Interview: Anastasiya Palko
Photo: Anton Shebetko
Are you a self-taught photographer or have you studied photography somewhere?
My photographic education is limited to a course taught by Bird in Flight Photo School. I was in their very first admission. They picked 25 people for a free course and it was very great and awesome, to be honest. I basically deleted everything I’ve shot before starting this course haha. I simply didn’t like my previous work, it was trash.
I think that a lack of a visual education is a big problem for Ukrainians. You just go outside and already feel uneasy from all the advertising, sings, houses etc. It takes a lot of effort to love these surroundings, especially when you were born in them.
Do you remember the first project after which you could call yourself a photographer?
It’s probably the project with the leg – the ‘Gospel of Leg’. I was re-shooting the Bible and instead of Jesus Christ I used my broken leg in a cast. Maybe, it’s not the best project of mine, but at least it’s kind of fun and trashy. I presented it at Non Stop Media, which is a festival of youth projects in Kharkov.
Have you had problems with believers who criticized the idea of this project?
No. Anyone barely knows about it. At first I posted these photographs on Facebook without any captions and no one even had a clue what was going on, because the images were quite weird, for example, me squeezing a man’s nipple with my fingers. It was a parable about a fig tree that was barren. Afterwards I completed the project and wrote a text to accompany it. There are people who unfollowed me just because they didn’t like my work. After all, if you don’t take photographs of your friends smiling, then you obviously face the possibility of running into people who might find your work unpleasing.
Tell us about your collaboration with VICE.
I’ve sent one of my projects to VICE, the one I’ve never published anywhere and the one I’ve spent a long time working on. I just realised that I’m ready to show it to the world. It’s a project about gay people who are trying to hide it, and I called it ‘Common People’. As for my collaboration with VICE then the procedure is the usual – you always contact first, you should know how to negotiate and you should be familiar with the editors. If you don’t do it then no one will ever do it for you. Unfortunately, Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of media outlets, which can get your work published.
Was it hard for you to find models that were willing to participate?
Yes, very. Most of the models are people that I already knew. A lot of people rejected my offer, despite the fact that the project was completely anonymous. Even my closest friends didn’t want to do it, because they thought someone would recognize them. It’s a clear indicator of how homophobic society is, also the internal homophobia of gay people themselves, who didn’t want to participate in such a project. Apart from the photographs, I also recorded interviews with the models and overlayed the audio tracks on one another, which pretty much resulted in complete noise. You hear a lot of voices making one, and it’s not a pleasant one.
How did you end up at the exhibition of young Ukrainian artists in Mystetskyi Arsenal?
Oh you know, the usual – they announce an open call and you apply. The curators pick from the contestants, nothing is out of the ordinary in such a procedure.
What project did you participate with in this exhibition?
The project was called ‘Плешка’ (a place for talking, meeting and seeking sexual partners (also for money), homosexuals, that usually takes place in city squares or parks near monuments or fountains).
I knew beforehand that such places existed. The most famous one was the 100m that went from Kreschatyk to Bessarabka. It operated for quite a long while. There was also a spot in Metrograd. It’s all gone now, the only one remaining is at Hydropark, there’s a nudist beach. This thing will never disappear though, some people are really into anonymous sex.
Are these places from a certain past?
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are way older than me. It’s also a matter of memory, since there is no such thing as a gay culture in Ukraine, so no one remembers anything. Everything just fades into oblivion. Very few people know about these places, even gay people themselves. The younger folks never even heard about it, they never heard that these places existed. There’s this thing in Ukraine – it’s difficult to find gay men older than 40, because most of them are married and very secretive. My project Common People doesn’t even include anyone in that age frame, simply because they’re all very difficult to talk to. It was a taboo topic, we even had the 121 law and you couldn’t be as open about things because there would be consequences. But people really used to meet up at these places. As far as I know, there were never big gather-ups of, say, 100 people, it was always a small group. The very first ‘плешка’ was at the Saint Vladimir Hill, which existed from the beginning of the last century. The others appeared throughout the soviet times. In the beginning of Ukraine’s independence the famous spot was the 100m one I’ve mentioned before and the Shevchenko park. Even if you look at the old gay tour-guides, you can discover info about places where gays used to hang out at.
Is photography enough for your self expression?
Photography is the simplest medium you can use and which is available to everyone. You don’t need any extraordinary skills to be able to do it. All you need is an idea, then you can visualize it with the help of photography. I would like to work with video, with installations – those are the things that interest me. I’d like to work with sculpture too. There are a lot of great artists that use photography without even taking pictures themselves. You can use a screenshot, google maps, skype, etc. In the modern day an artist can use whatever he likes.
Are you prepared to fight for what matters to you?
This question is probably about the gay focus in my work. I’m not an activist and never have been one. I simply think it’s important to speak out about the topics that interest you. I want to do that and I can do that. Thank God no one forbids me to express my thoughts. If someone doesn’t want to see my art – simply don’t look at it. You can just unsubscribe and never run into it again.
Of course, activists are people of value and they’re doing a great job. Thanks to them a lot of things are possible these days, and I’m speaking not just about LGBT, it’s a matter of activism in any sphere of life. But I personally have a different path. Even the fact that my project ‘Плешка’ was exhibited in Mystetskyi Arsenal is a big deal. You raise certain questions and you make problems visible to society.
Was that the biggest exhibition you’ve taken part in?
In terms of the scale of the festival, yes. There was another important one for me last year in ‘Карась’. It was my personal exhibition in Kiev and that was a good experience.
Did you feel a change for yourself after that exhibition?
No. You do your thing and you live your life. If someone liked what you do and it hit off – great. I’m glad that people discovered the existence “плешки”, that it was an actual thing with a hidden story, a story one would never even find out about in different circumstances. I’ve been told that the phenomenon of a “плешка” is studied in the courses of sociology in Ukraine.
There is a lot of nudity in your work, mostly male. Do you find the female body sexy?
When I photograph naked people, both male and female, I don’t think about sexuality. I use the body, and the body has nothing to do with sex, at least for me. I don’t find these photographs arousing. I photograph the female body. Let’s take, for instance, one of my recent projects ‘Точка’ – it’s an experiment, where complete strangers come to me and I take their pictures. More women came so far.
Tell us more about this project.
I post photographs of people on the internet: strangers, friends, acquaintances, whoever comes to my home. Additionally, I ask them to write a story about a time when they got lost. There’s also a third photograph, where the person is either naked, or half-naked.
Are you planning an exhibition with this project?
I’m thinking about making this project like a photo zine. And yes, of course, if there’s an exhibition, I think of presenting the nude photographs. But then again, I haven’t signed anything with these people so this entire project is based on trust. I acknowledge the fact that some people won’t be okay with me publishing the entire version of this project. But I really enjoy how this project helps people loosen up, or the opposite, how this project makes them even more tense. It’s all a normal reaction, because in this case I don’t do photography, I document a process. As a matter of fact, it’s a documentation between me and the people I photograph.
Do you usually have enough courage?
I don’t need courage – those people who have to bare themselves and get into the position need courage. I’m just taking the shot. But I don’t think that I’m a very courageous person. If I have a clear understanding that I need something done, then I will have the courage to finish it through. Taking pictures of naked people though… Do you really need courage for that? You can receive negative feedback or get rejected by people. Normally they said that they don’t like my photography style, that it’s trashy. Or it’s vice versa – I like it, but I’m not brave enough.
Sleeping Party People
Summer moved on