Olena Slyesarenko

Exploring the contradictions between light and dark, the London-based photographer's images capture Ukrainian culture in flux

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Taking inspiration from her homeland of Ukraine, 23-year-old photographer Olena Slyesarenko’s 'Small Economies' project looks at how the change in economic climate has affected small Ukrainian businesses and the hard-working individuals behind them. Capturing the cultural affects of tourism by focusing closely on the coastal area of Azov Sea, statuesque images of derelict kiosks, vendors, and inflatable seaside attractions channel the running theme of contradictions between dark and light featured in her work. After studying photography at the Glasgow School of Art, and for a short time at the Pratt Institute in New York, she is now based in London where her work has been displayed at the University of Westminster London Gallery West, Ambika P3 and in the Royal Photographic Society Journal. Olena talked to Dazed Digital about the project and her love of photography.

Dazed Digital: What was your first experience with photography?
Olena Slyesarenko: My first conscious experience with photography was on the other side of the lens, which granted history with yet few more images of ‘what NOT to wear’ and ‘what haircut should be prohibited”.

DD: Where do you draw inspiration for your projects?
Olena Slyesarenko: My inspiration comes from looking… photo books, films, galleries - all the usual stuff. I guess I’ve always been lucky to have amazingly talented friends who inspire me in one way or another and just keep me going. But I am also blessed having exposure to Ukrainian visual culture, which formed me as a photographer and a human being. 

DD: What is it that attracts you to the dark themes featured in your work?
Olena Slyesarenko: I would rather say I am drawn to the thin line between dark and light, the area of contradictions. I’ve always been interested in the viewer’s slight confusion once facing the artwork, leaving them wondering and engaged with ambiguity and irony of my images.

DD: A lot of your work focuses on small businesses in Ukraine. How have recent economic changes affected small businesses there and how did you come to shoot this?
Olena Slyesarenko: The whole project started with visuals in my head, of people on the beach with peeling off skin and bright smiles against monumental classical seascapes. But as I went along I focused more on people working along the shore and temporality of their jobs, both because of its seasonal dependency and quickly changing economical climate in Ukraine. It later developed into a bigger multi-seasonal and geographically vast project. Global economical crisis didn’t affect small businesses in Ukraine as much as corrupt unbalanced internal politics did, but small enterprises are still there. They are the fighters and this is precisely why I showed them so monumental in this project.

DD: What do you look for when photographing?
Olena Slyesarenko: I shoot people most of the time, so the key moment I am looking out for is when the sitter loses control over their self presentation and stop imposing their mental picture of themselves onto the camera. That moment of awkwardness when they are still posing but genuine, relaxed side of them shines through.

DD: Why is photography important to you?
Olena Slyesarenko: I will never be able to answer this question since it’s absolutely intuitional. It is basically everything to me, not necessarily taking pictures but looking at them, talking about them, imagining stills, etc. I am also very comfortable and secure with this medium after spending years learning to ‘read’ images so it is pretty much a comfort zone at this stage.

DD: What type of camera do you use?
Olena Slyesarenko: I am still shooting analogue with amazing Hasselblad camera. It is fantastic at least because it was the first to land on the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to shoot what was there.

DD: If you could photograph anything, what would it be?
Olena Slyesarenko: This is going to sound super corny, but wouldn’t it be great if we could photograph human soul?

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