In 2009, Stoyan Vassev took an unexpected step. He left his professional cycling career and took a dive into photography. He thought it would be a slight detour, but he now has shot a wide array of topics from interiors to breaking news to Donald Trump.
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As a professional athlete, have you found many similarities between athletics and photography?
Yes, at the very least, the lifestyle is very similar. To be good at athletics, you also need discipline and perseverance. However, in photography most people only reach the height of their career at an older age. I think photographers also need time for their eye to mature.
Speed is also important and because of it I found a way to mix my two loves. I live in the center of Moscow where traffic hinders everything. So I bought a foldable bike to promptly reach any scene for breaking news. With a bike, you pull up, take your photos and are already off again.
Why did you trade your cycling for photography?
When I was on the road competing, I would often read magazines like National Geographic. I always dreamt how one day, I would take photos just like them. Then I reached a dip in my career, and decided it was time to stop. When I think back, I do feel like I didn’t fully reach my potential. But at the time, I was confident that after photo school, I would be earning big bucks in half a year. It turns out nothing happens this fast.
I finally gained my first connections by shooting at night clubs.
How did you go from shooting night clubs to getting Donald Trump (the photo is on the HackPack.press homepage)?
Well, at the time, I was working for Crocus Group who had been selected to organize the 2013 Miss Universe competition. Back then, Trump was one of the owners and flew in to attend the final.
When you are working major events, your intuition really makes or breaks an opportunity. Someone famous enters a room and everyone clings to them from all sides. You have to foresee which direction he will turn and be exactly in the right place to take the picture from the front without everyone else blocking you. I was very fortunate because I chose the right spot while all the other photographers were shooting from behind him.
Do you often work with politicians?
I recently started working as a stringing for TASS. They periodically send me to official events, forums and press conferences. This has given me far more experience.
When did you make that career change from night clubs to the news?
For a few years now. My wife works in PR and helped introduce me to several editors. Thanks to those introductions, I received my first big break. This was a project that I shot with a Leica at the car factory ZIL. The project, ZIL’s Last Days, was even named as the best photography project at the Sevebryanaya Camera 2014.
I also shot a pretty interesting project for the magazine Russky Reporter. I came up with an idea to show members of the emergency situations ministry — firefighters, doctors, alpinists, etc. — in a new light.
I’m still at the beginning of my career, though. I still largely do commercial shoots. Projects with the press only makes up 30–40% of my client base, while the rest are events, interiors and food advertisements.
Is it difficult to bounce among different types of photography? How do you keep up with the latest trends?
Currently, I focus on trends within news photography. As for commercial assignments, it is most important to competently keep to the fundamentals. Also know what your client wants. I always ask new clients to give me a full description of the desired format before starting.
I don’t think that a photographer should shoot only one type of material. It’s very useful to weave throughout different formats. Otherwise, you stop attempting to artistically improve.
Do you photos often phase the editors knife?
Yes and sometimes that knife feels like it slashes my heart, especially when I had developed a different concept. At first, this was especially difficult to handle. When I first started working with TASS, they rejected most of my photos and I couldn’t understand why. I’d send in 30 photos and they would only take five. And then I began to dig into the fundamentals. Everything is really easy, but you just have to know the rules. For a news agency, a photo should be simple and portray as much as possible the “who, what, when, where and why” in a single frame.
What have you learned about licensing rights?
The agencies that I’ve worked with always buy full licensing rights to photos. You can still publish the photos for personal reasons, but you must receive permission first. Licensing rights last for a few years, then it is possible to sell the material again to other clients.
And how to you decide on ideas for projects?
This is the very difficult, but I seek ideas in everything. From events to general conversations. I seriously thought about participating in international competitions, but I realized that I don’t really have anything to use. Those competitions require projects with a story. I’m very fortunate to live in Russia. There is always something happening here and there are many stories.
In fact, I’ve been working on a project since last summer but I can’t tell the details as I need to keep it secret. Sometimes I’ve even come across situation when I pitched an idea to a publication, they turn it down and then use their own photographer to shoot the idea. There’s no way to fully defend yourself from this.
What future steps would you like to take for your career?
I want to immerse myself in journalism. I’d like to work with a few agencies, study the system, then work a bit as a full-time photographer. I think it would be great to try myself with international agencies, especially Magnum. They truly are at the highest level, and I hope to some day reach that level and work with them.