Talking Photography with the Observer Julija Svetlova


Artwork by Antonas Deduchovas

Artwork by Antonas Deduchovas

Julija Svetlova is a prolific freelance photographer based in East London. Her love of photography began when she started experimenting with analogue cameras as a teenager in St Petersburg. In 2003 she joined the Hermitage Museum’s photographic laboratory before moving to London to study Digital Lens-based Image Making at London College of Communication. Her work has been exhibited and published internationally. She has won numerous awards for her Lomography photography, as well as Sleipnir Travel Grant for artists from Nordic Council of Ministers and in 2011 she became a runner-up in the prestigious Fitzrovia Photography prize. In 2012 she contributed to “Photography: The New Basics” published by Thames & Hudson.

I met with Julija in Wapping, one of my favorite parts of London. Wapping is special because I am in love with River Thames. With various sounds of near-by river life, docks turned residential houses, relaxed locals, tarmac-free roads and exclusive pubs; Wapping is an oasis in the middle of active and busy London. Since it was still early morning, we headed towards some place that sells coffee and cakes. At the same time as talking about how we live (it was a while since we last met), Julija showed me her local wine bar, her residence and other everyday spots. Julija’s enthusiasm, energy as well as passion for photography and arts captivated me immediately. “She knows exactly what she wants”, I thought. We chose a very modern and quite trendy with today’s standards Italian café-restaurant, where young waitresses probably don’t know what the pen is seeing that they use iPads. The menu is combined of all-organic animal-friendly ingredients and Miles Davis’s music entertains quite vibrant local diners. After ordering our drinks and deserts, I have switched on my dictaphone and felt right away that this is going to be a very coherent and exciting discussion.

Julija Svetlova "Selfie 2"

Julija, Can you introduce yourself and tell us what do you do as a photographer?

I think that I am an image-maker rather than a photographer. In my opinion, photography is a very difficult term to describe because in this country the meaning of photography is quite diminished and it is not related to a form of art or self-expression. When you say that you are a photographer, people immediately think that you are paparazzi who is snapping celebrities and waiting for some famous people outside restaurants. The other half thinks that you photograph weddings. Especially since the arrival of the digital equipment, today, everybody is a photographer.

I don’t like to call myself an artist either, because I am not sacrificing my whole life to image making and I am not ready to cut my ear or to do any other extreme stuff. The minute you say that you are an artist people relate you to many things and I don’t want to be related to any of them. For me, image making is what I do. I take images with different techniques, which are difficult to explain for the people. Have in mind that today everything is Photoshoped and digitized but I use film, and even old people don’t remember what the film is, so I have to describe it to them too.

Why you don’t consider yourself as an artist?

Because I think that artist is to a certain extent over-hyped term.

What are these difficult techniques that nobody can understand?

Basically, my images are called double or multiple exposures. I shoot the film once, then I wind it back, then I load it again, and shoot it once more; or, turn the camera upside down to take the same shot, or use lens practitioner (it is a device which let’s you to expose different parts of you frame without actually winding the film). This way I never know what I am getting. Camera becomes my collaborator rather than merely my tool. But I approach each frame like it will be my unique and single frame and I want to make sure that it is going to be a meaningful picture that really appeals to me.

When people see my images, they think that I use digital cameras and then manipulate images in Photoshop acquiring layers and manipulating colors. But it’s not me; because I think that working with Photoshop is a very robotic process.

Analogue cameras don’t have displays, so I have to wait, to process a film, and then it’s all about happiness or disappointment. With digital cameras, you take a picture and then in front of the screen you sort of masturbate whilst thinking which image you like more. In my opinion, digital photography is boring.


You have mentioned “appeals to me”. I always like to talk about the notion of appeal within the arts. How do you know, that this particular image would appeal to you? I guess, it is difficult to imagine what the outcome will be when you shoot with analogue equipment.

