Yana Romanova

Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Yana, tell us something about yourself that can’t be found on the Internet. 

Recently I had an awful revelation – during my shooting period in Great Britain (the last one and half month) I realized that I am totally unable to engage in a so called “small talk” , I can only conduct “big talk”: right after the introduction I start dwelling on the sense of life. People are scared by this. I guess I am an awful bore.   

What path have you gone as a photographer, how has it all started, what difficulties have you faced? What sparked your interest in photography initially?

My favourite question is: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” I still don’t feel that I have grown up and become something. At the moment half of my life is connected with photography and the way it is born in me and around me. As a child I wanted to be an archeologist, but entered the journalistic department of Saint Petersburg University. During my study I realized that I will never be able to become a writing journalist. However, already in the first year we were taught the basics of shooting and hand printing and strange as it might seem I was not bad at it. Eventually, I finished studying at the department for manufacturing and typography of periodicals (where photography was my principal subject) and I am still happy that it all happened as it did. But generally I took up photography as my main occupation much later, when I found myself at Andrey Polikanov’s (Head of the photographic department of “The Russian Reporter”) and then Yurij Kosyrev’s (one of the most famous photojournalists in the world) workshop, started visiting international festivals, thinking and shooting much. I worked as a designer and photographer of restaurant food and hotel interiors, but after meeting Kosyrev I abandoned it and never returned to permanent work. It happened in 2008.

We know that you teach at the Photodepartment, what was the most positive experience you had while teaching? Was there anything you’ve learned from your students?

I started teaching at the Photojournalistic department in 2011 (I think), at first when I discovered myself alone with students I was confused. I was scared. But quite soon I realized that the point of teaching photography - such an inexact and subjective discipline – was in constantly asking myself questions: “What do I know?” “What can I convey?”, “What should I learn?”. I think that on that course, despite all difficulties I managed to spark the desire to shoot in many people and to give them some understanding in what direction to progress. Then I was transferred to the Photodepartment, because the boundaries of photojournalism, especially the way it was taught at the Photodepartment, became too narrow for me. Now at the Photodepartment I am reading the course “The power of environment” and to a greater extent it is an experimental laboratory. I think that for me and for all the participants it provides an opportunity of constantly mixing with interesting people, reading and discussing serious philosophic books, viewing projects and for hours dwelling upon works of all the group members. 

What do you think, is it important to receive education in photography? 

 These days photography is material and asking the question “is it important to receive education in photography” one should specify what field of photography is meant. I can speak only for myself (and my sphere of activity lies somewhere between photojournalism and contemporary art) – one can easily find all technical staff in the internet, watch podcasts and learn. I even think that it can be harmful to be educated about composition and how to shoot “correctly”, because if you get programmed this way it is hard to get rid of it later. But it is important regularly to be among like-minded people and to be torched by difficult questions, to be occasionally unbalanced and drawn out of your comfort zone – for you to become more sensitive to the world. And, certainly, it is important to have someone to discuss your work with. This kind of education is undoubtedly worth it. I will receive one myself with pleasure.

What kind of projects or photos do you especially like? Why so?

I am very fond of and appreciate big narratives. I like it when the project includes not only photography, but also texts, different objects, archive materials, unexpected elements, which all together allow to form a certain story in the viewer’s head, which he simultaneously lives through and figures out while watching. Perhaps, my favourite projects in this sphere are "Broken Manual" Alec Soth, Christian Patterson "Redheaded Peckerwood", Jan Rosseel "Belgian Autumn" and the most recent "Anecdotal" David Fathi. Besides, I love collaborate works, different forms of cooperation of artist with each other as well as artists with the audience.  "Learning to love you more" by Miranda July  would be a good example of it. An ideal project for me is the one that comprises these two approaches. I am working at something of the kind right now.

Yana, and how do you structure your working process? How do ideas about series come to your mind?

