Landscape photography: how to switch from physics to discovering Iceland and Antarctica
By Anna Dzarakhokhova and Anastasia Pokrovskaya
Let’s start with a standard question. Why did you enroll at MIPT?
I enrolled at MIPT mainly because of my parents — they’re physicists, too. At some point, I did want to study architecture or art, but in the end, I chose to follow in their footsteps. The advice they gave me then was very simple: “If you study physics there, you’ll be able to do anything you want later in life.” And I agree with them now. That’s the typical MIPT mindset, isn’t it?
How does your MIPT education help you in what you’re doing now? Apart from the fact that you know optics, of course.
I always say that I’m still solving problems to this day. Only now, the problems I solve involve logistics, routing, planning, and composition. I have quite a large business that isn’t limited to photography. I’m a partner of Iceland Photo Tours, an Icelandic tour operator. We have around 5,000 clients a year. And now we organize tours not only in Iceland but in about 40 countries around the world. Our company offers more in terms of photo tours than National Geographic. We’re №1 in the photo tour market.
How do you manage your time?
It’s always a challenge. 24/7, 365 days a year. But this really is my dream job. I travel a lot, from one place to another. In addition, most of our business processes have already been fine-tuned — it took 10 years to set up the business properly.
What kind of company management principles do you follow? What’s your management stylе? How do you pick people for your team?
The main task is to select our guides. Here, the main thing is that we all share a goal and a passion for photography. Maximizing profit isn’t our only goal. All of our guides, office staff, and market research experts are passionate about photography.
What are your memories of MIPT?
The thing I was probably most impressed by were the people in the MIPT mountain tourism club. They were the ones who encouraged me to travel and take up photography. We’d go hiking in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. I was a regular member for my first three years, then I got involved in managing the club. That experience of managing a group of people under challenging conditions proved extremely important to me. We traveled to the Caucasus mountains, the Pamirs mountains, and the Ural mountains, too.
Do you have any stories from those days?
Of course! I have tons of them. There was one interesting trip to the North Caucasus with several other MIPT students. We hiked to Dyatlov Pass — quite an infamous place. On the way, there is a plateau called Manpupuner, which has these really tall stone pillars. The trip took about three weeks and we covered a distance of 200 km on skis. When we got to the plateau, we really wanted to take some photos there.
But there was a blizzard when we arrived. So we sent the main group of ten of further along the route while my friend and I stayed behind on the plateau for one more day. We built an igloo between two pillars, and literally the next day the weather cleared and we managed to take some great shots both during the day and at night. The trek was pretty challenging. Temperatures there can drop to -35C, and there are constant blizzards and flurries. But I have a lot of different memories from my trips. We’d often sit around a fire, play the guitar and sing songs — all the stuff you’re supposed to do on hiking trips.
You once said in an interview that you were always searching for a compromise between art and travel. And that’s how you became a landscape photographer. Back when you were studying at MIPT, did you already know you didn’t want to become a scientist? Six years is a long time. Did you know as soon as you graduated that you were done with science?
No. I actually enjoyed doing science. We had a photonics department at MIPT (IPG Photonics), and I really enjoyed doing science and experimenting with lasers there. But I only started to appreciate it after graduation. My options at the time were to move to the States or Europe to become a researcher there, or stay in Russia to do applied science — which I didn’t really like. It’s routine work. I slowly but surely started drifting towards photography. The more time went by, the deeper I got into it. Soon, I was sorting out the launch of my magazine, Continent Expeditions, with a circulation of 10,000 copies. That lasted a couple of years. It was a fascinating experience in terms of the business model and networking.
What do you think you’d be doing now if you’d never taken up photography?
I think I’d have continued doing science! I actually do miss science and all those fundamental things. When I was a student, I never hated what I was studying. I do sometimes miss science. On the other hand, I don’t really have much time for nostalgia, given the amount of work and traveling I do.
Do you see your job as work? Or as a hobby? You even often refer to yourself as an amateur photographer, rather than a professional.
It’s definitely still a hobby! When I had my only vacation to date last year in March, my family and I went to Indonesia. I’d even though about not bringing my camera. But on the second day, I was off taking pictures of the sunrise, and in my month of vacation, I took 14 flights to all sorts of interesting places. That was quite a vacation.
What’s your favorite time to work? And why?
That’s a tricky question! I don’t have a favorite time as such. I mean, back in January I was in Antarctica. I had a large group there — a whole ship full of people! After that, we headed to Patagonia, where it was summer at the time. It was odd, really. In Antarctica, it was semi-summer, semi-winter, and snowy. Then in Patagonia, there were flowers. After that, I headed to Iceland. It was in the middle of a very harsh winter there, with very rough seas. Winter can be a difficult season. But I enjoy taking photos in winter because it’s always a challenge to get really good shots. It’s boring to go to the same places over and over. Like the fields of Provence. We do a tour in France, too. It can be interesting to go there once, but I don’t really fancy going back. Once you’ve taken every possible photo you can take there, it’s just the same blue sky every day. I think my favorite time of year is fall, because of the bright colors. The autumnal colors, the first snow… It’s probably my favorite time for taking pictures.
How many countries have you visited?
