During this year’s Visa pour l’Image Professional Week, which took place in Perpignan, France, Canon and Magnum Photos brought together 200 of the best photography students from universities across Europe for three days of talks, workshops, portfolio reviews and networking. The programme aimed to identify and nurture promising young talents, giving them an insight into the fast-changing photojournalism industry. One such photographer is 28-year-old Ksenia Kuleshova, a Master’s student at Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Germany. Kuleshova made every moment of the opportunity count, even securing a feature on the New York Times Lens blog on a project she shot in Abkhazia, a troubled state in Georgia.
“At the Visa workshops there were a great mixture of photographers with different experiences and backgrounds. We spoke a lot about what we need to do as a freelance photographer, how to present and promote the work, and exchanged ideas and our plans for the future,” says 28-year-old Ksenia Kuleshova. “It’s not just about exchanging ideas and receiving feedback from professionals, it’s about your motivation and reflection after the programme when you are back home.”
The Russian-born photographer began her career in PR before moving to Germany to study photography. She’s been working on her project about Abkhazia since she was an undergraduate. Abkhazia is officially a region of Georgia and was the centre of a brutal civil war in the 1990s between Russian-backed rebels and the Georgian army. The dispute remains unresolved and today Abkhazia’s independence is recognised only by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Russia.
“Once a beloved tourist region of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union, it’s considered a Russian puppet state,” Kuleshova explains. “It’s a lost place on the world map. People live in a bubble, trying to exist within the uncertainty, within a system that doesn’t have a future and doesn’t seek one. I found all the associated political and social issues interesting.” But Kuleshova was determined not to present the obvious struggles faced by Abkhazians: the destroyed buildings, the aftermath of war. “I wanted to find the soul,” she says.
I followed my intuition and trusted people because they trusted me.
Over three trips, during which she used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and then a Mark IV and her EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Kuleshova adopted a deliberately organic approach. She was led by the relationships she forged. “I followed my intuition and trusted people because they trusted me,” she says. “I asked people to show me their favourite places and to take me with them to events they find important.”
“There were so many unforgettable stories. In the village of Ilor I knocked on the door of a house and an old woman opened it. She noticed the camera and said that she was the happiest person because she’s been waiting for a journalist for 20 years. For several hours she showed me everything she had and told me a tragic family story. I felt guilty when I had to leave.” The biggest challenge, she says, was to maintain a balance. “Everyone was ready to help me cover the story. Abkhazians were so friendly and open. Even though I didn’t want to concentrate on the negative side, it was important to try to stay objective, because it’s not a PR campaign.”
Before she was invited to attend the Canon programme, Kuleshova had planned ahead. “I sent the story to the editors, who I knew would be attending, and asked if it would be possible to show and discuss my project during the festival.” That strategy paid off. A meeting with New York Times photographer and editor James Estrin led to coverage of the project on Lens, the photography blog Estrin edits for The Times. And since returning from Visa, she’s won a $5,000 LHSA photography grant, which she’ll use to develop her project into a book.
The opportunity to meet figures like Estrin is, says Kuleshova’s tutor Professor Dirk Gebhardt, one of the many benefits of the programme. “Travel to Perpignan is often outside the budget of a photography student, so this kind of opportunity is the best thing you can offer to help a young photographer,” he says, adding: “It’s hard for universities to give an industry view. Our aim is to educate them to find a language in photography. Here they also learn how the market works.”
Gebhardt sees a bright future for Kuleshova, whom he chose along with another student, Jann Höfer, to take part in the Canon programme. “I think her approach to photojournalism is very pure, very authentic, but at the same time her images have a metaphorical meaning, something beyond what you see, which is not possible to explain in words,” he says. “This is the strength of her work.”
Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton
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