I think that the feel comes with a practice. It is simple – you just have to train your eye. Of course, there are many people who take pictures these days plus there are various ways of doing that. For example, Instagram completely changed the whole photography game. Now everybody can take a picture and because it is square, it looks good, and then you apply some filters and shape it the way you want. But when I look at people’s pictures I see that most of them cannot even use that simple device. Their images still look shit. I use Instagram a lot, because I just have to take pictures all the time. Not for the professional purposes, but I do fell a need for producing a visual diary. I don’t really care what people do or who they are, I need to see interesting visual stuff from them to get my interest.

I guess it’s the same with my photography. When I look at the pictures that I took 10 years ago, I always think “really? Was that me?” So yeah, practice, practice, and practice, because the more you shoot the quicker you realize what is good for you. With time, whether stylistically, colorfully, or technically, you realize that “yeah, this is me and this is what I like!” My friends are laughing at me, because you can leave me anywhere on my own, still, I will get into the comfort-zone and I will start taking images. And then they say, “really? We have been there together and we haven’t seen that”. It’s a time well spent for me because taking pictures is something that I really like to do.

It used to be said that the camera doesn’t lie. Now, camera is less important, since morphing shapes, color alterations, composing the portions that were separately shot are of the higher priority – in other words, we have planted the seeds of lie within our images. I want to talk about digital manipulation aka Photoshop and how it changed the notion of image taking. Is post-production more significant process rather than clicking with the environment and getting a really good picture?  

Obviously, I have tried to experiment with digital too, because I thought that digital is much cheaper for creative image-makers. So I have tried to shoot portraits and fashion sessions with digital cameras. When I shoot with a digital camera everybody articulate that “it’s not you, it doesn’t work”. I was thinking, “I took that image, how come it doesn’t work?” It’s really unexplainable issue but with digital images something is lost for me.

In addition, I have noticed that with digital pictures I have no connection at all. I look at the picture once, send it to my relatives and never look at it again. But with the film pictures there is a different story because I keep on looking at them, thinking about them, submitting them to photography competitions. Digital for me is too cold. But I love Instagram I have to say.

Yes, as you say, I have to agree that there are too many people concentrating on the post-production in today’s climate. I can’t look at these kinds of images, when people take for example a landscape or seaside image and then they over-saturate the contrast, and everything looks metallic and shiny. I think, “Ok, what are you trying to do? Make reality more beautiful? Well, it doesn’t work this way.” Now too, there is availability of digital cameras which can make double-exposure images. You don’t even have to Photoshop them, just click twice and that’s it! I look at these pictures and I can immediately say that it is taken with this particular Canon or whatever, because these images are flat, there is no contrast, there is no fight between the layers, there is no life.

With analogue double exposures, layers interact, they tell stories. I have noticed that nowadays double exposure is widely used within the fragrance industry – images with two faces or something. I remember when I have started to create multiple exposed images the critics were saying, “it is bullshit, what is that?” Something that used to be unacceptable and illogical, now, is just another trendy tool.


Double exposures were underground you mean?

Yes, you can say that it was underground at some point. I think that it is a very generational issue as well. You know, there are still debates whether photography is an art form or not. There are people who still say that photography is not an art. If you listen to what David Hockney says you will be shocked.  He does not rate photography highly, at all. There are lots of people too who say that this is a fixation thing. But then again, major museums now collect photography. To summarize, photography is now semi-accepted as an art form.

 I too think about the digital photography as being too clean, too crystal-clear.  Like breast implants – you see them in your face, you touch them, they might give you temporary pleasure, but at the back of your mind you know that they aren’t real. Or like pornography images, where every detail is calculated to give voyeurs an orgasm. As you said, and I agree with you, digital photography is like masturbation.

And that is why you become lazy too!

Yes, exactly. With analogue film you have limited amount of images to shoot.

So you try harder.


OK, that makes sense, but can you conceptualize your photography?

