Photography without borders

Every long journey begins with a single step, but in this pair’s case – with a few photos as well. Mitchell Kanashkevich and Jacob James are travel and documentary photographers who often get to wake up on different continents; they are visually fascinated by people and their diversity, and their photographs have the power to take us out of the bubble in which we live and to remind us how big and colorful the world is. We cross the borders of Mauritania, Morocco, Ethiopia, India and the Philippines; we stop for a while on the island of Vanuatu and continue to Kyrgyzstan and Turkey with no passports or visas, just a few photos and many stories. We travel thousands of kilometers as we discuss what motivates them to take a certain picture, what makes an image outstanding and whether it matters at all what equipment they are using.

Mitchell and Jacob visited Bulgaria last year at the invitation of Panasonic to deliver a lecture during the “Festival of photography, people and ideas”, organized by Photosynthesis.

How did you start with photography and why exactly travel and cultural documentary?

M: I was always quite into visual work. I used to draw; I think it came from my grandfather. He was drawing and I was copying him and that’s how I developed a certain visual understanding, I guess. I used to draw comics when I was like 9-10. So I think that gave me an idea of framing things.
And then I kind of abandoned everything because I wanted to play sports. I wanted to play basketball but I didn’t grow much taller after I turned 13 and so that didn’t work out. And then I was quite lost and at the university I joined one of these film societies and that led me on to studying film but then I realized that I the thing  I loved the most about film, were the visuals, so that kind of planted the seed in a way and I went out to make some films.
With photography, it just so happened that I was taking pictures all the time and at some point, the photos were actually starting to gain me popularity and stuff like that. I decided I was just going to go to India, become a photographer and work for magazines like Lonely Planet. I wanted that to be a way of making money, but it turned out to be totally shit in the end. At least that was the motivation when I said seriously I want to focus on photography – I was about 24-25.
Travel probably because I was born in Belarus and when I was 10 we moved to Australia. When my family and I were traveling back, it was a natural thing to start documenting our trips at first and then, later on, it just felt like the most natural thing to actually document my own journeys.

photo: Mitchell Kanashkevich during photoshoot in Romania

So were you interested at some point in another type of photography or did you experiment?

M: I was experimenting a lot at first because I started to really kind of got in photography at a very amateur level in university so my first pictures were of my first girlfriend half naked haha…

Good start!

M: She was from the Balkans, she was Macedonian. But she kind of got me a little bit into it because she was actually also into photos and then we were just playing around and taking pictures like that, but then as the digital technology evolved that is when I really got into it and I photographed everything around me. So no, I didn’t get right away into travel but I was just like a kid playing around and I think I’ve done that with everything – just to try things on a very basic level like a kid and in a very practical sense.

What about you Jacob – how did you start?

J: I wanted to be a doctor actually. I guess my family was always working in a hospital so it was kind of a natural progression and I had a bit of a naive view of what doctors do. I thought it was like saving the world, helping people, without knowing that you have to do a lot of hard work.
You got paid well in 20 years time, but you have like 10 years of the worst work ever. So yeah, I still wanted to be a doctor until the end of high school and I actually applied to become one. I got the grades but I didn’t get a place – it’s super competitive in the UK, like 4000 people for 100 places.
So yeah, I didn’t get in and was kind of “what should I do?”. I decided to go traveling and at the same time, while I have been at the end of high school, I’ve been working for my uncle – he had a business selling films, chemicals, all that traditional photography stuff. So I’d always learned about photography enough to answer questions of people on the phone, you know the technical things. I picked up a camera at the time and just played around with it – took pictures of flowers; I was doing a lot of cycling, so I took pictures of cycling; did some portraits of my little sister – lots of different things, but nothing that was very good. Then I started traveling, fell in love with traveling and was taking pictures of anything and everything really. I naturally found an interest in people and I took a few images that got a little bit of attention – nothing massive, but it soaked the seed in my mind that I could perhaps make something of it. And then I just traveled as much as I could and I took pictures at the same time and it gradually got there over a period of maybe like 4 or 5 years, to the point where I am now.

photo: Jacob during a journey in Romania

How do you choose the countries where you travel and how do you organize your trips?

J: Originally it was probably choosing the places that I saw in travel magazines, places like Thailand, South-East Asia, and exotic places to me. Now I am looking for places that interest me for a specific reason or sometimes places that I don’t really know a lot about – I found them quite interesting, too.

