N: Hey Yaroslav! I have enjoyed your photography for years now, so I am so happy to have this interview! For those tuning in who might not know you, could you give a little intro about yourself? How'd you get into fashion photography and digital art?
Y: Hello, thanks for your interest in my work! I'm really excited about this interview. I identify as a digital artist and photographer, but it's always hard to define what you do with just a few words. There's so much cool stuff to work with and play with, but I think these terms describe me best right now. I've always been interested in art in all its forms.
I grew up in Dnipro, Ukraine, and my childhood was full of cultural activities. My mom loves ballet, so I started taking ballet lessons at a young age, and then acrobatics.
I wouldn't say I was very good at it, but I stuck with it for eight years. In addition to regular school, I also went to art school, where I studied the basics of visual art, academic painting, and sculpture. It was incredibly exciting, but also incredibly challenging for a kid with ADHD. I was always a bit of a troublemaker, disrupting classes and doing crazy things. I don't think I was a great student, but I had a great relationship with my teacher, who taught me a lot.
After art school, I got into photography. I was amazed by how quickly you could create visual works. It was much faster than spending weeks painting a canvas. This was back when Instagram algorithms actually worked. I started gaining followers quickly, and I started getting clients from the United States, Europe, and Australia.
Mostly, these were clothing brands that would send me entire collections to Ukraine, where I would shoot ad campaigns and lookbooks with my friends, models, and makeup artists.
I was probably 16 at the time. It was so much fun. I continued in the same direction and started publishing my work on Photo Vogue, created by Italian Vogue.
I remember one of my works was featured on the Vogue Italy website, which was my first publication. Dnipro was a bit of a boring town for me. It was industrial in the past and rapidly developing in the present, but it was too small. When I was 19, I moved to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. That's where my journey into the world of fashion began.
In three years there, I worked with many world-renowned Ukrainian brands and met incredibly talented people.
N: So, for our readers who might not be aware, you've had a seriously intense time recently, from a near-death experience caused by an accident to barely managing to escape the conflict in Ukraine after being surrounded by Russian forces. With the onset of the conflict, many felt the fashion world, very much built on escapism and fantasy, seemed to become inevitably out of step with the harsh realities unfolding. What are your thoughts on this dynamic? And also on a personal level, how did you reconcile your career's emphasis on escapist and dreamy visuals with the hard truths you were confronting in real life?
Y: I think the fashion world has always been dreamy and unrealistic, but that's its strength and uniqueness. It gives people the opportunity to dream and escape to another reality, to build their own little world where they feel safe. It also allows people to work with that other reality, broadcasting it into the real world and making it less grey. I see only positive aspects in this. However, if you look at other aspects of the industry, I don't really understand the brands' desire to work with open Putinists hiding behind the mask of "influencers".
In fact, it was very traumatic at the start of the war to fall out of the glamorous world in which my friends and I lived.
Reality was very scary and shocking for everyone. But the phantom world of fashion and art will always be there, and it will always be possible to hide and escape into it. But now, I think I'm forcing myself more to face reality and look around, no matter how painful it is. I admit that even answering these questions, I have to overcome myself a lot. After all, any mention of war immediately brings back memories of those horrors that, unfortunately, remain the reality for 33 million Ukrainians who remain in the country and ensure its existence.
N: The narratives surrounding the invasion have been so dominant that I think they have changed the framework in which we tend to see creatives from Ukraine. How do you feel about the 'Ukrainian artist' label? Does it ever feel in some way "limiting"? In the sense that it might limit you from having your personal narrative be detached from the political situation?
Y: I don't think the label "Ukrainian artist" can be limiting in any way, and I'm not sure it even exists. War and its consequences are a colossal national trauma that also has a profound impact on artists and their narratives.
In my opinion, works of art are markers of time. Not always, of course, but generally speaking, artists have always reflected their reality in their work.
For example, I never thought I would create a project based on my traumatic experiences that would make people see life and its value in a new way. And that the purpose of the project would be to provide financial assistance to a charity, one of whose branches supports children affected by the war in Eastern Ukraine and organizes an art camp in the Ukrainian Carpathians for these children. Unfortunately, this is my reality and the reality of many other Ukrainians. We need to go through this, and only when we can move on will the art of war remain just one chapter in history and no longer a horrible reality.
N: You mentioned our world being 'overfilled with information' in the description of your photography series "Fragile Realities". Can you expand on that? Especially in terms of how that relates to your personal work.
Y: When the full-scale war began on February 24, 2022, I remember how we were all in a fog. There was so much information around, and it was very difficult to distinguish reality from fiction. It is no secret how strong and pervasive Russian propaganda is. At the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a huge amount of media sponsored by the Kremlin to promote their desired ideas. In the early days of the war, and even now, you need to be very selective in your choice of sources of information, as there are many fake and untrue news outlets. But this applies not only to Russian propaganda. I think that in principle, the world is now oversaturated with information, and you need to have the skills to be able to sort out the unnecessary and untrue. Big corporations are hunting for your time and attention in order to sell it to potential advertisers by manipulating us as users.
Instagram is the most popular social network among people of my generation in Ukraine, so naturally we read the news with my friends there. I remember how my entire feed of posts and stories from people I followed were blurred because it was "sensitive content", and every time you had to click several times to see the horrific photos of the inhumane torture of Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians. A person's life, their history and identity are destroyed, and their physical body is hidden from public access behind the interface of the application. Something priceless, incredibly powerful, and most importantly, is devalued in an attempt at commercialization. No one wants to see the harsh truth, because it is not convenient, it scares away users and creates a "wrong" atmosphere.
In my series of works "Fragile Realities", I reflect on what it would be like for the people around me if I had died. Would they see a blurry picture on Instagram too? Or would I just remain a ghost in the memory of the people around me, gradually disappearing over time?
Not so long ago, unfortunately, my grandfather passed away. He remained to live in Ukraine after the start of the war and it turned out that he had a stroke, but in the city where he lived there were no friends or relatives left, because everyone was forced to leave. No one could provide him with the necessary help, and this was the cause. We had not seen each other for the last year before his death, as I had moved to live in the UK; we only talked on the phone. By that time, I already had a poor memory of how he looked. Of course, such images of people who are important to you remain in your memory for a long time, but now, after six months of his death, I am starting to lose the memory of his voice and appearance. Gradually, a person who meant a lot to me is becoming a blurry silhouette in my memory.
N: In your visual work, you don't shy away from dabbling with technologies like 3D and AR. Any new techniques you're experimenting with these days? Or any new photography style that has been catching your eye?
Y: The past year has been quite a crisis for me. Apart from my work in fashion, my overall vision has become very different.
I think I've started to live in the dark more. I love going for walks alone at night in forests, parks, or mountains.
Sometimes in absolute darkness, without a light, I look at the details that are visible by moonlight. Sometimes I can take a light with me and play with shadows and compositions, placing light sources in different places and walking around in search of a beautiful shot. Only now, after almost a year and a half of living in another country, do I think I'm starting to recover and strive for new and interesting visual solutions.
N: Out of all the fashion gigs you've done, any favorite collabs? And while we're at it, any dream collabs you're hoping for down the line?
Y: My favorite collaborations are always with friends. It's always a pleasant surprise to come to a set and see friends. This is actually very interesting because the industry in Ukraine is not that big. The number of professionals is quite limited. I think that these were my favorite collaborations, and I'm sure there will be others soon, perhaps even more ambitious and significant, but that warm feeling of pleasant surprise is unfortunately lost. After all, the global industry is very large and the flow of people is enormous.