Listen to the Space. Interview with Alena Zhandarova

by Maya Hristova

By Maya Hristova


Alena Zhandarova is probably already a well-known figure to many of you with deeper interest in contemporary photography. She started her career around 2010 in her hometown of Ivanovo, a small city northeast of Moscow. Since then, her work has been exhibited worldwide, her language transporting something universal, the exact definition of which keeps eluding us ever so slightly. In our conversation she said: 'I wouldn’t want my photos to be read superficially, so that the mind would cling to a familiar link and say 'Okay, now everything is clear.' Despite her success, her work has stayed deeply grounded in herself, in the place where she comes from and in the things that are important to her. Due to the fact that she is as much of a poet with words as with images, I formulated my questions in English, while she was replying in Russian.

For this interview we focused on three of her latest projects and her conceptions about space, form and subject. Although the uncanny compositions of her interiors make her instantly recognizable, it becomes compelling to observe the development of her technical approach  throughout the years. In my mind, the clarity and lightness of her vision form a gripping contrast to the elusiveness of her subjects. Alena's work is a portrait of the other woman and of herself. Sometimes, her imagery reminds me of a quote by a writer, who focused on the issue of identity in a very different context and time. That’s African-American author Ralph Ellison who tackled the aspect of invisibility back in 1952 in the following way: 'I’m invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed everything and anything except me.' And while attempting to decipher the transient nature of her approach towards photography, it became clear that it is not something one can simply unveil, but a fundamental part of her essence.

From 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles'

You started your career when you were very young. Originally from Ivanovo, you studied Fine Art Photography at the European Institute of Design in Madrid. I’m curious what lead your way from Russia to the Spanish capital? What made you leave and what brought you back?

At that time, I was so fascinated and carried away by the possibility of visual expression that I fell into many adventures and was thinking it’s better to try than not, it’s better to act, if you feel that it’s yours, probably to trust the world. As soon as I felt I had a series done, I would immediately start sending it out to all sorts of contests, and to my surprise, I even won some of them. That’s how things happened, which eventually led me to Madrid, to the opportunity of professional education. When it was finished, I decided to return to Russia, because its energy is closer and more comfortable for me to work.

From 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles'

Ivanovo as a place plays a big role in your photography. And yet, in your work we see it only as expressed through the interiors of its ordinary living rooms, kitchens and through the women inhabiting them. From you, we’ve learned that Ivanovo is nicknamed the City of Brides due to the high number of women who used to work in the textile industry there, but you never actually show us its public space. Why do you think that is?

I don’t like public spaces, as well as shooting on the street. Besides, I love visiting people and discovering something new about them through their houses. I love old interiors, because time can be unfolded through them. Indoor light is completely different, intimate, penetrating. 'The City of Brides' is not about factories and the city, the legend itself is a just a starting point, basis, fundament, a frame.

From 'Cornflower Tea and Concealing Chocolate' 

Have you ever been called a feminist? One might say that behind the witty warmth of your interiors, as also expressed by the handmade quality of your books, there is a subtle violence at work. One of your subjects has cut off her tail, another has a fish stuck on her forehead, which she neither seems to enjoy nor to rebel against. Usually, these scenes are played out in the territory of the home. In one interview you say ‘It attracts me as a big power, the freedom of choice and will.’ 

The word 'feminism' isn’t close to me. I work in the moment, I listen to the space and contemplate the person. I don’t think that I should elaborate on this topic or that. For example, I saw most of the 'brides' for the first time during the shooting at their place. For me it was a very ambitious task to meet them through the lens, to try help us relax and create something new that would reflect this moment. It was a photograph between her and me. Many couldn't recognize themselves after that. And yes, freedom of choice is one of the main topics that I explore, it concerns boundaries, beliefs and prejudices.

From 'The City of Brides'

Somewhere you say ‘I love my city. It’s saturated by a leisurely atmosphere and gentle fog in the mornings. My windows face to the north, and the Big Dipper hugs my sleep at nights.’ Your photography as well as your words often sound like from a dream version of reality. Do you feel your work has been influenced by folklore or the world of fairy tales?

Rather no, than yes, I love fairy tales and magic, but it comes much more from the inside out, rather than the other way around. Photography is my way to digest the world. Fairy tales are usually very symbolic, but I wouldn’t want my photos to be read superficially, so that the mind would cling to a familiar link and say ‘Okay, now everything is clear.’ I don’t want everything to be clear, I don’t want it to be understandable, because you can understand something only with your mind, and I want the viewer to turn it off and feel.