I’ve never even tried counting. I do enjoy going back to some places. Greenland is one of them. We’ve been going there for six years now, exploring various fjords, villages, the west, the south, the east. We now offer tours all over Greenland. In the west, we now have tours on a boat with scarlet sails. In the south, we have a schooner for tours to see the Northern Lights and the mountains. Every tour in the west ends lasts five full days, while those in the east and south go on for 1–2 weeks.
What was your most difficult shoot?
I’ve had plenty of difficult shoots. The most difficult one was perhaps the one I mentioned earlier, the one in the Urals. The wind was blowing us off the pass. And the whole trip was spent in -35C… It was a huge challenge.
You said in an interview that you take a very long time retouching photos. How long does it usually take you?
It depends. If it’s something like a complex panorama, a big one, then I might spend two to three hours on it. I have lots of students though, and they’re only too willing to do that for me. But the whole process is an art form in itself, so you don’t want hand it off to someone else. The person working on your photo doesn’t know what emotions you were experiencing when you took the shot. But those emotions are important. When you retouch a photo, you’re ultimately trying to recapture what you were experiencing when you took it.
I wanted to ask you about books. You once talked about how you would like to publish books about Lake Baikal, northern Norway, Crimea, and Karelia. Have you ever thought about writing a book of stories from your trips? Or perhaps you do write those stories down but never publish them?
Truth be told, at one point I really enjoyed writing. I wrote lots of articles when I was the editor of my magazine. I had a LiveJournal account at one point. But now that I’m running a business, I simply don’t have time for that. I’d really like to write more if I did have the time. Like I said, I enjoy writing a lot, not just taking photographs. Plus every shot I take has so many stories behind it! Every good shot comes with a story.
Where else would you like to travel?
There are lots of places in Asia I’d like to see. I only started traveling there last year. Things are a lot more complicated now with the pandemic, but I went to Japan and China a couple of years ago. That’s out of the question now. But I plan to start exploring new places again once the pandemic dies down. There are a lot of interesting photographers in Asia, and the Asian photography world can be quite different from the European one. So there are differences in composition and post-production. For example, in Asia, they follow a more traditional style of photography, more like Chinese art. On the contrary, American and European way is contains more aggressive composition, complicated panoramas, and more vibrant and saturated colors. When you look at the picture, you can definitely tell, whether it was taken in Asia or in Europe.
What’s your goal for the next ten years?
One goal is to grow our company and expand into new areas. Another goal we have is to open a gallery. In terms of personal development, I want to explore new places and new forms. I use a project-based approach to photograph — it’s something I learned from physics. For me, every trip is about more than just going somewhere and taking pictures. It’s a project,
just like in science. You start by investigating something new and figuring out whether people need it. If something has already been photographed a thousand times, nobody’s going to be interested in it. If you find something really interesting that nobody has taken photos of before, then you dive in headfirst.
We also have some questions from students. Here’s the first one: how do you go about looking for inspiration?
There are several sources of inspiration. For me, number one is my friends. That helped me out a lot when I was in the MIPT mountain tourism club. I always hang out with like-minded people — people who like nature and traveling. Even the people who go on our tours are bound to have been to other places. We’re constantly sharing our experiences. After every trip, I end up with a list of a hundred more places to explore.
I also get inspiration from reading, of course. Ever since I was a child, I’ve read lots of magazines like National Geographic and GEO. Books about travel help a lot, too. Another source is museums and exhibitions. You go there, look at the exhibits, and get inspired.
How do you figure out what your calling is? Whether it’s photography, business, science, or something else.
That’s a really good question. I told myself early on that as soon as I stopped enjoying something, as soon as it turned into a routine, I would immediately stop. It’s important to learn to say no. I’ve had many offers in business, investments, jobs, and so on over the years. But as soon as something turned into a routine for me, I was done with it.
I would imagine one has to be pretty brave and confident to do that.
Yes, you need to be able to take risks. When I was a student, one of my first clients was an important businessman. He saw that I liked seeing things through to the end, so he asked if I would manage some projects. But turned him down because that would have meant leaving behind science and my studies.
How do you become successful in business?
That’s another interesting question! It’s interesting because I’ve never asked it myself. I just did what I enjoyed doing and never really cared about finances. Everything just fell into place of its own accord.
Perhaps that’s the secret? If you want to succeed in business, you should stop thinking about it all the time.
Indeed. If your only focus is money rather than creating, discovering, or developing something new, your whole enterprise will soon go off the rails.
Here’s a philosophical question from a student: is nature better than people? It seems to me that only an MIPT student could ask that!
It’s a bit of a sneaky question. But it’s a modern one, too. Modern culture tends to view the world in terms of good and evil. I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it though. Things are more complicated than they seem.
Can you name a movie that left an impression on you?
I like nature films, and generally prefer documentaries. There is a very good documentary series called Planet Earth. My daughter and I are re-watching it all the time. It’s very well made, and it showcases the places, the nature. It’s the benchmark for what a good nature documentary should be like.
What advice would you give current MIPT students?
Don’t be afraid to do creative things, and don’t just limit yourself to science. When I was a student at MIPT, we had our own circle of people interested in photography. A lot of my friends from MIPT play music or paint. We rarely had much free time, but we never gave up on our hobbies. There’s more to life than physics — you need a way to express yourself creatively.