INTERVIEW

How the Canon Student Programme is building careers in photojournalism

Duripsch village, Abkhazia, 9 May 2016. Important national sports such as horse racing and horse-football take place twice a year in Abkhazia, on 9 May (in the USSR this is a Victory Day to celebrate of the end of WWII) and 30 September (Victory Day for the Georgian-Abkhazian war). Here, Etluhov Islam (38) is celebrating his victory in the horse racing. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova


During this year’s Visa pour l’Image Professional Week, which took place in Perpignan, France, Canon and Magnum Photos brought together 200 of the best photography students from universities across Europe for three days of talks, workshops, portfolio reviews and networking. The programme aimed to identify and nurture promising young talents, giving them an insight into the fast-changing photojournalism industry. One such photographer is 28-year-old Ksenia Kuleshova, a Master’s student at Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Germany. Kuleshova made every moment of the opportunity count, even securing a feature on the New York Times Lens blog on a project she shot in Abkhazia, a troubled state in Georgia.

Two hundred students were brought to Visa pour l’Image to participate in a workshop run by Canon and Magnum Photos.
Two hundred students were brought to Visa pour l’Image to participate in a workshop run by Canon and Magnum Photos. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © Paul Hackett
Talks, workshops and portfolio reviews aimed to nurture promising young talent in photojournalism.
Talks, workshops and portfolio reviews aimed to nurture promising young talent in photojournalism. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © Paul Hackett

“At the Visa workshops there were a great mixture of photographers with different experiences and backgrounds. We spoke a lot about what we need to do as a freelance photographer, how to present and promote the work, and exchanged ideas and our plans for the future,” says 28-year-old Ksenia Kuleshova. “It’s not just about exchanging ideas and receiving feedback from professionals, it’s about your motivation and reflection after the programme when you are back home.”

“On my way to Lake Ritsa, I passed through the village of Bzyb and noticed the sign ‘Zoo at home’. An uncaged lion licking his lips and a woman with a child – that’s what I saw when I opened the door.”
Bzyb Village, Abkhazia, 14 May 2016. “On my way to Lake Ritsa, I passed through the village of Bzyb and noticed the sign ‘Zoo at home’”, says Ksenia. “An uncaged lion licking his lips and a woman with a child – that’s what I saw when I opened the door. ‘Don't worry, the lion has just eaten,’ said the owner of the zoo.” Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

The Russian-born photographer began her career in PR before moving to Germany to study photography. She’s been working on her project about Abkhazia since she was an undergraduate. Abkhazia is officially a region of Georgia and was the centre of a brutal civil war in the 1990s between Russian-backed rebels and the Georgian army. The dispute remains unresolved and today Abkhazia’s independence is recognised only by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Russia.

Aditsa Tsikytania, a socialite, fashion blogger, and lawyer in her living room.
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 11 May 2016. Aditsa Tsikytania, a socialite, fashion blogger, and lawyer in her living room. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

“Once a beloved tourist region of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union, it’s considered a Russian puppet state,” Kuleshova explains. “It’s a lost place on the world map. People live in a bubble, trying to exist within the uncertainty, within a system that doesn’t have a future and doesn’t seek one. I found all the associated political and social issues interesting.” But Kuleshova was determined not to present the obvious struggles faced by Abkhazians: the destroyed buildings, the aftermath of war. “I wanted to find the soul,” she says.

Hegumen Ignatiy (Kiut) was standing in the cold water for more than 20 minutes while people were bathed in it. During festivities the water is blessed in accordance with Christian tradition.
Kamani village, Abkhazia, 19 January 2016. A local priest, Hegumen Ignatiy, was standing in the cold water for more than 20 minutes while people bathed in it. During festivities the water is blessed in accordance with Christian tradition. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova
A beauty salon called New Fantasy. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens.
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 10 May 2016. A beauty salon called New Fantasy. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

I followed my intuition and trusted people because they trusted me.

Over three trips, during which she used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and then a Mark IV and her EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Kuleshova adopted a deliberately organic approach. She was led by the relationships she forged. “I followed my intuition and trusted people because they trusted me,” she says. “I asked people to show me their favourite places and to take me with them to events they find important.”

It has been almost eight years since the last big snowfall in Sukhum. During this one, everybody was outside making a snowman, playing with snowballs or just walking through the snow. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 3 January 2016. It has been almost eight years since the last big snowfall in Sukhumi. “Everybody was outside, making a snowman, playing with snowballs or just walking through the snow,” says Ksenia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

“There were so many unforgettable stories. In the village of Ilor I knocked on the door of a house and an old woman opened it. She noticed the camera and said that she was the happiest person because she’s been waiting for a journalist for 20 years. For several hours she showed me everything she had and told me a tragic family story. I felt guilty when I had to leave.” The biggest challenge, she says, was to maintain a balance. “Everyone was ready to help me cover the story. Abkhazians were so friendly and open. Even though I didn’t want to concentrate on the negative side, it was important to try to stay objective, because it’s not a PR campaign.”

Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 9 May 2016. Veterans during a parade, in Sukhumi.
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 9 May 2016. Veterans during a parade, in Sukhumi. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

Before she was invited to attend the Canon programme, Kuleshova had planned ahead. “I sent the story to the editors, who I knew would be attending, and asked if it would be possible to show and discuss my project during the festival.” That strategy paid off. A meeting with New York Times photographer and editor James Estrin led to coverage of the project on Lens, the photography blog Estrin edits for The Times. And since returning from Visa, she’s won a $5,000 LHSA photography grant, which she’ll use to develop her project into a book.

Football is very popular among young people in Abkhazia because it won 2016 ConIFA World Football Cup.
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 15 May 2016. Football is very popular among young people in Abkhazia. Abkhazia won the 2016 ConIFA World Football Cup. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

The opportunity to meet figures like Estrin is, says Kuleshova’s tutor Professor Dirk Gebhardt, one of the many benefits of the programme. “Travel to Perpignan is often outside the budget of a photography student, so this kind of opportunity is the best thing you can offer to help a young photographer,” he says, adding: “It’s hard for universities to give an industry view. Our aim is to educate them to find a language in photography. Here they also learn how the market works.”

A lesson at the Military Academy in Sukhumi.
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 26 January 2016. A lesson at the Military Academy in Sukhumi. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova
The Caucasus State Folk Dance Ensemble before a performance.
Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 17 May 2016. The Caucasus State Folk Dance Ensemble before a performance. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ksenia Kuleshova

Gebhardt sees a bright future for Kuleshova, whom he chose along with another student, Jann Höfer, to take part in the Canon programme. “I think her approach to photojournalism is very pure, very authentic, but at the same time her images have a metaphorical meaning, something beyond what you see, which is not possible to explain in words,” he says. “This is the strength of her work.”


Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton


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