Alexandra Kremer-Khomassouridze is a Paris-based internationally acclaimed photographer, whose work has been globally showcased and published in Paris Match, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Clasica, Photo,Disillusionist, Hermitage, and Diapason among others.
After exploring themes of music and freedom in her art, Alexandra has now set out to discover the source of happiness. Two months before the presentation of her challenging global project “What happiness is...” in London, we were fortunate to talk to Alexandra about her new venture, being in the flow and the future of photography.
Could you tell us a little more about your new project?
My new project explores the idea of happiness. “What is happiness?” This is the question I ask people from different parts of the world and they answer it. I photograph people with peculiar jobs in peculiar places: I photographed shamans living near Lake Baikal and asked them about happiness, in Bhutan I shot nuns living in the mountains and put this very question to them, in Venice I took photos of gondoliers - you know this cliché that happiness is drifting away in the Venetian gondola - I wanted to know what gondoliers themselves thought about it. In Chukotka, which was really hard to get to in the first place, I photographed whale fishermen and they told me what happiness meant to them. I went to Solovki and did my best to capture the life of monks under very tough conditions and found out what their idea of happiness was. Soon there will be the presentation of this project in London. It turns out, everyone wants to be happy and everyone wants to discover what happiness is. Is it wish-fulfillment? Is it spiritual? What’s the difference between happiness and joy? That’s what I’ve set out to discover.
Your projects explored versatile concepts from music, to fuel, to freedom. How did you come to this one?
The music project was driven by love, then came freedom, then happiness. Here I’m not the one, who picks the subjects - they pick me. If it hadn’t picked me, I would never have managed to do what I’ve already done. Because, you know - Chukotka and Venice are two polar locations, and Venice is a much more complicated one, because people are much more closed-off. So the theme chose me and it keeps driving me forward. It’s a very complex theme too, because happiness is made of abiding ups and downs, it’s an emotional roller-coaster, which makes it pretty hard to photograph. Because when you’re driven by a theme, you’re living it. So this happiness project often lifts me up, and then all of a sudden it all comes crashing down. But again, I was chosen - someone just pointed a finger at me and said: “She can do it”! So here I am, running around, bringing together people and places - like shamans and Baikal. The next location will hopefully be Yakutia, where I’m going to photograph reindeer herdsmen and query them. I'm interested not only in people around me, although I ask them as well and there’s going to be a series of portraits, but even more I’m curious about groups of people living under certain conditions in a certain place, who work for a common goal. I’m eager to find out what they think of happiness and then compare their answers.
I know that some of your projects can be traced to your Baku roots. What about this one?
No, there’s no Baku in it. The happiness project has a starting point, Chukotka, because that's where the day begins. Actually, this project came to life because an amazing woman named Ida Ruсhina came to my exhibition “Faces of Freedom” in London and invited me to Chukotka - she’s the head of the Red Cross there. This is how it all began. In a way you can say that “Faces of Freedom” kickstarted the Happiness project. Chukotka is this magical place where the day begins and there’s also the meridian dividing the world in half. So when I was going to Chukotka Ida told me to be careful, since this is the place where dreams come true. While I was there, I couldn't take a step without someone shushing me not to say things out loud or it would come true. So all this happiness story started there. Also in May I’m going to do an exhibition devoted entirely to Chukotka.
What places impressed you the most?
Like I said, Chukotka is very important. So is Venice... because when you live in Venice for a month, it’s completely different from when you spend 3-4 days there as a tourist. When you live there for a month, you get to talk to the locals, start using a gondola and begin to really understand what a laguna is - it’s all very impressive. Baikal is amazing: we were crossing it at our own risk maneuvering between gigantic blue ice boulders. Solovki are impressive too… Those all are fantastic places and that’s what makes the project kind of tough. Every place is very special and hard to get to, that’s why it’s so worth it. Also there are special people and it's exciting to find out their opinion.
Are there any answers that impressed you more than others?
