The Story Behind the Picture: Evgeniy Serov

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Working in the Far East of Russia Evgeniy Serov captures the unequivocal beauty of his native land . In his most recent series he photographs the resilience of winter swimmers and the communal nature of the sport. In this interview Evgeniy discusses the processes he went through to shoot in -27C temperatures, the rise of documentary photography in Russia, and why photography is his magnifying glass.

What initiated your interest in photography?
I wanted to capture the severe beauty and nature of my native northern region.

The photo you’ve chosen is part of a series. What is it about?
This series is about winter swimming. I was trying to understand the people who take part in this, and their intentions for doing it.

Where was the image taken?
It was taken in Magadan – my home town in the Far East of Russia.

Do you think working in that specific region influences your work a lot?
Yes, because of the conditions – cold temperatures etc. – a lot of the work is based around this. It gives me the opportunity to see and work within the region and with the people in this land.

What inspired the picture you’ve chosen? 
I like the state of the man in this photo very much, for me this captures the whole sense of winter swimming. It is all about the people who do it.

How long did it take to shoot the series or are you still working on it?
I’m still working on this project. For now I’m shooting this series over five months.

You’re shooting in cold and snowy conditions. How important is the effect and use of light in your images?
I think light is important in all images and conditions. Because of the nature and light here – if the sun is up the light is very harsh and everything looks overexposed, so the best time here is with cloud cover giving it a softer feel. For this series on winter swimming the best time was to photograph people when there was no sun. The people swim in the morning at 10am, in the winter at that time there was no good light, and so I waited week by week for the good light. The light was decent only two times in the whole three months.

What kinds of emotions was the man in the photo feeling? 
The man had just got out from the ice hole. The temperature outside was minus 27 С, and the temperature of the water was about 1 C. People who do this have said, after you go out from the water in these condition you feel the heat and the skin on your body itching. I think the man at this moment was trying to realise his emotions and feelings, and in a sense capture his own state.

What camera was this taken on?
Fuji X-E2

How important was using Photoshop in editing this image?
I’m not using Photoshop. I developed this image in Lightroom, with little adjustments of exposure, lights and shadows and contrast. I’m not doing any colour correction on this image.

Is there anything that surprised you during this series?
I realised that people who swim in winter and cold water have a strong community. They celebrated together all the holidays (birthdays, etc.), they are in close contact with each other. In addition to diving in cold water, they go together to the morning warming up and running. But, everyone from this community has this special attitude to diving in cold water, but they are similar in one respect – it’s all done for the sake of tempering and health.

How does the sense of community present itself in the other images?
The series is based on portraits of people who go out from the ice hole and how they approach the winter conditions naked (in swimwear). There are two parts of this community: when they are giving training and working together with everyone to warm before swimming, and later they help each other when they go to the ice hole. The series is based on showing two different sides of how the people are strong and how they help each other. It’s maybe not depicted in the photographs, but for them community means they have each other for mental encouragement.

Is it a popular sport?
It’s not just a sport, it’s a way of life. It’s to keep each other in good health and get used to cold temperatures. To acclimatise yourself to the temperatures and make yourself stronger.

What do you hope people will feel looking at this image?
I think that people who practice winter swimming are just normal like everyone else. Maybe it will inspire someone to try something new and plunge into the water in the winter.

How did the people in the series react to the project?
At first when I came to the people and said that I wanted to do a photographic project about them they looked really sceptical. I started to go with them to training and after months they accepted me, and the atmosphere was nice to shoot in. If I asked them to pose they would do it on the snow. They tried to help whenever I was directing them with poses. When I came to the people in training I took an ice bath myself to know what they feel when they do this.

How did it feel?
The water is not really cold after training and the exercises, and when I went to the ice hole it was a little bit cold, however when I got out my whole body was itching. I was really hot when I came out of the water.

How hard is it to build trust with a subject?
It’s up to the people and generally it depends on the situation. For this series I didn’t have a difficult time with this.

Would you say you’re a subjective or objective photographer? 
I’m trying to shoot everything as it is, in its current state and show the true self of everything in my photos. But, I think that part of a photographer consists in every image he takes.

Do you prefer to shoot landscapes or are you a reportage photographer?
Because I’m living in the north region near raw nature I always take pictures of landscapes but this is not what I’m fond of. Now, I’m studying for documentary photography.

Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
In different creative periods I am inspired by different photographers.

Are there any Russian photographers we should be following?
Elena Anosova – she won world press photo prize. Misha Domozhilov, Anastasia Tsayder, Fyodor Telkov

What is documentary photography like within Russia? 
For now documentary photography in Russia is on the rise because there are a lot of schools in the capital and people are studying documentary. The level of this kind of photography compared to other countries is not really high right now because it is still in a progressive phase. For me, it’s a new way to look at reality and tell stories and so I see that this is a sphere in Russia that is only now just developing.

When will you be finishing the project?
Now winter is at its end and there is no ice, maybe a few months time

What lies ahead for you?
As I said ahead now I’m studying for documentary photography and hope to work in this genre.

What does photography give you that nothing else does?
Photography for me is another way to explore the world. When you are shooting the camera is like a shield — you explore everything from a distance but are physically present in the current place. Photography is like a magnifying glass.

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