way of self-knowledge and the ability to save energy. I love the silence and shoot quite intuitively. I have always preferred to work with subtle matters, but now the main topic of my research is my own body, its vulnerability, power and mortality.
You once said, “I am fascinated by the opportunity to try myself as a storyteller with my own protagonists,” could you tell us more about what it is about exploring yourself as a storyteller that interests you and compels you to create?
I am attracted by the possibility of storytelling, exploring and recognising myself in the process of creation. What I do is inseparable from how I live. When starting this or that project, I have a question that worries me very much, to which I cannot find an answer in any other way. This is my starting point and place of power.
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You carry an unusual outlook on reality, how has this helped you as an artist? How do you channel it into your work?
My photographs are how I feel, it's not about an artist, but a person. This is what I had inside, but found a way to express, at least partially. This is valuable for me.
How has your photographic work created an outlet for you to explore womanhood and understand not only the stories of other women but also your own identity and place in the world?
My understanding of femininity has changed and continues to change. Now I have come to the conclusion that femininity does not belong to any of the genders, it is just energy that may or may not manifest itself through people.
For example, the idea of filling the space and connecting everything with everything is very close to me. That is, when we change something in the outside world, we change inside and vice versa. I am also inspired by the idea of the absence of boundaries between anything, everything smoothly flows into everything else, I smoothly flow into the sunlight. This is my inspiration and the unlimited possibility of knowing the world.
How did you develop your artistic style and find what worked for you and what didn’t? How do you use self-portrait as a language?
I just try and see what is close to me and what whips the energy away. I realised that my art is in action, in a certain gesture. And, in fact, it doesn't matter to me what exactly this gesture would be visually displayed. I want each photo to be a challenge to myself and everyday life, an attempt to rise above all this and to comprehend the real value of things, time, people nearby and myself.
Through photography, you create a unique environment of “ordinary things in unusual situations.” How do you find the balance between ordinary and unusual?
For most of our lives, we are surrounded by the most ordinary things to which we are accustomed and know why they are needed. Sometimes it is interesting for me to look at them through the eyes of an alien and to get to know them again directly, without intermediaries. I think this is like training to interact with the world as a whole, not from a state of omniscience, but from surprise and listening.
What is your shooting process like? How do you decide where you want the subject and objects to go within the composition to create the most accurate form of storytelling?
Basically, I'm starting from the background, from a certain area, which is close to me in spirit. Then I fill it with people, objects, colours, shapes, trying to feel the sufficiency and the idea itself. Now I'm working on a series of self-portraits in my home studio with a white background and it's a challenge for me.
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Why is it important for you to photograph people in their homes? What value does it add to your photos and the story you’re trying to tell?
It's just a matter of comfort and honesty. And I like to go for a visit.
Your self-portrait project, Puree with a Taste of Triangles, breaks the convention of traditional portrait photography. The girls in the images have their faces covered, blending with the patterns and colours of each composition. What was the creative motive behind breaking from the traditional portrait and covering the subjects' faces?
The project is working on an idea that I wrote about earlier about the absence of borders. Plus, any person carries their story on their face, which would be an additional layer for me, which I did not want to focus on.
Are there any interesting stories or anecdotes that have happened to you when taking such intimate photos from inside people’s homes?
I can tell you about a photo with an arm and a chair. I came to Istanbul for a workshop with Helen van Meene and used Airbnb for the first time to find a room. Unfortunately, I succumbed to the persuasion of the hostess and made a reservation without using the service. And so, I arrive after the flight, go into my room, and find a hole in the wall, which was not indicated in the photo. I had to hang it with a sheet.
You have won several awards and your work has been exhibited all over the world. You’ve also been a finalist and shortlisted for many awards for your work. How does it feel to have your work so widely recognised? Especially on an international scale.
I am very happy when my work travels around the world, especially during a pandemic it is joyful. Each project begins to live its own life, even before its completion, as a separate creature, and this is amazing. I feel like a guide, accompanying the project to a certain stage, and then he goes his own way. I'm just glad I have this opportunity and I have more stories to tell.
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