And what about you, Mitchel?  You decide spontaneously or you develop a plan and do some research?

M: It depends, but I would generally start with researching. Some of it is an accident like seeing some amazing picture. For example I’ve been inspired by a picture from French photographer Eric Lafforgue to visit Vanuatu. I don’t remember what exactly captivated me, but I researched a little bit more and now it is so easy to find out about places, to find images. Sometimes it is a place I don’t see so many images about and I I want to go there. Sometimes is more practical like the trip to South Africa – researching what countries are on the way; then some place you hear about like India. Other ones I’d be looking at the seasons –in Australia is winter time when it’s summertime here, I might go to Europe or might go somewhere in the region where it’s actually not winter time. So Vanuatu was a combination of those things – in June or August in Vanuatu is warm so it is the right season to go – same with the Philippines. There is an element of spontaneity, but it is never usually like I’m just gonna go and not do any research.

photo: Mitchell Kanashkevich – Vanuatu island

Both of you have photographed a lot of people. How do you decide to photograph a certain person? What is it you are looking for?

J: Unique faces, I guess. For me I’m always looking for people that have something interesting in their face – whether it is an interesting facial feature or it could be someone who has an interesting dress or something. Someone, who is just slightly different from the ordinary. It’s just an instinctual kind of thing.

M: I think it is like a skill, or a talent. Or, like Jacob is saying, I think on some level it is definitely instinctual. But you see how some people photograph people that they think other people would find interesting. I think it’s better when you trust your instincts more and I suppose if you have those instincts. I’m quite fascinated actually with that myself – why do we choose to photograph the people that we choose to photograph. I suppose there are certain characters and it’s someone who has the “it” sort of factor, like some movie star. So, yeah, it is maybe just someone who stands out.

photo: Mitchell Kanashkevich – Nomad girl in Adrar, Mauritania

How do you approach the people that you photograph?

J: For me, it is a number of different ways. I always try to travel with somebody who can speak the local language – in that case, is through somebody else. But if I am on my own, it could be a combination of trained words, that I would have picked up in certain place attempting to kind of ask “can I take your photo” or it could be literally a case of smiling and gesturing – completely depends on the situation.

Once you mentioned you were quite shy about asking people. This has changed or it was just in the beginning?

J: I think, if I am asking myself, it is always the same – it always has that speck of nervousness, but I guess it’s a bit silly because the majority of people, especially in Europe and Asia, are 100% happy to be photographed. I very, very rarely get somebody say “no” and even the ones that say “no” maybe like 50% of them are saying “no” because they are shy. And it is generally very rare that you got someone who is a completely “no”.

M: So to Jacob “no” does not mean “no” haha!

photos: Jacob James – India

And do you normally ask for permission before you photograph?

M: No, but it depends because sometimes people make up a small element of the photo, so if I’m actually photographing a street and the person is a relatively small detail in it, and then I don’t like that person acknowledging me because it will ruin the picture. What I normally do though is, I don’t like the pictures to have any bad memories or energy associated with them, so if somebody is unhappy then I would delete that picture. I don’t want necessarily to remember that. If somebody doesn’t even see me, it’s sort of okay, it works for me. But, if someone is unhappy, I don’t really want to keep that.

Both of you have visited a lot of different countries photographing and observing diverse ethnic groups. This kind of reminds me of the documentary “Human” from director Yann Arthus-Bertrand. He was recently here in Sofia and mentioned that making this film thought him mostly about the human race. Have you learned something about the human race from your experiences that you didn’t know about before? Regarding how similar or on the contrary how different we are?

J: I would say both. I found that we have a lot in common but also a lot that is different. So, for me it is fascinating to see the things that are relatable in different parts of the world and the things that are completely different. In Bulgaria for example shaking your head is saying “yes”.

M: He steals all my answers! But I think I’d agree. I am probably attracted by the differences, but ultimately you do see that a lot of things are very similar -we are humans, not any ethnic group is particularly bad or good, or anything like that. Although I have been lucky to find out that certain nationalities, if you want to categorize them generally, are particularly friendly or nice. Obviously a lot of similarities, but I think I’m more attracted maybe to those differences. Like I think some photographers say “I just like to show the sameness in all of us” –  it’s inevitable, but I like to show the differences or something that’s different, that is fascinating to me just from the background that I am from.

