If you were asked to name a country that has given birth to the some of the world’s most renowned writers, artists, poets and athletes, you would be forgiven if Ukraine didn’t immediately spring to mind … if at all.
Maria Matios (Hardly Ever otherwise), Joseph Conrad (The Duel, The Secret Agent, Heart of darkness), Ivan Aivazousky (painter),Nathan Altman (painter), Milla Jovovich (actress) and Mila Kunis (actress), all hail from Europe’s largest country; a country that’s often depicted as a bleak, Soviet-oppressed nation.
Despite its often damning publicity, it is also worth noting that Ukraine is in the top ten of the most wanted tourist destinations, invented the world’s largest cargo plane, produces the most environment friendly car and is a world leader in software engineering. It also holds 33% of the world’s rich, black earth supply (great for growing food products), 10% of the world’s manganese ore, invented the gas lamp and gave us Mila Kunis. Oops. Did I already mention her already?
Oh, and one other interesting fact before I move on. Ever used PayPal? Well, guess where Max Levchin – the co-founder of that online financial giant – hails from?
Yep, you got it. Ukraine. Quite a country I would say.
So why – I hear you say – has an English author suddenly taken an interest in Ukraine and what’s in it for him?
Well, it isn’t so much an interest in the country per-se but more in a particular man who resides there.
To me, this man has a great talent for photography and it’s this talent that I believe is worth sharing with the world.
Okay, so I might not be an expert of what constitutes a good photograph but I do know this: if it pleases my untrained eyes – or those of the general public – then to me, that’s talent … Nay, it’s art.
And so, without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, the undiscovered artist that is … RJ Russell.
My interview with RJ Russell
Where were you born?
I was born June 2, 1971 in a small village, in the southeast of Ukraine, which, at that time, was part of the USSR. It is a small mining village – there were many such villages like this – which is set In the midst of endless slopes, interspersed with forests, small rivers and calm lakes.
What did your mum and dad do for work?
Dad worked at the mine, which was extremely hard work. When he retired, he became seriously ill and passed away.
My mother was an elementary school teacher who also worked a great deal and is now retired.
What was life like, growing up?
We lived in a small house on the outskirts of the village and all my childhood was spent in the open air – riding bikes, launching kites and fishing with my father – a typical life for boys growing up there in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. I often visited my grandparents during the summer holidays.
During my first years of schooling, I was eager to learn new knowledge and to get to know the world in general. I was interested in everything – well almost everything. I didn’t like sports – but science and technology, physics, chemistry, biology, botany, astronomy, history and literature were all fascinating subjects for me.
Without a doubt, I would say that my parents influenced almost all my interests in life. My dad was a romantic, loved technology, travel, adventure and fantastic books by both British and American authors. My parents bought many books and popular science journals, which undoubtedly encouraged my love for good literature. But I want to remind you that in the USSR there was a very tough literary censorship and there were very few good books. Good literature was passed from hand to hand, almost underground.
I started to read the books on offer from an early age – I think at 5 or 6 years old – and before I’d even started elementary school, I had already read Robinson Cruise, The Adventures of Gulliver and many books by Jules Verne.
In fact, it was during that early age that I myself became a romantic and dreamed of long-distance travel to faraway countries where I would encounter many great adventures.
However, my greatest love (because of my interest in science and technology) was science fiction stories. By the age of 17, I had read almost all the books of the science fiction authors who were published in the USSR, although, as I said earlier, due to strict censorship, this was only a small amount compared to the expanse of literature that is available from around the globe.
I read books by Ray Bradbury and Robert Young – my greatest influences – Clifford Simak, Isaac Azimov, early Robert Sheckley and Stanislav Lem.
So? What got you interested in photography?
Due to the many restrictions in Soviet controlled Ukraine, photography was heavily censored and access to decent … well, access to any … cameras and the equipment that went with them was non-existent. As such, I had absolutely no interest in photography in my youth, preferring to listen to music and read books instead.
