One Face: People Wearing Masks in Ilya Popenko’s Selfie Project

American photographer Ilya Popenko imagined being someone else, and his models tried being Ilya Popenko.
Ilya Popenko Age 35

Born in Moscow, lives in New York City. Graduated from Pratt Institute. Worked as a waiter, loader, real estate agent, assembler at a factory, barman, photographer, color correction artist. currently is working on his own projects, including projects with masks of Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon. Singer and guitarist for Mad Meg band.

I have always liked shooting portraits, but if we don’t know the hero or their story, we most likely will not find their picture interesting, no matter how beautiful it is, and I wasn’t satisfied with that. I started shooting portraits without faces — I cropped them or covered them with a shadow. I wanted a portrait to be perceived like a landscape or a still life, and the history and atmosphere of the picture to be expressed and told with the help of surroundings, clothes, light, but not the face.

Then I started photographing people in masks — of presidents, of animals, other masks. I was attracted by the weird creepiness inherent in all the masks. However, the portraits in the masks turned out flat, superficial: they demanded a second reading. This is how the idea of one character, who is present in every one of us, in every participant of the project, was born. And I became this character. Yelizaveta Belomlinskaya, a sculptor, and made latex masks from the cast of my face.


Just like graffiti artists, who leave tags with their names on the wall, I projected my face, and consequently my perception of life, onto other people. Unlike Anthony Goicolea, who filled photo canvases with his clones, created in Photoshop, I wanted to stay true to the traditions of photography.

Until recently photography had one advantage compared to other arts: the viewer believed that the depicted events took place at some point.

And despite the fact that photographers have always manipulated reality to get a good shot, in photography there was always the beauty of this trust.

I have spent two years on this project — with pauses, of course. And I finished it when I realized I captured everything I wanted to capture. I photographed my friends and friends of friends in Moscow, New York, Baltimore and Miami. In Moscow, I was looking for a Soviet interior: old window frames, lino-covered floors, staircase walls painted in green.


People were rather eager to participate, except a couple superstition-related cases. In Moscow, a young woman of progressive creative profession was ready to model naked, but refused to wear a mask, citing an inexplicable pagan fear. It was also not easy to have a person lie in a coffin in the funeral house. But we managed it. This kind of practice is good for fighting fears.

I made this whole series based on intuition, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted. For instance, in the naked scenes I was attracted by the multitude of meanings of this image, a sexual object with my latex face on it. As, in fact, by the sex with myself. On the one hand, there can be an individual interpretation for every situation. And on the other, all of them are people living their lives, at whom I am looking through the lens of my own self.

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