PROFILE

Ksenia Kuleshova

A teenage boy in swimming trunks is captured mid-jump as he leaps feet-first from a pier.

In this image from Canon Ambassador Ksenia Kuleshova's Abkhazia series, a boy jumps into the water from a high metal construction at the end of the pier in Sukhum, the capital of the breakaway state. "Children always spend their free time on the beach," Ksenia says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/640 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Ksenia Kuleshova

"For me, the starting point in every project is my curiosity and my questions about a particular situation, story or event," says Canon Ambassador Ksenia Kuleshova. "By working on these stories, I get answers and understand more about the people I photograph. I hope I can give them as much as they give to me. It's always an exchange of energy, stories and experience, and a process of growing together."

Ksenia's positive and sensitive approach, together with her determination to follow a story and her innate visual ability, has made her one of the most prominent documentary photographers of her generation.

As a freelance photojournalist, Ksenia works regularly for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, while her personal documentary projects have resulted in participation in the World Press Photo's Joop Swart Masterclass and in winning awards including the 2020 W. Eugene Smith Student Grant.

Born and educated in Russia, but also raised partly in Belarus, Ksenia initially pursued a career in public relations but in 2011 decided to completely change her life. She moved to Germany, learned to speak German and studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts. This course was followed by a master's in photography at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

Canon Ambassador and documentary photographer Ksenia Kuleshova.


Location: Germany and Belgium
Specialist areas: Documentary, photojournalism
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM

A woman stands holding a baby outside a rundown house in Bzyb, Abkhazia. A few metres away from them, a lion cub roams freely.

Another image from Ksenia's Abkhazia series. While passing through the village of Bzyb she noticed a sign: 'Zoo at home'. "An untethered lion, licking its lips, and a woman with a child – that's what I saw when I opened the door," she says. The owner told her not to worry as the lion had just eaten. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Ksenia Kuleshova

During her time as a student, Ksenia not only built a freelance professional career but also began two major personal projects. The first was a series on Abkhazia, an unrecognised state in the South Caucasus that suffered significant damage during the Georgian-Abkhazian war in the early 1990s, and is still considered by most countries to be part of Georgia. These photographs document the lives and traditions of ordinary Abkhazians, capturing significant moments, such as religious ceremonies and sporting events, but also recording everyday scenes, such as the popular beachfront promenade – a favourite spot for people-watchers.

"Abkhazia is a conflict area," says Ksenia, "but I'd heard a lot about it from my parents, who spent vacations there, so I also knew it was a very beautiful region. I had many questions about it. I read about its history and found its name means 'country of the soul', so I wanted to find this soul. I first went there in 2015, fell in love with the place and have been there every summer since."

A mother and her adult daughter share a hug on a couch. Next to them, a woman in a black hat smiles happily.

This joyous image was taken in St Petersburg, Russia, as part of Ksenia's Ordinary People project, for which she won the 2020 W. Eugene Smith Student Grant. It shows Anna Gavrilova (left) and Jane Sytenko (right) on the sofa with Jane's mother Irina (centre). Anna and Jane had recently celebrated their one-year dating anniversary. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/4.5 and ISO2500. © Ksenia Kuleshova

Running concurrently with her Abkhazia project is a separate series, Ordinary People, which documents the daily lives of LGBTQ+ people in Russia, where laws passed in recent years have strengthened the restrictions on the freedom of expression around LGBTQ+ issues. The 2020 amendments to the Russian Constitution continue to outlaw same-sex marriage, among other changes.

The series began when Ksenia met a gay couple from St Petersburg in Copenhagen Airport. "I later found them on Instagram and saw they were an openly gay Russian couple," she continues. "I had lots of questions about gay people living in Russia so I thought I should start the project." She has since photographed a number of people from Russia's LGBTQ+ community, often in their homes and focusing on their everyday lives.

"I want to advocate tolerance and understanding through the stories I photograph," she says. "I'm a realist about photography; I don't think it can change your life completely. However, if I find answers to my questions, help others find the same answers and raise awareness about a situation, I will have achieved my aim."

What did you learn from studying photography at university?
"It gave me time to learn more about myself and the opportunity to begin my Abkhazia project, which was the first time I found myself as a photographer. I learned I had to believe in myself and that it doesn't matter what people tell me, I have to follow my intuition."

How do you approach your projects?
"I aim to bring out the positive in every situation. I see that as my mission, as a photographer and also for me as a person. When we look around there are so many crazy and sad things in the world. If only we could concentrate on the positive it would be better for us all. I can't say I'm 100% optimistic, I'm more a realist, but with a positive viewpoint."

Your Ordinary People images often show LGBTQ+ people in intimate situations – how did you get people to trust you?
"Before I started to take pictures, we spent a lot of time together, got to know each other and had so much fun. They also knew I had a sincere interest in the topic and wanted to know more about it. When people understand you're genuinely interested in them and you're not doing this work for fame or other reasons, they trust you to tell their story."

How much equipment do you use when shooting your documentary work?
"On my personal projects, I usually work with one Canon body [a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV] and one Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. I usually photograph with natural light and don't normally take a tripod as it's too much to carry."

What do you like about shooting long-term projects?
"I really enjoy taking time to develop my relationships with my subjects, who I call my 'heroes'. I know what I ultimately want to do, but I leave space for surprises. I never know what will come up and that's what makes it exciting."

One thing I know

Ksenia Kuleshova

"The most important thing about being a documentary photographer is to follow your intuition and do what you think is right, not what you think you need to do to make a story successful. Of course, it's important to have a general plan, but documentary photographers should be open to new experiences. If something doesn't go right you can always change the direction. So be curious, be open to surprises and be ready to change plans as a story develops."

Instagram: @ksukuleshova

Twitter: @KseniaKuleshova

Website: www.kuleshova.de

Ksenia Kuleshova's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Ksenia Kuleshova's kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "As a perfectionist, for me the most important thing about a camera is quality, and I love the build of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. This camera is perfect for all kinds of situations. I know I can rely on it," says Ksenia.

Lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

The successor to the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II that Ksenia favours is a standard wide-angle lens beloved by reportage photographers for its natural perspective, low-light capability and extraordinary optical performance. Ksenia says: "This is the classic photojournalist's lens. I feel comfortable with it and I use it for all my personal projects. It's my favourite lens because it has great optics and is very sharp. I normally photograph without flash and this lens is just perfect for low-light conditions."

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. "I use the 24-70mm lens for my assignments, because I often don't have much time to take a shot and it gives me the flexibility I need. It is a fantastic overall lens, with great colour, focus and sharpness," says Ksenia.

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