So, for you, what makes a good picture, it’s the differences?

M: Oh, no. You can’t really just put a formula to a good shoot.

photo: Mitchell Kanashkevich – India

Why do you think some pictures work better than others?

M: There should be some level of technical proficiency to a picture, but it is not something that totally makes a great shot. I think for me it’s if it resonates with somebody. Now I think more and more that it is unexplainable, that if you see something and you can still remember this picture tomorrow, after tomorrow… I remember that one of my favorite photographers, he is called Gueorgui Pinkhassov from the former Soviet Union, and a friend of mine showed me his pictures about 8-9 years ago and I thought – this is nothing impressive, why is he so famous, why is he so well-known and respected. And then I came across his work again and realized that one of the images stayed in my mind for 8 years! So that to me is a powerful image and you don’t have to necessarily like it, you may even hate it, but it is something that stays with you, something that you are not indifferent too, something that makes you feel something on some level. So it’s a really airy-fairy kind of answer, but I think that more and more I know less what makes a great image, a really truly great image, not just a good image. Like if you are talking just about a good image, yeah it tells a story or makes you feel the atmosphere. But the really great ones, if it was so easy then everybody would have been a really amazing photographer.

J: Good photography for me is kind of like a gateway. So if it is a good photo it will leave me with questions whether what was going on, where is this. It’s just I want to find more about what I’m seeing or it confuses me in a good way. I have seen pictures where I have thought – oh I can’t quite work how it’s going on. I think good photography is not too literal or at least the photography I really enjoy.

What advice would you give to emerging travel photographers how to start out?

M: Ask your mom and dad!
No, it is never so simple. But for me to get to the point where I am doing exactly what I want, I had to work a lot of shity jobs and you just have to follow a certain goal. So my goal was to be doing what I want and to be here. I guess I have reached that goal in some way. Now that goal has changed.
But I have worked in a restaurant, on a boat, all sorts of different job – never for too long. But my whole theory was, make enough money for the next travel, the next adventure and go and take pictures, then come back and see if you have created something good. I gave myself 2-3 years and I always thought if it doesn’t work out, at least I had an amazing experience and then I can always teach English in Taiwan or something like that. But I think you have to work really hard, all sorts of jobs. Don’t just say I’m a traveler or photographer, there are different paths, but that was my path.

photos: Mitchell Kanashkevich – Mauritania

Photography and technical development go hand in hand. In the last years, a debate about DSLR vs. mirrorless interchangeable lens camera has risen. You have shot with both, what do you think?

J: Use whatever you prefer and if you can make decent images with it and you are comfortable using it, that’s it. You can take a picture with any camera, so you should think more about are you enjoying using it, is it comfortable in your hand, if it is not too heavy and do you have fun using it – I think this is the most important part of it. Because if you don’t enjoy using it, you will never pick it up and shoot with it.

M: Obviously yes, it doesn’t matter – it’s not the cameras that matter. For me personally I just wanted to have something small and light and that is capable enough to do what I want and that’s being my main thing when choosing the Panasonic Lumix mirrorless camera. People do not notice you in the streets.

Jacob, you are experimenting now with video – tell us a bit more?

J: I guess I always played around with video. I made a few short movies when I was traveling, but nothing that I really wanted to share, just experimenting really. And then the Panasonic project came around and I shot the video for that, which was the first commercial kind of video I have done. And now I’m really interested in trying to use 3D virtual reality because I think there is a lot of potential in this kind of video, where you can move around the frame some degrees. It is still at an early stage, but I’m trying to come up with some sort of way of using this to make a documentary that feels still more immersive. I’m just trying different things and see if it is possible.

photos: Jacob James – Laos

And also travel documentary or?

J: Yes. So basically the idea I have is to almost make it like a point of view, so you can look around the view of the action as well. I don’t know if it will work, but it’s something I’m playing around.

And which country are you heading now to?

J: Actually Bulgaria in January and after that Asia maybe.
M: And I’m heading to South America.

And one last, but a very important question – what do you prefer – melon or watermelon?

M: Me, watermelon.
J: Dinya!

More amazing photo stories from Mitchell and Jacob could be seen here and here.
If you are curious to learn more about photography by them, visit Mitchell’s online courses or join Jacob on one of the photo journeys he organizes.

Sofia Hussein for Dinya

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