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Capturing Vulnerabilities in a Photo: Telling Personal Stories With Photography

The young and talented photographer, Dasha Klimasheva has already been around the world working on projects: Denmark, Greenland and Russia. However, it was a personal project in her own apartment that caught the attention of the Washington Post.

In this week’s Spotlight project, Dasha shared how to capture the most personal moments in others’ lives as well as her own.

Read in Russian

You published an entire project on the difficulties within your own family between you and your mother. How difficult was it to publish such a personal story?

At first, I had never intended for this story to leave the walls of the Danish School of Media and Journalism. But this story had a lot of unexpected moments. I realized that when you develop a project about your personal life, then you become truly vulnerable. I had learned to distance myself so much from my self-portraits that I at first see the larger idea or story. My mother, on the other hand, would look at the photos, like any normal person, and she would see herself in the photos, not the idea I was trying to express. I didn’t have a right to put my mother in this position, so I shifted the focus from her to me. [View the whole project and backstory]

The description for each of the 13 photos was always addressed to a single person, however, at some point for me, the words came to embody a larger, global human truth of love between two people. After I showed the project at the Danish School, I realized that I could withstand almost any reaction. Therefore later on, I let this project move beyond a university project.

When you upload photos to the Internet, you can’t estimate the type of reaction they will attain. And I realized that if I had photographed my mother instead of myself, then she would have taken it very hard.

Why did you decide to work on that project?

I had repeatedly told myself this story for six years as if I were afraid to forget it. After I finished photographing the project, I freed my mind. It’s similar to when you write a book, then place the story on the shelf and leave it in your past. I also realized that I probably wasn’t the first nor the only person to have experienced such difficulties in their family, so I wanted to help others feel less alone in their plight.

How did your mother react?

She doesn’t like to be photographed. But I think it was then that for the first time, I understood exactly what I wanted to see in the photos. I simply set a chair down, my tripod and asked her to trust me without asking any questions.

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You’ve participated in the New York Times Portfolio Review, Danish School of Media and Journalism and have a full-time gig as a photographer. You’re 24. How have you been able to make it all happen?

Stupidity and bravery. Haha just kidding. Probably a mix of stubbornness and an appropriate level of self-confidence. At some point, I’m intrigued whether or not I can do something and I just try.
Often, I’d rather just lie in bed and do nothing. However, I understand that I need to get moving and the more I start moving, the more that action captures my interest. And all of a sudden I realize that I enjoy it.
I’ve done a lot of things that I was wouldn’t be able to do — like studying in Denmark. I didn’t believe I could survive in a country where I didn’t know anyone or anything. It’s like leaping into the abyss. You start fall and think, “well I’ll either learn how to fly or crash to the bottom”. I just hope that I’ll learn to fly before reaching the bottom.

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Your projects are often about someone’s personal life. How do you convince people to trust you and let you portray their lives?

In Greenland, I simply wrote a request in Facebook. The cities there are very small, so everyone knows each other and the Facebook post quickly made the rounds. One woman contacted me and agreed to participate. We selected a time to meet and I found a translator. When I reached her place, however, she called and said that she was sick and unable to participate. She wouldn’t even open the door. I don’t know how long it took to finally convince her to meet but I finally did.

She had had a hard life. The father to her children had left her, she raised the children by herself and was always on the brink of survival. When we finally met up, I ended up going back with her to her place and stayed there for four days without leaving.

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Sometimes you arrive, see that someone is hurting and you don’t start by taking photos. Instead you go to the kitchen and make them breakfast. You are first and foremost a human, then a photographer. Some photographers aren’t hindered by their surroundings. They immediately start taking pictures at the hearth. I can’t work that way. I get to know someone first, then I take out my camera.

What’s the hardest thing about freelance work and being a full-time photographer?

At a full-time job, you lose the ability to simply take off and be somewhere tomorrow, but you gain a stable income, medical insurance and paid vacations. In freelance, you never know whether you’ll have money and if you do, then you don’t know when it will run out.
If you do commercial shoots, then financials are more or less stable. But some people say that it is difficult to mix commercial and documentary work. Supposedly you have to make a decision — you take commercial photos but don’t show anyone or take photos for yourself and pray you’ll find a client. Only later on did I understand that this was all ridiculous. I know many good photographers who successfully combine commercial and personal projects without ruining their professional image or brand.

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Are you able to combine the two?

Last year I became the full-time photographer at Moscow’s City Duma [the municipal governing body] and in the process, I’ve worked out a formula. I realized that I can create my own projects while at work. The more constricted you are, the more difficult it is to come up with projects, but that’s what makes it interesting.

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I’m planning on working on my own project where I take photos of people in the Duma hallways, stairwells, elevators and then write the time and date, their position and department. Later on, I’ll create an entire project where I print off their portraits and hang them up exactly where we first met. I’m also participating in a year-long mentorship program in Europe that is online and in person. So there are ways to combine personal development/projects and full-time work.

Do you have any last tidbits of advice?

If you don’t dare to ask, the answer is already NO.

Here’s another good piece of advice that I gleaned while working on a portfolio review. I always try to show my work in the best light, but for some reason, it seemed that someone else would know better. I asked the program’s tutor to help decide the order for the photos. He took a look, rubbed his beard, and finally asked ‘what exactly do you want to show?’ That’s when I realized that only I could answer that question. It is always clear what you want to show, you just need to accept that the result may not be correct for everyone.

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