The Iron Curtain made it impossible to see the beautiful works of talented photographers from across the world and so, the whole photo era almost passed me by completely.
However, during the restructuring of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, restrictions began to lift and we finally started to gain access to magazines and photo books. Suddenly, I was able to delight in a new form of art, an art that was showing me how beautiful and free the rest of the world was. People, nature and news stories were coming to life in the form of photographs and I was unbelievably excited by what could be achieved just by using a camera. I wanted to get involved but, as I didn’t have access to a camera or the means to buy one, I was stuck with only being able to see the world as others saw it.
Thankfully, that was to unexpectedly change when I left university and got myself a job.
For my birthday, my work colleagues surprised me by gifting me with a Kodak camera: a simple, plastic camera that was almost like a toy, but a camera nonetheless. I was beside myself. With one click, I could capture moments in my life that might otherwise have been restricted only to my memory. There was no auto-focus, no fancy settings just point and shoot, point and shoot … and that’s exactly what I did. I had suddenly found a new appetite and I was greedy for it. I was hooked.
Photo developers started to spring up all over Ukraine and – whilst the quality of the prints left much to be desired – I was able to see what I had created with my own hands and this little plastic box. It was truly amazing and inspiring to think that I was now part of a global family, with the ability to share my own life and the things I see around me.
I began to read and absorb as much as I could about photography. I wanted to get better at my new craft, produce photos like I had seen in magazines and … who knew … make my mark on this Earth by sharing the beauty of life via the medium of photos. Creation. This is what now inspires me. This is my love.
What do you like most about photography?
The ability to narrate a great story – be it factual or fictional – merely by capturing the right moment or mood at precisely the right time.
The magic that photography brings has no boundaries, with each photo stimulating the body’s senses and emotions like the pages of a good book might.
Technology has moved on and cameras have become very advanced but a good photo isn’t the result of a good camera; it is a result of a good photographer. A camera in the hands of a good photographer is like a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon: both needing to be used with unbridled skill and a maximum amount of concentration.
Knowing that a moment of truth can be recorded in a split-second freeze – taken at the behest of my inner thoughts and instincts – is an exhilarating and satisfying feeling. To me, photography is freedom – freedom of choice and freedom of expression – and, given my experiences of living in a Soviet controlled country, it’s a freedom that I would fight to keep.
Who is your hero/idol?
Whilst I have no particular idol, my own personal hero would be Jesus Christ. To me, he is the perfect ideal and someone whom I truly believe inspires me to work and stops me from falling.
If we are talking about photographers, then my respect and inspiration comes from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve Curry, Elliot Erwitt, Rodney Smith and Peter Linbergh.
As for purely inspirational people that I admire, then it is without doubt, the late Steve Jobs. A genius who not only brought us Apple products but gave us the technological tools to perfect our creativity and self-expression in all manner of ways.
What are your hopes, fears and aspirations?
A complicated question to answer. It is difficult not to hope for an end to world poverty and war but I fear that this hope is unrealistic and beyond the achievable. For now, I can only hope that the people of my country will become kinder, smarter and be more merciful towards each other. We have seen some changes for the better in the Ukraine but my fear is that the politicians and the powerful will revert our country back to the old ways, revoke our freedom and take away the one thing that makes all human beings thrive … self-esteem.
If you could go absolutely anywhere, where would you go?
In a fantasy world, I would love to become an astronaut and explore deep space. How fantastic would that be?
In reality, I would love to travel across the planet and visit its most distance parts to discover and communicate with extraordinary people. I would tell their stories to the whole world merely by sharing their stories via a photo-blog. No words, no dialogue, just the interpretation of their existence through photographs. I could be like a digital Nomad, wandering the Earth with nothing but a camera and a vision to bring people closer to each other. Now wouldn’t that be perfect?
Interview by P.A. Davies May 2019
Some of RJ’s work
All photos © reproduced courtesy of RJ Russell Photography
Contact details for RJ Russell
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