December 20th 2008 by Andrew S Gibson
Mitchell Kanashkevich wanders some of the world’s most remote places, capturing the ethereal beauty of the world’s disappearing cultures with his remarkable photos. From India to Indonesia, he documents the lives of people whose traditions may vanish as modernity encroaches.
I came across Mitchell Kanashkevich’s work after following a link from the Travel Photographer blog and I was blown away by the atmospheric quality of his Sulfur Miners photos. They were so good that I instantly knew that this was a photographer that I wanted to interview. I also recommend that you check out Mitchell’s blog.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of feel do you try and create in your photos?
I don’t know if I can say that I have a single photographic vision as such. I am mainly interested in human beings – us, and a whole variety of subjects around us. As far as feel of my images, I am always trying to use light in a way that will give an illusion of physical depth and texture, highlight what is important or create a mood.
I avoid sticking to any formula, not everything can be shot with the same approach – natural light may be ideal in one case and a flash/reflector may need to be used in another, while in yet another shot, a tripod, light from a flame and longer exposure may do the trick. My main goal is to make an image that can captivate the viewer and do justice to my subject.
When did you start taking photos? What made you decide to become a photographer?
I started taking photos while at university. I studied film there, but found that imagery was what fascinated me most. After I finished my studies I decided to travel around South Asia and Belarus – the country of my birth. I made a couple of documentary films, however I ultimately decided that logging around a mountain of video equipment was not quite as romantic as traveling with only a photo camera and a couple of lenses.
But seriously, I feel that photography is the ideal way of self expression for me – it is instant and can be poetically economical – at times the struggles and the beauty of the entire human kind can be conveyed with a single image.
Name three photographers you like and why. Who inspires you?
Steve McCurry, Henri Cartier-Bresson, James Nachtwey. These guys are Gods of photography, not much more to say. As far as inspiration, their work as well as an ever increasing list of photographers that I come across on the internet certainly inspires me. My wife Taya is also a constant source of inspiration, she has a unique way of looking at the world and when I listen to her I cannot help but feel that there is magic in even the simplest things around us.
I really liked your ‘Sulfur Miners of Kawah Ijen‘ story. Can you talk us through the process of shooting this story, from the initial research and idea to the actual shooting? I’m also curious about how you gained access to the miners – did you have to use a fixer or were you able to arrange it yourself?
Kawah Ijen is actually quite a famous place. I had seen a documentary film about it before coming to Indonesia and once I arrived I started hearing a lot about it from other travelers. I did not really think that I would shoot a story about the place, until I met some of the miners. I learned enough Indonesian to have basic conversations and that really helped me to connect and to establish friendships.
The miners were a quirky lot, despite having one of the most difficult jobs in the world they were able to poke fun at each other and really laugh at the end of the day. The miners responded really well to me and through a twist of fate I became close with one of them – Paing. I think that having me around added some light to Paing’s workdays and so he liked having me around as much as I liked photographing him. I followed Paing for a couple of days and eventually realised that there was a story right there in front of me.
I believe that you’ve spent 12 months travelling around India by motorbike in the last three years. You clearly love India – what inspires your passion for this country? How have your experiences in India affected you on a personal level?
I have spent a lot of time in India and in fact I am here at the moment. India is simply an astonishing country. It is all of the clichés that are used to describe it and much more. I am attracted to its raw energy, the colors of its cultures and above all the people that have crossed my path here.
The funny thing is that India also frustrates me more than any country I have ever visited, but perhaps in some strange way this also attracts me. I feel that the many challenges I have faced here have strengthened my character and have given me a different perspective on life.
When I travel around India on a motorcycle and spend time in the places where I end up, I feel completely present in the moment, alive every waking minute. I think this feeling is precious in today’s world, where many of us live for tomorrow, for a car we dream of, for the day we pay off the mortgage, without really focusing and taking in the good that is right there in front of us.
What’s your favourite place that you’ve ever taken photos in? The hardest? The most frustrating? The one that affected you the most emotionally?
Kawah Ijen would have to be the answer to all of those questions, if I am to mention one particular place. It is incredibly photogenic, but at the same time the suffocating sulphuric fumes, the gruelling walk up and down the crater rim made my experience hard and frustrating.
It also affected me emotionally because it wore me out and me being worn out from just walking up and down without any real weight gave me an idea of just how hard it was for the men who worked there and carried sulfur loads weighing up to 100kg daily.
You cannot help but feel at least a little sad that anyone would have to do that for a living. If I had to choose one region as my favourite, then I would say Rajasthan, India. It must be the most photogenic area per square kilometer, if you don’t count the empty deserts .
What are the most important qualities that a travel photographer needs to succeed – what advice would you give to an aspiring travel photographer at the start of their career? What are the easiest markets for a newcomer to the field to break into?
At this stage I am by no means a travel photography veteran, I feel that I have just stepped onto the right path to success and cannot say that I have the formula for a really long and successful career in the field. From what I have learned I will say that in many ways a career in travel photography is no different from any other career in a competitive field – you need a certain amount of natural talent, but planning and hard work will get you to where you ultimately want to be.
An aspiring travel photographer should realise that after a certain point nothing will be easy and nothing should be taken for granted. Do not think that travel photography alone will pay for your travel expenses and equipment, don’t rule out other ways of generating an income, see the bigger picture, be ready to do things that may not get you very excited, to work a regular job or to shoot stuff like weddings every now and then, if it will allow you to photograph a few months in a location that you are really passionate about.
You have some beautiful black and white photos in your portfolio. The general consensus seems to be that colour images sell best, especially if you’re selling them through a portal like Alamy. What’s your take on this – what space is there in the market for high quality black and white travel photos?
My black and white travel photos are more popular with collectors of fine art prints. There are also certain magazines that specialise in fine art black and white photography. If one is more inclined towards this sort of photography, then by all means send your portfolio to these magazines. You may not be greatly rewarded financially by the magazine, but you will get your stuff out in front of the people who have enough appreciation for this kind of photos and are willing to pay good money for images they connect with.
Where is your photography going? What future photographic project or projects are you excited about?
I would like to be shooting more photo stories in the near future. I think that in a few days, given that the whole thing is as I imagine it is, I will be shooting traditional mud wrestlers in a city called Kolhapur.
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All photos Copyright Mitchell Kanashkevich. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.