Yes, one was particularly impressive. There’s this Shaman in Irkutsk, his name is Yaroslav, he impressed me greatly. He left Moscow years ago, came to Irkutsk and found his vocation in being a shaman. We were inside an enormous yurta with many people doing their shaman things, when I asked Yaroslav to tell me what happiness is - some people tell me, some write down their answers - he wrote something in a notebook, gave it to me and I hadn’t touched it till I got to my hotel. When I read it, it said “happiness is to love and be loved in return”. It was such an unexpected thing to hear from a shaman. But in most cases human relationships dominate conversations about happiness. Almost nobody talks about what they want to achieve, as a rule people want peace, quiet and love. I heard some very interesting answers from monks - they also want peace, quiet and love, but for all people in the world, not just for themselves. Nuns also said amazing things, that were translated for me from Sanskrit: “happiness is accepting yourself and everything life gives you”.
Where’s home and how travelling for the project changed the idea of home?
I’ve been living in the same place for about 25 years now and our poor little house got used to us all travelling all the time - people come, people go, you know. So nothing has changed, my house has always been the central spot and still remains, the rest just adds to it. My story is pretty complicated: born in Moscow, I’m of Georgian-Azerbaijani-Russian descent, I lived for some time in Baku, then moved to France and then began this travelling craze - when you don’t know where you are anymore, when you don’t know where you’ve just arrived from and where you need to collect your luggage. But coming home is always coming to Paris. I love France. In my life there was a period when I spent 2 years in Rome and after that I started loving France even more. Foreigners think that French are rather closed-off, but that’s not true. If you compare them to other European nationalities, they are the most open nation you can find. They are so used to immigrants, that I never feel like an immigrant here. French are very open-minded and curious. I can't imagine living anywhere else in the world.
You had a stellar academic education in photography. How did it influence your art?
Of course, artistic education had a certain influence on me: you learn to see color, composition, know what’s good and bad - but that’s something you are born with and it can’t be taught. You either see a good picture or you don’t, and then you’re either lucky enough to take it or you’re not. What’s really important is my ability to do reportage and make concepts. I like building a concept, I like picking an idea and gathering people around it - all that I learnt from my teacher Yan Morvan, who supervised me during the last year of my photo journalism school. That’s the only course he’s ever taught in his life and I was fortunate to be in it. Hi is a war journalist and I still see him from time to time. He is the most important person for me in my profession and he always corrects me. I love talking to him, as he always says whether something I do is good or bad. He often laughs at me and if he does, it means everything is great, but if he says nothing, that’s a bad sign. He’s helped me greatly - he’s the one who shaped my artistic views. But I'm not sure about education, mine was academically traditional, while today everything is digital and it’s all different. My daughter, a photographer and actress based in New-York, does it all differently: she learns from Youtube and things like that. I don't think she must have an academic background, it’s more about what’s inside, about knowing the composition and seeing the light. Sometimes traditional education prevents from making great photos - knowing the right techniques and rules sometimes blocks artistic photography and you don't always have to follow the rules. Education helped me understand how to make concepts and put material together, without it I might never have learnt those things. But in terms of creativity, education is not obligatory - it’s either there or not. There’ve always been people, who made amazing photos without any academic background, because they broke the rules.
How often do you break the rules?
I always do as a person, but as a professional I’m always preoccupied with the concept. The idea is extremely important for me. When I'm chasing an idea, a story, I’m not thinking that much about the visual side. I think about how I want to tell that story, and it just comes to me. When you’re working on a reportage, you don't think how to do it, you’re just doing it. And after you look at your shots and see what’s come of it. For you this moment lasts a mere second, you’re living in it and lose yourself in it completely. There is only this moment présent and nothing else.
Are you ever creatively satisfied?
Yes, sometimes I am. When I’ve written a good text, when I see that everything goes as planned, when I find the concept, when I see the visual imagery, when I finally get to the place I intended to, when everyone gets to this place safe and sound, when I have great material on my hands - in that case I'm not just satisfied, I’m happy that I’ve done it. After that I just move to a new project and forget this one. I don’t have my photographs at home, they would irritate because what’s done is done.
The project is still going and is it already clear what the culmination will be?
I have the culmination in my head, but I won't talk about it now. I have the beginning and the end figured out and now I’m working on what will be in the middle. The beginning is Chukotka, the middle and the end are work in progress and now I'm trying to figure out how to approach them. I have goosebumps now just imagining how I'll be doing all that. When you’re entering this flow and see how it all is coming together, it feels amazing. The final part will be shot before the rest of the project, it’s almost ready in fact. So I think I’ll be done in another year. There will be the presentation and debates in June and then a year to photograph and get the book ready.
You travel a lot, are there any tricks that help you keep it all together?