Nowadays everything is super conceptual and you also have to write about what you do. I used to hate that, but now I’m getting more into this. I feel strange giving names to my pictures, that’s why I just give them simple names like “Pigeons”, “Sky” or whatever. But calling images “Untitled 1” and “Untitled 2” is not better either. So I am trying to find the golden middle.

There is that funny debate within museums as well as galleries about the size of the description next to the artwork. Should it be short or absent so people could figure out themselves, or should explanations be long and explain everything? I think that the latter distracts you from the art-work.

I have just updated my website with four photography projects. Realizing that we live in the time of concepts, I decided to write something about them and one of the names I came up with was “Seats of Meanings”. People immediately reacted by saying that their perception of those images have changed, that they started to understand and like them more.

At some galleries, for example, even a poo is accepted into canons of art. If artists manage to write about it, it is even better. And then the public says, “this is so conceptual”. Photography is a medium, but nowadays you have to say something about that. Unless, of course, you are a photojournalist, and it is pretty obvious about what is going on in the image.

But I think that it is important for the artist to be able to talk about his creativity.

Ok I understand. But if you see this poo at the gallery, for example, and you don’t get it at first, does it become more acceptable if you read about it?

But it depends on the context, of course. You can listen to noise music and it is, well, seems like just noise in there. But if there is the idea behind these noisy sounds, I think that is when it is starting to make sense. I agree that art sometimes doesn’t make sense. But, on the other hand, should it make sense? Should it be useful, valuable or shocking?  However, if as an artist you are able to talk about what you did, people start or at least they try to appreciate it. And this gives me a good opportunity to move our discussion towards the meaning of photography. I was reading Roland Barthes’s “Camera Lucida” and I couldn’t help but remember his statement that “photography is a memorial form of art”.

It’s funny you say that because I am too reading this book right now. I am preparing for my MA in History of Art. I used to live in St. Petersburg, very dark city, a place where you can’t take pictures for the duration of at least 6 months. You wake up it’s dark, finish work its dark, go to sleep it’s dark. And my photos are all about color, lots of colors. That is why in St. Petersburg, I was thinking that I would bring light and brightness into the world. Through my photography, I decided to make my world a brighter place. I think what we really have to focus on in Barthes’s theory is his idea of punctum: Either photograph touches within your soul or it is not. And it doesn’t matter what technique was used or what was the reason for taking that particular picture.


As one who comes from musical background, I am comparing photography with music and I think that photography is a very lonely form of art. Would you agree that Photographers are lonely, regularly in search for their new fix? Although musicians can create music alone; however, their aspiration is to perform for the audience and share their feelings with the spectators. That way loneliness kind of vanishes. With photography, you have exhibitions, I agree, but in there you have a lonely viewer looking at the picture. There is no interaction between the creator and the viewer.

I don’t see it that way. If you are a portrait or fashion photographer, there is nothing lonely about that. But with my type of photography? I don’t know. In general, people are lonely in big cities. I feel happy when I am taking pictures. I am not bored then and I am not thinking about social or domestic issues. I feel that I have some sort of purpose. Of course, same as any creative person whether musician or not, I long for appreciation and I enormously enjoy sharing. I don’t think loneliness has anything to do with our occupation, it can happen to anyone.

What about your images: Do they create new realities, mirror realities or maybe even imprison realities?

I was thinking about this for a while now. After shooting quite a lot whilst trying to find my style, I have realized that just taking pictures of what I see, wasn’t enough for me anymore, I wanted something additionally. That is how I have started to overlap my visual impressions, like baking a cake and putting one layer on the top of the other in order to see what happens. At the end, after various experiments, I have created something that pleased me.

If talking about realism, let’s say pigeons, in reality, I dislike them. But I have an award-winning photograph called “Pigeons” which depicts those birds in completely new way – people love it! This particular moment is priceless, when you can take few ideas and can create something entirely new out of them. Like new reality I guess. But I am also into street photography; I love to sniff around in the streets. I am actually having a break from double exposure now. I am into medium format Hasselblad, big time to be honest.