From 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles'

In both 'The City of Brides' and 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles' women are expressed as part of their home interiors. In one image we only see a female hand, which is coming from under a kitchen table. It is not reaching out, but calmly lies there in one corner of the table. One might sense a certain type of compliance about this image. The hand has adapted to its uncomfortable position. Looking at the scene it doesn’t seem like there is anyone under the table or that the hand ever belonged to anybody in particular. Or it might make one think that the person whose hand once it was, had been gradually reduced to only that hand. We sense obedience also from the cleanness of the room, the polished wood of the chair or the calmly reflected silence of the light blue walls. Violence feels peaceful. In another image we see a woman hiding behind a couch. We’re clearly looking at someone who does not want to be seen. She looks like she needs to hold on to the interior for support, her whole body leaning on the wall behind her. In yet another photograph a woman is being literally ironed to her couch. In all of these images, the woman is the central subject and yet she’s almost blended within the interior. 

Thank you, I am very glad that you are looking so deeply through the image, out of focus, while paying attention to the details. Let's start with the fact that 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles' is a self-portrait project, which is very important to me. And I'm very sensitive about the interaction between space and human in it, because I believe 'what is inside is outside'. Therefore, I really wanted to merge with others, to transcend this border, although I understand that this can be seen as a kind of limitation or restraint. I like to dissolve, I like when I’m more than my body. For me, in photography and in life generally, your condition is important, your feelings, this is what I basically rely on. This is how I try to find harmony in myself and in the world.

From 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles'

Throughout your work interiors take up different roles. The houses in 'Cornflower Tea and Concealing Chocolate' appear much more playful compared to the carefully ordered 'Puree with A Taste of Triangles'. How has your work evolved through the years?

The interiors in these two projects sometimes do overlap. There is some time between them. I’m gradually learning to sort out what I feel is not necessary, to be more attentive and honest.

You usually use ordinary objects in unexpected ways and there are a lot of unusual things happening in your images. It is almost like we’re looking in a mirror world, where routine items have taken up new roles. How does space speak to you?

Space is a very important teacher, it already exists, and you can come to it as a guest and look around. I’ve learnt to trust the moment, the surroundings and my intuition, and I almost never plan my shoots. Very often, the moment I find that I can’t think of anything, a visual revelation takes place.

From 'The City of Brides'

Sometimes I get the sense that your images are silent reconstructions of something real that happened, that you’re trying to tell us a story that first needs to be decoded in order to reveal what has actually occurred. Somewhere you talked about solving equations. Are your photographs riddles that you had to once solve and now it’s our turn as viewers to try and solve for ourselves?

Every object and each corner of the house carries its own history, its own energy. Their combination and particular arrangement in space creates a common structure, only one of its kind. It always surprises me how differently a shot is being perceived at the slightest change in ratios between objects or by a small turning of the head. This really is an equation and it’s important for me that it’s an equation, because this is my language. They say that a woman understands what she wants to say only during a conversation, because she is built that way. And I understand what I really want to say during the shooting process. At the same time, there is no single solution, it depends on the mood, events in life, the book I read - perception changes and the same image is felt in different ways.

From 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles'

What do you think motivates the women to volunteer for your projects? 

Usually I photograph people with whom I feel some internal resonance, and then I just wonder what is happening in their lives, we talk to each other, drink tea, listen to the silence. I try to be considerate, but at the same time, if I feel that this is the shot that I need, I try to show it to the girl, to fascinate and inspire her. They are my muses, my starting point, like myself when it comes to self-portrait. Many girls like the atmosphere of the experiment and they relax and trust me, although some do not. Sometimes a photo is just not born.

You have won several awards and your work has been exhibited all over the world.  How are the reactions to your work different at home than abroad?

My works have almost not been exhibited in Russia. Therefore, I couldn’t yet note any differences.

From 'Puree with a Taste of Triangles'

In a way, the life that you lead seems quite different than the lives of your subjects. The women in your images seem like they belong to their city and to their houses. But the house is often portrayed as a place of longing, it’s in the realm of dreams which is one of the most magical qualities of your work. 

They say that children behave the worst with their mom, because they can trust her with their most negative feelings. I think the same is with the house. This is the place which you can trust, where you can nestle yourself in pillows, turn on the music and banish your inner demons, walk naked, be dissatisfied with yourself, keep quiet, pile up a ton of dishes in the sink, lie in the bath all day and watch 'Friends', invite friends, stare at one point, laugh out loud, whatever. The house will understand everything. Therefore, it’s important for me to photograph people in their homes, where they relax more easily and can get into an experience from which they might have been running away, because there is nowhere to run.

Alena, thank you very much for this interview.

Header image from 'The City of Brides' | Translation from Russian: Anastasiia Malkova 

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