Q: Tell us about your early years in Russia, and your road to photography.
A: When I think of the good times of my childhood, I reminisce on my summers in Bolsche-Visokovo (a small village in the Vladimir region, Russia) with my grandparents, on the vast and wild nature, on the evenings by the campfire with the local kids, on my amazing caring grandmother, whom I was very close to. I visited that village every summer since I was 7.
When my grandmother died in 2013, a lot had already changed in the village. It also seemed to have been dying. I didn’t want the memories fade away, so I started taking pictures. I photographed everything I loved about the village, people I knew, my grandparents’ house. It was the starting point of me as a photographer. The subjects that I am now working on photographically might be not straightforwardly connected to my own personal life — most of the times I work on topics that are completely new and unknown to me. But what has remained the same is the emotional aspect. I do emotionally engage with the subject I photograph very deeply.
Then when I was 24 (12 years ago) I relocated to Germany to study communication management (with the major in journalism) and have stayed here since.
Q: Was there anything in your childhood that proved to be pivotal in your later life?
A: At the age of 5 my mother took me to the Perm Ballet School. Ballet undoubtedly shaped my childhood very much. It was my passion, my means of self-fulfillment. Perhaps my life would have been still related to ballet if I hadn’t got diagnosed with a rheumatic disease at 21. At 21 I had to completely rethink my life. For 9 years I went through a difficult stage of self-discovery, re-education, several career changes etc. But I think almost everyone goes through such uneasy periods at some point of their lives and one should be lucky if he or she has finally found that new passion. For me, it’s photography. I was 30 when I started studying photography. Believe me, it is never too late.
Q: You have become a well-known, acclaimed photographer with wide ranging projects behind you. How do you find your topics, and what inspires you in your work and daily life?
A: My topics often originate from accidental encounters with people, which become the starting point for my projects. I believe that you just have to get involved with a person and let yourself be driven by your own curiosity, your sincere interest.
I often think of how photography and people who let me into their lives have enriched my own life. Through photography, we get a chance to touch on the life of others. You are not just an observer, you are a part of somebody’s life, you live this life together with the protagonist. These encounters broadened my horizons, made me emotionally mature and gave me the opportunity to go through life experiences that are completely different from my own. I believe, this it is one of the most valuable things one can experience, ever.
Q: Your winning project at IPA 2019 was “Meeting Sofie”, a wildly successful series about the young Sofie, who has down syndrome and spends most of her time with her family in their farm in East Germany. You chose a sensitive topic and executed it with grace and beauty. Tell us how did you meet her, and what was the main idea driving the look of your series?
A: In 2017 I came into contact with children with Down syndrome through a photo project „Mother“, (www.vonbuedingen.com/mother). I portrayed them together with their mothers in my photo studio in Cologne. Sofie and her mother also wanted to participate in the project, unfortunately they could not come to me to Cologne because of the distance. However, they invited me for a visit. So, I went to their home in the east of Germany. After I met Sofie and spent some time with her and her family at the farm, I realized that I wanted to take a photo series about her and her life. It was something special from the beginning.
The concept of this series was inspired by the setting of the place where Sofie’s family lives. Sofie’s family lives on an old farm, built in the 16th century. Because her parents are passionate antique collectors (her father runs a small antique shop in the nearby town), the house has a very special old-fashioned atmosphere. Every piece of furniture or picture on the wall has a history to tell. After immersing myself in the magical atmosphere of the courtyard, as well as learning about the lifestyle of Sofie and her family, I had a clear idea of what the photo series would look like.
Q: What were the challenges in this project?
A: There were no challenges, really. She let me into her life with an open heart, and my fascination for her as a person made it even easier for us to work together. There is that endless discussion among photographers, on how close can the relationship between the artist and the protagonist be. Whether a close relationship will or won’t affect objectivity. I personally think that you cannot remain “objective” when working on such a personal long-term project. At the end of the day, the photographer is just a human and he or she forms a sympathy or aversion, a certain attitude, a certain view of the subject, of his protagonists. You can feel this attitude when you look at the pictures. I believe that you can gain a deep understanding of your protagonists only through a close relationship. I am glad that Sofie and I have such an intimate bond.
Q: What did you learn from this project?
A: I learned a lot. The art of serenity would be one of those things. Sofie has an untaught protective mechanism: she can’t take hectic pace. No matter what’s going on, she won’t let haste take over her day. I love it about her. We rush through life so often, and it only gets worse. I wish we could learn and utilize some of that mindful deliberateness that Sofie has mastered so well. The encounter with Sofie, with other people with Down syndrome, as well as with the mothers of children with Down syndrome gave me an insight into their life.
Sometimes I think about what is really going on with us? In the past few years the number of reports on prenatal diagnostics has nearly peaked (and there is nothing wrong with that, knowledge is power, and every mother has right to know and decide on what is going on inside of her body). However, I find people should never be scaled down to the number of chromosomes. They are very loveworthy people with their very unique characters and view of this life. As part of the “Mother” project, I conducted interviews with women who are mothers of children with Down syndrome. They are happy that they have their child just the way he or she is. The attitude of society is what makes their lives difficult, not their children.
Anja, one of the mothers I portrayed, summed it up nicely: “Niklas (Anja’s son with Down syndrome) was accepted as he is. He is fully integrated in the kindergarten (he goes to a regular kindergarten). Of course, kids ask why Niklas is different. Then I explain it in a child-friendly way. Usually it is the adults who have a “problem” with it. People don’t dare to ask, so we avoid it. Sometimes things are said under the breath. I no longer listen to that whispering. I don’t pay attention to it. I want to have fun with my son. And people should see that children with disabilities also enjoy things like other children. I want to encourage everyone, have courage and address families instead of saying things behind their backs. Just please don’t feel sorry! That is unnecessary. I don’t need pity because we don’t suffer. On the contrary, we live with a lot of joy, ups and downs, like any other family. ”
I hope that one day we get rid of that “perfectionist” attitude to ourselves and people around us and become a little more relaxed and open to people who are lovingly “different”. Perhaps, photo projects that address personality of people with Down syndrome can take us a step further on this journey, so we become more open-minded and curious about people and things we don’t know about much.
Q: Were you surprised by how popular the series have become?
A: I am very happy that this series is so beloved. Photography often has the task of a moral apostle. Many photo series show us how much evil we humans can create, such as wars, climate catastrophes, wealth vs. poverty, suffering, hunger etc. Art objects shall make the viewer think. Such photo projects criticize humanity. And that’s a good thing. They awaken our awareness of our actions.
The series about Sofie works very differently. I think Sofie embodies the good that makes us human. And I firmly believe that everyone has goodness within them. We recognize our good side in it. It gives hope, radiates calm, harmonious melancholy, shows how to find joy in simple things, and how to live in peace with yourself.
On top of that comes the fact that you still know very little about people like Sofie. I think this series gives an insight into the hidden. That fascinates the viewer.
Q: After so many awards, why is this recognition from IPA important for you?
A: I am honored to let you know it was my first award from the USA. I feel very honored to win this amazing award in category „Analog Photographer of the Year“, alongside other winners and finalists who are very great photographers!
Q: Lastly, what are you interested in these days? What is in the pipeline for you?
A: At the moment I am working on the photo book “Meeting Sofie”. In the book, in addition to the pictures I took as part of the project, I will also give an insight into Sofie’s childhood (pictures from the family archive), as well as add interviews from Barbara, Sofie’s mother. I really hope the book will see the world soon.