How did you become a photographer?
I became a photographer mostly by accident. After university I was going to work in finance in London. But I had an enormous hunger to see the world, so I traveled for a year in Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia. With me I had a very simple Pentax camera with two lenses. I really enjoyed looking at the world through it. I got excited about photography, so when I got back to England I started looking for some studies. A friend of mine found a course in photojournalism at London College of Printing (London Institute now). After we completed it, we spent a year working there, doing both writing and photography.
It was June 1991 when I decided to go to Russia. Every decision we take has its conscious and unconscious reasons. I blame the enormous amount of Russian literature that I read in school. I was fascinated with Russia. This was the time when Soviet Union was still in existence. I didn’t have a single friend there, and I liked that idea. I tried to visit Soviet Russia, but didn’t manage to get a visa. With the help of a friend I got a visa to Ukraine. In October 1991 I got on a plane with two bags and a camera, some lenses and 30 rolls of film given to me by London Times. I spent four years working as a freelance from Kiev. During that time I traveled in Ukraine, Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia. It was easy and cheap, I didn’t have much money but it wasn’t a problem. Finally, in 1995 I got a contract with New York Times and went to work to Moscow.
What was your first impression of Moscow?
I’d been to Moscow before. Comparing with Kiev it was like coming from a provincial town to a capital. Despite the common ground, they’re very different cities. When I came to Russia, it was (and still is) a different experience. You have the feeling of vastsness of this country. Working here gives you a perception of something endless: wherever you go, however many places you visit – you still haven’t seen everything. This is the mental idea of Russia: it’s so enormous that you always feel you never really captured it. That’s what has kept me here for 20 years.
Do you think you experienced dramatic professional growth during the first years of your career or did it take much more time to feel like an established photographer?
In any art forms there is a battle taking place: a mismatch between an artist’s ability to capture something and the idea or the concept that he wants to convey. When I look back at contact sheets (it was in 1990s, and there were no digital computers ), I see many opportunities, many moments that I didn’t really have the ability to capture. It took a long time to train the eye. Despite the technical aspect, there’s also artistic development. As a journalist you have to deal with the extremes, which is very difficult. For example, I went to Georgia in 1993 to shoot the civil war, then I went to Nagorny Karabakh and Chechnya. Being in such places drives your personal growth. At that time I wasn’t aware it would be that hard. I grew up in a generation with no war. And emotionally it was very complicated and very distressing. With all these feelings, you still had to work correctly. 1990s was the big time of growing up, sometimes harsh, sometimes coming on its own without your awareness – there was just something happening.