I have my own way of getting things done. First the idea finds me, then everything just comes together. So I can’t say that I follow any certain rules. In my case, there’s only one rule actually - two days before leaving on a trip I must have everything packed, so that I don’t have to think about it. I always have everything ready. You can say that I’m living in my suitcases, so I can get ready at any moment. All those waterproof suits, woolen hats, warm gloves, extra batteries - it's all prepared, so I can pack and leave whenever I must. Also knowing all the right people at the place you're going to is something you should prepare beforehand. You contact those people, discuss what’s possible and what's not, check photos of the place on the Internet to make sure you won’t take the same shots, research the subject and get a picture in your head. If you have everything else ready, you can pack almost automatically. Being able to do things automatically is crucial in my case, because there’s also life, children, and you can’t think about it too much. So the key secret is keeping everything ready, since you don’t know what tomorrow brings.
Do you travel alone? Has your daughter, who’s also a photographer, ever travelled with you?
There are guides sometimes, but I prefer to work alone, because I can’t communicate at all when I’m working. I'm hard to tolerate when I’m working: I only communicate with people I’m shooting. That’s why it's impossible to be near me at such moments, so I never take anyone with me. Haven't even thought about it, actually. I would be bothered. My daughter works in her own way - she makes a great portrait photographer. When I’m doing a reportage, I can’t be near anyone. I’m not alone, but with people who happen to be at this place at this very moment - new people, as a rule. Also I don’t feel like talking to my loved ones when I’m working, because I talk so much with people I photograph. In the evening I don't feel like talking at all, I look at photos I’ve made and arrange the material, so I have no time to talk. I could never work with someone else, because I never know where I’ll be in the next few minutes and I have no time to explain to a partner why right now we should turn left instead of turning right. You have to move around quickly, there’s no time to explain you must act.
What advice could you give to someone starting out in photography?
First of all you need to go to museums and know art, to make sure your photographs not only have informational value, but artistic as well. It is important to train your eye to understand composition and light, so that there’s a certain mystery in your pictures - a story, if you want. Just like with music or any other art, you need to educate yourself to know the difference between banal and exceptional photos. There are so many bland photographs these days that are painful to look at. Now when everyone can push a button and take a snap, it’s important to be creative. You must be intelligent too, not just walk around and take photos of everything you see. There was a time when only Cartier-Bresson could do that. It was street photography, but what composition those photos have, you look at it today and admire the liveliness of his photos. Technology is not important especially now, when it's so affordable. You need to work on creativity. And for that you need to know what other people did, know the history of photography, otherwise you’re not a photographer but a button-pushing robot. In that sense everyone can be a photographer. So educate yourself: look around, go to exhibitions, although not all exhibitions are interesting these days, and read old photography books.
What’s your opinion of Instagram?
I don’t have an Instagram account. I’m a concept-driven person and cannot just walk around shooting everything I see. You can take a million photos a day because there are so many beautiful things, but most of them will be pointless. In my case there’s always a concept, there are people involved and a story behind them. So Instagram is impossible for me. I’ve only recently had my Facebook page set up. What's truly important for me is why I’m doing what I'm doing and what I want to say by doing it. Some people find Instagram interesting and know how to work with it, but I think it reduces appreciation of photography - you can only take that many photos a day. Right now a photograph ceases to exist like a way of capturing a moment, when people shoot whatever they see and snaps made with a slight change of an iPhone angle and horrific filters are considered creative. That’s something I can never relate to, because I would be bored.
What do you think the future of photography will be?
There was a time when I said I’d never do digital photography, since I had been intended to stick to film. In a few years I was one of the few ones working with film and then also moved to digital. Time passed and now we see a comeback of film because it’s a more creative tool. Personally I won’t use it for reportage, but art photos on film are just so much better. There is nothing new under the sun, so I think people will return to appreciating one-off things, because what’s going on now, reduces any kind of appreciation altogether. I think it all will come back - not in a massive consumption kind of way, rather than artistic aesthetics. I guess the world will divide: there will be digital photography and there will be film, not as a professional, but as an artistic tool. Also the future is hard to predict, there is always the third trend that emerges, so except film and digital there will be something else. Things tend to expand and in a few years we’re likely to see some dark horse disrupt the photography industry.
For more photography by Alexandra Kremer-Khomassouridze, visit her website: