Olga Bushkova is a Google Trusted Photographer who started her professional life thinking she was a mathematician and programmer. She talks to Libby O’Loghlin about how photography took over, and why obsessions should come before our tools.
I started getting interested in photography around five to seven years ago, around the same time as I started dating my future husband. We shared this interest. We took a photo-course in our home town Rostov-on-Don by a well-known local photographer Karp Pashinian. He explained some technical stuff, but most of the time he just shared his experience of being a photographer. Now I think it was a big luck for me to have him as a first teacher. I find things that he told to be much more valuable than being able to distinguish aperture and shutter speed. I learned to distinguish them, of course, but later.
Was there a moment when your photography started to gain momentum?
We moved from Russia to Zürich three years ago and I came here as a Russian girl finishing her masters thesis in applied mathematics and programming. This girl had photography as a hobby. I did some photos during our travels, when exploring new cities and new countries, and I was glad to take photos of my new friends’ kids as well. I tried to enter some big name photography schools, but unsuccessfully. Then we got an idea: “Hey, we’re in the middle of Europe, there should be masterclasses and workshops here, probably every week.” We chose the nearest photography masterclass on Magnum Agency website, and I was lucky again: it was an Alex Majoli photography masterclass in Italy.
Not surprisingly, Alex wasn’t going to teach us to distinguish aperture and shutter speed. His goal was to help us to discover our obsessions.
We learned that the best photographers are not necessarily professional photographers, that ‘attitude’ and ‘obsession’ are the most important, and that ‘What it is about?’ is the question to which we should always know the answer. Alex asked us very simple questions, like, “What’s your favourite movie, and what’s it about?” or, “What are your favourite books?” Some of my answers triggered his next questions, and I remember that after 10 or 15 minutes of answering, Alex looked at his notes and read, “children … children … children … husband … children … husband …” Even describing my favourite book—Lord of the Flies—I used the word ‘children’ many, many times. He was absolutely right.
What steps did you take to move towards professional photography?
While I was doing children’s photography I didn’t think of myself as a professional. I didn’t try to earn money by doing it. But a year ago I was lucky to use the opportunity and to start working as a Google Trusted Photographer. I learned about that project from a friend, and I did the training, passed the Google certification process and eventually became a professional in this narrow area of panoramic photography for Google Maps: Business View in Switzerland. Since then, I began to think of myself as a professional. It’s like starting to wear an invisible logo: photographer. Your behaviour changes and people’s attitude to you changes as well.
Do you think powerful art can ‘only’ come from a place of obsession?
Speaking about powerful art is rather complicated. But I have seen a lot of examples when art came from a real personal obsession. We can talk here about such famous photographers as Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, Sally Mann and many many others. Something should move the artist, something should keep them going, it should contain their internal interest to life. First is obsession, second is photography being just a tool. One particular moving point for me was an interest and a wish to have new close friends in my new country (Switzerland). I was happy to offer to take photos of children for people I wanted to get know better. The communication in this case moved from official coffee-talk to home-tea-talk. So in that way, I could say that I exploited my photography as a tool to make friends, to know them better. At the same time my best friend in Russia became a mother right at the time I moved to Zürich. I had no possibility to be with her in her life as a mother, so I started to explore that kind of life here in Switzerland, and through photography I’m exploring what it is to be a mother. It’s also a way to feel close to her.
Do you find your training in applied mathematics and programming are useful, either technically, or conceptually, when you’re approaching a subject? And what do you look for (when approaching a subject)?
My training in applied mathematics and programming is useful for me in general, because it’s the way I think most of the time. But I also exploit it technically for my professional photography. The work with Google software, understanding the technology, creating street view panoramas for businesses, supporting my website … everything is rather logical and yet creative at the same time. In my ‘non-commercial’ photography I usually behave more irrationally. I’m just watching. I put myself in situation where I can explore the usual life of a mother, or father, and a child. I’m looking for the normal, everyday moments of their relationship. I don’t like to ask them to pose. I’m a guest with a cup of tea and something sweet. But I also have a camera. And I observe.
What would you say to anyone who is thinking about changing professional direction?
It’s important to have somebody who believes in you. Then you need to try to understand what it is all about. Why are you changing direction? What pushes you? Think about your obsessions. You can change direction while having the same obsessions. Exploit your former experience. Then wear your new title, and this logo should be on your forehead. Name yourself differently. You’ll be shy in the beginning, but people will start to think of you as a professional if you think of yourself as a professional.
Olga Bushkova’s Business View Inside www.bushkova.ch