Experience

Artem Zhitenev: “While Taking Pictures of People, Pretend to Look Through Them.”

Moscow-based photo journalist Artem Zhitenev has been doing street photography as long as he remembers himself. He explains to the Bird in Flight there is no money in that genre, in what way a grey city is more attractive to him than the sunny Brazil and why he trolls security in market-places.


Artyom Zhitenev, age 46

Street photographer and photo journalist. Was born and lives in Moscow, works for ‘Russia Today’ news agency. Winner of Press-photo of Russia and Best Photographer contests. Jury member of the Street Photography contest, participant of London Street Photography Festival. Zhitenev’s photographs were included into ‘The Street Photography Now’ album and ‘The Best of Russia 2011’ photo book. His works have been published in National Geographic, Newsweek, Russian Reporter, Ogonyok and other publications.



I have been a photographer for as long as I remember myself. My father had a subscription for ‘The Soviet Photo’ magazine. As a kid I was enthralled with the pictures by photographers from the Baltic states: Spuris, Razauskas, Maziliauskas, Pozerskis. They shot from unusual angles and used a wide angle lenses a lot – something that no one ever did in the Soviet Union. I guess that’s what influenced me in the first place. My grandparents were artists, so I lived among paintings and reproductions by great masters. I think that’s where it all started. It’s all very important – the things that you are brought up with.


About technical stuff

Film is alchemy. It is very exciting to see an image appear in the dark room. Film has no algorithms that the digital photography has. You can concoct your own developer: dilute it with water, make it hotter or leave the film in it for a longer period but you’ll never know with 100 per cent certainty what the final result will be like.

There was a time when I was crazy about Holga camera. It is one thing when you shoot something you see and completely another matter when you get something totally different after developing a film. You look at it and you wonder: ‘How did this happen?’ It is an experiment. [Gueorgui] Pinkhasov is totally right when he says it is necessary to make mistakes in photography. Because when you get an idea, take the picture, it turns out a good one, you are happy – it means you’ve done crap. Photography is random chance. What is the difference between us and painters? A painter can make a picture, than change his mind and paint it all over. But we only have one click and that’s it.

Now I only do digital. Some people say that digital photography doesn’t let you think, but in my opinion it is great when in one moment you are able to do 11 shots and thus capture a complete phase of a motion.

A photograph can be either on a wall or in an album. An exhibition passes very quickly. No matter if there are 50 people at the opening night and as many at the closing night. They are going to have some wine and leave. And a book will stay for your grandchildren to see. A book is an accomplishment. I think that every photographer has to do his own book. That’s something I’ve come to realise and am busy with at the moment.


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About street photography

I was shooting in the street even before I found out about this genre of photography. I’ve been taking pictures of Moscow and its life since 2000. And now I think it’s great that people have come to associate me with street photography.

Street photography is an abstraction. There is no demand for it in the media – because it is devoid of ideas: nothing is happening but still you are taking a picture. All around the world a news story costs money, a lot of it. But street photography only brings its author an exhibition or an album, but next to no royalties. And very often it is the photographer himself who pays for a contest entry.

Nowadays everyone has a camera. And everyone shoots in the street but photographers who take pictures of Moscow are very few – I know five or maybe six. People tend to follow one another about, everyone is doing more or less the same thing but a street photographer sees something that others pass without noticing. And when he takes a picture and shows it to the others they say: ‘Wow, I was there but didn’t see it!’


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When you go on a trip and get so many new impressions it allows you to take a lot of really great pictures. But it is a way more interesting (and more difficult) to take pictures in your home town where you were born and where you live. Isn’t it great that our winter lasts for 9 months? Everything is grey! But that’s really cool! You can render it in a very beautiful way! No chance for this in Brazil! The sun is relentless there, it’s hot, everything is too bright, too colourful, over saturated. While here everything is monochrome. And we have to look for and find beauty in that.

Anything is difficult to photograph. Because you need to do an unusual photograph – not the same as you did a day or a month ago. Every time you need to find something new, some kind of a new trick. And that’s not easy.

Every time when I am shooting in the street I set a task for myself. Here we deal with beautiful light. So I take a picture about light. Or the wind – then I am going to shoot a girl’s hair that is blowing in the wind, a broken umbrella, someone’s blown away hat.


It’s amazing: the more we make ourselves noticeable, the less people react. If you are afraid, people start thinking that you are up to something evil.

Take pictures of what you are interested it. Never try to imitate something you’ve seen and liked. Someone has already done it! It is far more interesting to see a photographer’s approach to the theme, to what he is shooting. Everyone is photographing the Kremlin in scaffolding, so it might be a good idea for you to go to Chertanovo or a place like that. It is a far greater accomplishment to do an interesting shot in a place like that: find something unique in a monotonous environment.

Every winter I used to go to an open swimming pool in Luzhniki and take pictures of people swimming in -20°C. There was a lot of steam, it looked really cool. But then it was demolished – in the run-up to the football world cup. That is why it is so important to shoot what there is today. It can disappear by tomorrow.

When I go to a city I’ve never been before, I always take myself to a market place or a railway station. Although now it has become more difficult to shoot there – there’s so much security. But security people are just employees. It is even possible to tease and troll them. At my photography course I make my students do a practical task – we go and try to provoke security guards to take some kind of action.

You shouldn’t be afraid of people. When you are taking pictures of them, try to look as if through them. The person is just starting to realise what’s happening while you’ve already taken the picture. Or you can buy a small camera with a rotating screen and shoot from the belly level – then the person will not see you. As Ostap Bender (character from a popular book ’12 Chairs’ by Ilya Ilf and Eugeny Petrov, translator’s note) often said: ‘Act bravely. Never ask anyone for permission. More cynicism. It’s something people really like.’ It is the conviction of doing the right thing that makes us invisible. It is amazing, but the more noticeable we are, the less people react to us. If you are afraid, people will think you are doing something wrong. That’s why in the street you need to give up a long-focus lens and only use a 35 or a 24 mm lens to be closer to the people.


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About contests

While photo albums were being published all over the world, street photography was non-existent in the Soviet Union, because there was no street life to speak of. Now there are so many things happening in Moscow year round, but especially in summer – there’s park life, there are so many festivals. Contemporary cities are Klondikes for street photographers. Thanks to the internet and social networks we are connected to the rest of the world. It has become easier to keep up on new trends and things. For example, there used to be no contests of street photography, but now there is the Festival of street photography, Miami Street Photography Festival, The London Festival of Photography. Everyone should try to enter as many contests as possible and stay in the midst of events to find out what’s going on in the world.

In the last ten years our street photography hasn’t changed much, but it has started to adjust to the universal trends. We have synchronised ourselves with the rest of the world. They say that street photography is on a decline globally because it cannot evolve any further, everything has been photographed. I don’t think so, but maybe that is something that awaits us in the future.


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