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Image by Marius Badstuber on Unsplash

Brussels as the ideal photograph: Working as a foreign freelancer

A few years ago, freelance photographer Elizaveta Dmitrieva took her career abroad and moved to Belgium. Since then she set herself apart, covering the Brussels terrorist attacks in March of this year, reporting on politics and working on her own freelance projects. She has even convinced two competing publications to work on a continual basis with her.

We spoke with Elizaveta to understand how difficult it is to work in a foreign country, how to set yourself apart and why Brussels is where every photographer should spend a bit of their life.

Why did you decide to move to Brussels?

There’s a saying among expats that everyone loves Brussels because it is next to Paris, London, Amsterdam and other European capitals. The city is pleasing to the eye without old Khrushevsky apartment complexes located in the most unexpected of places. And there is little pollution.

But on a more serious note, Brussels is like the ideal for a news agency because the city is one concentrated snapshot of all the ideas and concepts from Europe. In Brussels, you can meet amazing people with extremely interesting stories from all over the planet. With that concentration, the city satisfies a photographer’s curiosity. It is definitely worth living here a couple of years.

As a foreign photographer, is it difficult to compete with locals?

No, actually it’s quite the opposite. When a photographer works in a foreign country, then they are far more likely to lock on to features that are less apparent or hidden to the dulled eyes of local residents. What is important, is the ability to speak with people in their native language and understand them. With everything else, a foreign photographer is benefited by a certain curiosity that locals have long since lost.

Are there a lot of opportunities to develop professionally in Brussels?

A ton. Brussels is a city where you must be a sculpture and carve away the unnecessary opportunities to retain only the ones that are most useful for you. The focused conglomeration of interesting stories, people and organizations is like a multi-fruit juice — it offers something for everyone, so people with completely different preferences find a fit.

Your work often focuses on politics. How exactly do you catch politicians in the right moments and their emotions?

I really like to catch people’s expressions on their faces while they are speaking — expressions and emotions, especially with politicians are two completely different things. But those types of photos are only useful for news.

It’s much more interesting to capture an entire scene. I play with the light, illusions, and reflections to instill reality with additional, contradictory concepts in the photo. Taking these types of photos is truly captivating. It is actually fairly similar to the work of politicians or diplomats, when they try to speak between the lines to convey the main idea. As I take photos of politicians, I use the same techniques that they do for my photos.

Photography: bridging art and journalism

Why did you get into photography? What inspires you most about it?

For me, photojournalism is a unique means of expression. It is like a bridge connecting the subjectivity of art and the objectivity of journalism. I like being a journalist and honestly and impartially investigating a problem in society or telling someone’s story. Sociology also really interests me. But at the same time, I have an urge to express my own feelings and emotions — my own thoughts on events and to do all of this with a certain level of aesthetics.

Only photojournalism permits me to do this. The opportunities with a camera are boundless. Pictures arouse emotions within the viewer and can truly stir them.

You work with the Russian publications Vedomosti and Kommersant. Are there any issues with the fact that these two are direct competitors?

Yes, this is true, but if you do not conceal anything from anyone and don’t cross ethical barriers, then there aren’t any problems. The best option is to take different photos of different events for different publications.

More so, in photojournalism, the type of relationship different publications have with each other really doesn’t matter. What is really important, is the type of relationship photographers have with their photos.

This is a completely separate world for me and competition works by its only rules.

Can a photo objectively portray an event or person or are they always subjective?

It seems to me that nothing in life is objective — even cold numbers without the ability to compare them are used in a subjective manner. I try to learn as much as I can about the people and events in advance, then I take photos with my emotions while keeping the facts in mind. If you are to be honest, then you must show both how the subject sees themselves and how they appear to others.

Often, you hear that presentation is more important than skill. Is this true for photography?

I think that a certain level of mastering presentation does matter. But if someone wants to work with the best in the industry, then only the content matters. At that level, you can’t buy people with a pretty website or list of big-name clients. I’m interested in reaching that level. I also believe that photographers are lucky because we don’t have to especially work on how we present ourselves, usually it is enough to simply leave the photos on an editor’s desk or hang them on the wall and wait for the editors to come to you.

What new types of tools do you use within your work?

I’m a minimalist when it comes to this. I only use Photoshop and sometimes I make infographics with online editing tools. I also use Instagram, but more for myself than for work. I try to photograph or write so that no further editing is required.

My Life Is Just Freelance

How often to you do freelance projects?

Currently, my life is just freelance. It isn’t just projects. I also photograph events, send photos to magazines, agree on the text and send them. This is the flow of my daily life when the initiative comes directly from me — and I think that is wonderful! You don’t have to choose who to work for or make compromises. You do whatever you think of and not what others are wanting. I think that to live in this manner is very useful for personal growth. The only problem is being disciplined enough to keep driving yourself.

What goals do you give yourself before you set off for a shoot?

Different publications tell me that if you capture all the aspects of what is happening in a single photograph, then the photo goes straight to the front page. So my goal is to focus the entire story into a single visual medium.

How do you find and decide who to work with? What kind of services or offline means do you use?

I use social media — Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram — professional networks like HackPack. Besides this, you need to get facetime: meet new people, go to conferences, lectures and events. At any gathering, there is a large number of people working in similar spheres. In Brussels, networking is especially well developed. Here there are a ton of cocktail parties, dinners and events organized for many different reasons, but all with the same goal — to create an opportunity to meet new people who could be useful to each other.

As social media becomes so widespread, do you feel that it is diminishing the need for the press and professional photographers?

In today’s world, the press is far from the main source for torn up bodies from the scene of a disaster. Anyone who is interested in this checks Twitter, Instagram and social networks first. The press provides a more significant role by not only telling what happened, but answering the most important question of ‘what to do next’. People need to know whether they can take the metro or a bus after explosions or whether it is best not to leave their homes.

Which project of are you most proud of and what do you dream about working on?

I am not particularly proud of this, but I like thinking of the time when I was an 18 year-old in the second year of university and just went off to a nursing home to take photographs. I produced a project called ‘Belittled by Time’, and this was for me was a coming-of-age moment.

While I worked on the project, I realized that, feelings and emotions are just as important as thoughts in photography.

Without compassion for the elderly and those forgotten and lonely, I never would have been able to take anything worthwhile. This was my first true lesson in photography.

I very much want to do a multimedia project using a mix of different visual means that will allow me to produce something new and different from what has previously been done in photography.

Connect with Elizaveta today through HackPack and expand your opportunities!

Elizaveta graduated from Moscow State University in Russia, then moved to Brussels where she works on photoprojects, publishing work as a freelancer in publications such as Vedomosti and Kommersant.

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