A 12-year-old boy in a Stormtrooper helmet – and a tutu. A hulking man wearing a pre-Raphaelite collar of Barbie dolls. A bride standing wistfully in a garden, her face obscured by a wrestling mask. Russian photo-based artist Uldus Bakhtiozina’s whimsical and surreal images — which feature models as well as herself — raise an eyebrow at identity, gender and cultural stereotypes with humor and thoughtfulness. Exquisitely detailed and lit like classical paintings, her images reveal a vulnerability in her heavily costumed subjects, offering layers of meaning and emotion. At TED2014, we spoke to Uldus about her work and worldview. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.
Tell us about yourself and how you got started.
I found my way to photography six years ago. At the time, I was doing my art degree in England. There I was, surrounded with so many stereotypes around my nationality, which made me smile and feel inspired at the same time. That’s why I started with self-portraits: I wanted to lay open those stereotypes and change people’s perceptions.
After I graduated from high school in Russia at 16, I studied politics, but I didn’t finish, because I realized that’s not the thing I want to do. So I moved to London for art school and studied at St Martin’s. My first degree was in graphic design. Afterwards, I did a degree in photography. I worked as a graphic designer, then as an art director, while in the process of evolving as a professional photographer. I tried different disciplines: porcelain sculpture, oil painting, illustrations, mixed media. My exploration of the arts helped me to realize that photography is the best tool to express my ideas. That’s what I do now, and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
How did you stumble on photography after trying other media? And why do you describe yourself as a photo-based artist rather than as a straight photographer?
I don’t think there is a straight photographer in the world. Photography is a tool for sending a message, not just for capturing a moment or for fashion. I describe my way of photography creation as hand-touched within the picture. I stitch costumes, glue backgrounds, draw and even cook sometimes to create the whole composition. I shoot on film, with a Pentax 67-II. This makes the process much longer than digital photography. There it is hand-touched again. I develop prints and scan them again, so the whole process of one image can take up to three months or longer.
Your portraits seem to bring out people’s internal conflicts, and put them out there for all to see. You must get to know people quite well before you take a picture.
Yes. Normally, I meet with my models a lot before I photograph them. We talk, we hang out. I want them to feel warm and relaxed, and to trust me. My last project involved mostly young men. In the Russian mentality, heterosexual guys don’t really like to pose. For them to dress up or be confronted with a camera, it’s kind of doing something girly. To convince them to be my models was an issue. Their occupations are many, but all of them came to my exhibition and brought their friends. I was happy about this, because I could integrate people who are typically so far away from each other’s subcultures — some of them far from the arts field. There were punks, architects, dancers, anarchists, illustrators, graphic designers, hairdressers, old-school skinheads, all mixed together. That was the most amazing thing. I feel that my art should give a smile and positive energy.
Why is that important to you?
We already have so much negativity around us, and I want to balance this. People sometimes create very negative tragedy art — about war, illness, revolution, politics. And while this can motivate people to move toward more positive things, generally, when you open up any social network or news blog, there is bad news, bad news, bad news. I believe in motivation by creating something positive. Negative and positive emotions should be balanced.
I want to give to my audience a little bit of fairytale. I consider my photography something that makes people happier. Like a meditation. I’m happy to hear people say that they can look at my photo work for hours and they feel healed.
In your Fellows talk, you showed an image of a man wearing a collar of dolls from your series “Desperate Romantics.” Was he happy with the image?
Oh, yeah. He was so excited that I was showing this image at TED. It’s interesting: he’s a very brutal guy anyway, and everyone knows that the fact that he agreed to pose for the image makes him, in a way, even more brutal—because he’s not afraid to dress up like this. It makes him even more of a man. Some of his friends photograph him because he has such interesting features, and often he takes an aggressive pose. But anyone who knows him in person knows that he’s also very kind and sweet, and will always help you if you have a problem. People would say that he’s philosophical. So those who know him see the photo and say, “Yeah, that’s really Nikita.”
You’ve done a lot of art around the culture of boys and men. What about the culture of girls?
Right now, I’m doing a very feminine project. It’s going to be a book about Russian fairy tales, and Russian princesses — Tsarevnas — in these fairy tales. So these princesses are able to transform into animals at some point in the fairy tale. I stitch the costumes for them.
I want to open the subject of history of Russian fairy tales because they were created before Christianity came to Russia, before religion and church. People believed in the gods of sky, forest and sun. They were very close to nature. This is becoming popular again now in Russia, and in the world in general. People are more appreciative of their connection to nature, to the supernatural — discovering one’s self, using intuition. Russian fairy tales are a metaphor for this.
You often photograph portraits of strangers you meet on your travels. Is it as simple as that, or do you stay in one place and get to know people first?
It happens sometimes. I’ve been working on a project called “Miss Other World,” an ironic series of portraits about the Miss Universe competition, and some of those models are people I met in my travels. I use the word “miss” in terms of “missing something.” Miss Purity feeds herself with fast food, Miss Uniqueness is surrounded with hundreds of identical Buddhas, Miss Relevance sits in a temple, drinking and smoking, Miss Genuine — whom I met in Bali — has clearly had plastic surgery and is wearing plastic jewelry…
Wasn’t Miss Genuine offended that you asked her to pose?
No, she wasn’t. It’s just a matter of communication with people. I explain what the project means, what the thought process is behind my work. She sees it as a message. I also pose for this project as Miss Understanding and Miss Purity.
So you make fun of yourself as well.
Yeah, I do — a lot. It’s a part of my social experiment. When people meet me, and I start talking with them, people realize that actually, I’m quite normal. I’m not a freak. Art is my method for exploring the world, and identity, and to notice how people approach and accept things that are different from them. We often see others as we are, not as they are.
And now, I’m in the middle of this social experiment at TED. People come up to me, and I feel that through our conversation their impression about “Uldus” gets transformed up to 180 degrees. It’s interesting how they are entering new levels of understanding and coming to understand the many meanings in my work.
Above, watch a video made by Uldus, an extension of her “Miss Other World” series.