My life is tightly connected with what I do as a photographer or an artist. It is a state in which you realize that the only way to share something that concerns you is photography or a project, because it is no use trying to describe it, any number of words won’t be enough. Ideas come to mind just from the observations from life and communication with people. I can sit in a café for hours and watch people walking along streets or suddenly go somewhere where I don’t know anyone and start making friends with people and ask, where they live, what they like, I like asking silly and even embarrassing questions and do strange things. I am constantly looking for something that will resonate in me. It is an extremely pleasant and almost overwhelming feeling, when you suddenly find “this very thing”. From this process ideas emerge and then starts an easier stage – to find the right people, to arrange everything, then to come and to rearrange it, to get a few grey hairs, because everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, to give way to despair ten times, and then notice that something wonderful has happened and despite the fact that the initial plan is irrevocably lost – “this very thing” started gradually transferring from the non-material form into photos, texts, videos, and whatever. At such moments I feel I am full of life and happy.

Photo from "Shvilishvili" series.

How do you distinguish between photos that represent real art and that do not?

Firstly one should find out if the author himself regards his work as a piece of art. By this attitude he places it into a certain field of perception and then one can choose the way one treats it, decide whether the message is conveyed by the means the author has used in his project (even if the project consists of one photo), what the message is and what emotions it evokes in the viewer. Contemporary society depends too much on the expert opinions of curators on what real art is. There is a certain sense in it (especially a commercial one), but generally what really matters is the author and his love for what he does. I used to attach much importance to the carrier an artist has made and to the popularity of his works. But currently simple and sincere works stir my emotions much more independently of the degree of their acknowledgement.  

In your opinion, why have post-soviet motives become so popular recently?

Probably, it happened due to the fact that we’ve already crossed the threshold when everything soviet was indispensible of our lives and it at last can be referred to the past. And it as well as the past in general awakes great interest. For example, I grew up in the atmosphere of denial of everything soviet which I absorbed through my family and school. In the 90’s life was built around estrangement, around being different from others, being a European. And now it seems like our rhetoric is turning the other way round.  Perhaps, any generation is nostalgic about the past it has never lived in. Today people born after the dissolution of the USSR are 20 years old and have never lived in the USSR.  They perceive the past as something romantic, simple and happy. Perhaps, because their grandmothers and grandfathers told them about it this way. And maybe because it can’t be repeated. In any case it seems like it is a natural process. In every country this nostalgia comes through differently. It is just that our past is soviet.

Photo from "Waiting" series.

In your opinion, what will happen next with the Russian photography?

It is a difficult question for a photographer. The photographer should do what he does – shoot what he thinks is important, and time will show if this is exactly “what happens with the Russian photography”. However, considering the world social and political tendencies, and especially tendencies in this country, I can suppose that for the nearest several years or even longer we will be more actively engaged in defining our national identity.

In this country what do you lack to feel realized as an artist?

Now I could have started enumerating things that need improvement: we lack good art schools not only in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, but also in other cities, we lack galleries, museums, where works can be exhibited, we lack talented and bold curators, editions that would publish good photos, we lack photographic market, in particular books on photography – all our books that came out recently are bought outside of Russia, we lack young and bold artistic groups, we lack lots of things. But on the other hand – I stick to the idea that if you lack something you should go and try to do it, otherwise it is similar to the situation when a bad workman blames his tools.

Photo from "Immerse" series.

What do you think is our audience ready for experiments?

The point is that…If one doesn’t undertake any experiments, the audience will never be ready for them, that’s why, probably, this question doesn’t have any sense. It doesn’t matter if the audience is ready or not, what matters is whether the artists are ready. It seems to me that they are afraid of making a mistake, creating something weak and different from others, afraid of critics and the probable consequences of their work. That is why there are so few interesting experiments.

What will you advice to those who are just starting?

To forever preserve the feeling of beginning. 

Recommend some professional literature to our readers.

It is better to read non-professional literature and generally literature that has nothing to do with photography. For me personally Salinger. Houellebecq, and Fowles are very helpful. 

Photo from "Immerse" series.

If not photography then what?

I like shooting that’s why I shoot. It is hard to imagine what can replace it, that’s why I don’t see any reasons to do so. Apart from photography, I like singing very much. But one does not exclude the other.

What are afraid of most of all?

I am awfully afraid of balloons. And champagne corks. And that one day no one will come to my birthday party.

What is your super-aim for the future?

I have been thinking of it for a couple of days. Frankly speaking, I have no idea. Apparently, I don’t have any super-aims, one shouldn’t have any apprehensions: if I conquer the world it will happen accidently.

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Photo from "Immerse" series.