So are you a realist or more experimentalist personality?

I am an observer.

Then what are you observing and what are you looking for when you go out to take images?


Then, that makes you an obsessive artist.

Yes, I am obsessive. But I am happy when I shoot. Sometimes I think that I have some kind of mechanism in my body which zooms my vision in when I walk around. I like to look at things and notice something that people don’t pay attention to. Just look at the world from a different angle, I guess.

For me photography is related to a happy accident. I am not looking for anything to shoot on the purpose. If I see some random chair in a random place I am happy. I would not put a chair there myself, I want it to be real, I want it to be there when I find it. Same with my lomography stuff – there are accidents involved because I don’t know what will come out, at the time of shooting. I am an observer, if it’s there – I will take it.


I think of myself as being an observer too. But I do it from a more critical angle. I like to analyze popular culture and to think why this or that is here, how this affects people and how it shapes our culture. I think that today it is difficult to surprise people because they are bombarded with images. Everywhere we go we are surrounded by images. Aren’t people being spoiled and what is the future of photography?

I agree, visual culture has exploded, but I have no idea where this will take us. The problem is that there is a misconception now that photography is easy. Photographs of squats, homeless people, empty industrial places, shut-down parts of mental hospitals, ruins, empty rooms after somebody left – When this is going to stop? Most of the things that gets through to be represented I don’t get it, there is too much of that depressing stuff. Then people who aspire to be photographers think that this is widely accepted and then they start do the same thing all over again. What happened to colors and other beautiful everyday life things?

As we have discussed before interview having our tea, all the creative industry struggles because people don’t want to pay for anything. Even platforms like Getty Images started to share all of its content for free, hoping to create revenues from advertising, but the photographers will get nothing from it. You always get to the point of asking yourself about what needs to be done so you can become famous so people can start paying you. What to do? I have no answer to that.

Oh, you actually touched one of my questions – the money issue. The stuff that you use is very expensive – films, scanners, printers, exhibition logistics. How do you survive?

Yes, it’s tough. Producing exhibition costs a lot –  printing, mounting, etc. I do various things including events’ photography, scanning people’s family archives and producing hard copy photo books, running photography workshops. Just juggling with things.

The main thing is to be able to have fun and even in these kinds of jobs, you should be able to stay creative. I do believe that you have to send waves. So after this exhibition I will have another one.


Lets talk about your new exhibition. How did it started, what are your expectations and what we should expect to see over there?

The exhibition is called London Exposed. I will exhibit my double exposures about London, as the name reveals. The whole project started since I have moved here. When I was offered this particular venue, I was thinking about what I am going to show. I wanted to show my craziest but at the same sellable work, to spread the word so to speak. I wanted to pay tribute to London, my adopted home and then to move towards another big project.

London is one of the most visited cities on Earth. Countless people come here and take pictures of famous sites like the Big Ben. And I thought that I would like to show London but in a different way – my take on this busy megapolis. I hope that people will be surprised to see their city in that way. With London Exposed, I have decided to go Pop Art. All images are printed on metallic paper which gives them extra depth and are mounted on aluminum, very new school.

What about the venue? Why did you choose this particular venue?

I didn’t choose it, the venue came to me. “Kaizo” is actually a hair styling salon which has been running Art and Hair exhibition program for years now. The location is fantastic – in the heart of Shoreditch. Also, because it is East London, the mixed purpose venue is actually very cool to have. It is related to my double exposures where one function is not enough anymore.

What is the gallery anyway? Back in last century, Royal Academy used to cover its walls with paintings from floor to ceiling. In today’s culture, any space with neutrally painted walls can be considered as a gallery because canons change. I just want to grab this chance and step out of the Internet’s shared reality, get not too tipsy on organic wine I have stock up with for my opening night and be hip in Shoreditch, cause this is what you do nowadays.

Oh really?

Yeah, apparently.

JulijaSvetlova selfie1

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