Growing up in the former Soviet Union, Gulnara Samoilova was a serious downhill skier with aspirations of a career on the slopes. But when she was 15, she took a photography class and immediately fell in love with the magic of watching an image coming to life in the developing tray.
“I was training to be a ski instructor – that’s what I was going to do after I finished school – but that day, I instantly knew I was going to be a photographer,” she says. “I had this cheap plastic camera and I began taking pictures every day.”
Her new passion led to a position after high school as a photo lab tech. From there, she worked her way up to jobs as a studio photographer and freelancer for the local newspaper in her hometown of Ufa, now the capital of Bashkortostan, Russia. But it was while she was in college that she saw a Gilbert & George exhibition and realized that photography could be an outlet for her artistic creativity.
Being one of the only female fine art photographers in Bashkortostan, a Muslim republic, was not easy.
“I got a lot of criticism and discouragement to the point I almost quit photography. I was told that my place was in a kitchen and not with a camera. I remember I went to a festival, and showed my work and this famous photographer from Moscow took my prints and said, ‘Oh, this is the example of how not to photograph,’ ” Samoilova recalls. “So, it was really hard to hear and after that I almost quit photography. Until I was on this big trip with almost 200 photographers from around the world and that’s where I sold a couple of my pictures. It made me think: ‘Wow they bought my photos, they paid money – maybe I’m not that bad.’ Where right before this trip I was thinking, ‘This is it. I need to find another career.’ “
Over the past 30 years, Samoilova has established herself as a documentary photographer, photojournalist, artist and, more recently, as a curator.
These days, Samoilova, a former photo editor for the Associated Press, is making waves as the founder of the @WomenStreetPhotographers Instagram feed, which she uses to promote the work of women photographers from around the world.
She’ll be in Washington, D.C. at the end of May as a speaker for Focus on the Story 2019.
Self portrait taken on 9/11.
Gulnara Samoilova is speaking at Focus on the Story 2019 about her efforts to promote and encourage women street photographers. She’ll also be doing portfolio reviews.
Mike Lee: What led you to New York City?
Gulnara Samoilova: My work was chosen among 14 other young Russian photographers to participate in a traveling exhibit here in the United States. I came here and I felt right at home. As if I was supposed to be born here and I felt freedom. I never went back. I left everything.
Before I left, I became quite known because I stirred a lot of controversy with my work. Besides my hand-painted pictures I did a series of male nudes, which was explosive at the time. Me and maybe two other women in the old Soviet Union were doing male nudes.
I did it out of protest because I was young and beautiful and I was asked to pose nude by my male photographer colleagues. I looked at these guys’ work and it was almost pornographic, with no taste. So I began working on a series of male nudes but in an artistic way. It was really very controversial at the time. Anyway in the middle of that, I came here to New York and I started over – and the rest is history.
Lee: You’ve worked as a freelancer since. How did that come about and also, at the same time, you were still doing the multi-textured collage work.
Samoilova: When I came to New York, I didn’t speak English. I went to school to learn the language. I got a job as a volunteer at City Hall, taking pictures of public sculptures. Then I got into [the International Center for Photography] as a full-time student. After I finished ICP, I got a temp job at the Associated Press as a black-and-white darkroom printer. It was a summer job and then they just kept asking me to work longer and longer and longer. Then while there, I used my skills as a negative and print retoucher to restore AP’s archives. While I was working in the darkroom, I would also retouch prints for Pulitzer, World Press and other big contests and that’s how my skills were noticed. Vin Alabiso, who at the time was head of the photography department and vice-president for AP, hired me as a a staff photo retoucher.
He said: “We appreciate your skills. We need you.”
I’m really grateful because I was the only photo retoucher in the entire organization with the same salary as the photographers. They really valued me there. I was working on these special projects – I was there in meetings while they discussed what to enter into the Pulitzer, World Press Photo or POY, so it was fascinating. It really trained my eye, I guess, to recognize what a good picture is.
Lee: What was the most challenging assignment you’ve had in your career?
Samoilova: That would be 9/11, obviously, because it completely changed my life. So, on 9/11, I was working at AP, but I also lived four blocks away from the World Trade Center… For some reason, I thought there were no AP photographers [on the scene] yet. So I grabbed my camera and I went there.
So yeah, that was quite a day. After that, I was offered a job as a staff photographer, but I was too traumatized. I remember being called into Vin’s office to consider the job but I quit instead.
So after 9/11 and before I quit, I spent a year looking at every picture that was taken of it by staff and freelancers – everyone. I was looking through the negatives and files for special projects, exhibitions and books, and contests.
I think this traumatized me as much as 9/11, I think because I saw everything – every frame taken that day. I was just crying every day.
Lee: What is the photo that you’ve made that lingers? That you think about the most?
Samoilova: You know, I’ve been taking pictures for almost 40 years. It’s my longest relationship, and it is my life. I mean, I don’t have a husband, children, or mortgage. So this is what I do. I have a picture that is important in every stage of my photographic life.
Although I’ve been taking pictures for so long, I didn’t consider myself a serious photographer until a few years ago. Because after I took pictures on 9/11, I thought I would never take better photos.
I’m very proud of the pictures I took that day. I wouldn’t change anything about the photos. They are important pictures to me and important pictures, historically. But at the time, I didn’t think of myself as a professional photographer…
But it took me a while to realize that.
I went to Cuba several years ago and was there for one week doing street photography every day. Before that, I hadn’t taken pictures for myself for a long time. I felt so happy and I took this one photograph of a woman and a baby. I made a big print, framed it and I sat on the couch right in front of the photo. I’m looking at this picture and I’m thinking, “I am a damned good photographer. I am fucking good.” So, I just … I don’t know – I felt very good about myself as a photographer. I was like, “okay, this is it. I have no doubts that I am a good photographer.” Maybe you don’t hear a lot of photographers say, “Oh yeah, I’m an amazing photographer.” But it was the proof to me that I can take a good picture – that I still had it in me.
So yeah, that was a pivotal point in my life.
Lee: Then suddenly you are.
Samoilova: Yeah. That’s when I started really seriously doing street photography because I really fell in love with it. Yeah that’s it. That’s when I thought, “Okay, I’m going to focus on things that I love.” So that’s a long answer.
Lee: Talk about the collage work that you did, based on your family.
Samoilova: This is another very important story for me. I was doing these in the 80s, early 90s. Then when I came to New York, I continued for a couple of years then I didn’t have time. So I just put it away into a box.
In 2014, I took Mary Ellen Mark’s street photography workshop. (I met her in the 90s for the first time, she signed her book for me.) I always loved her pictures. To me, she’s amazing.
I don’t know why, I thought, “Let me show her my old work.” I brought two portfolios, one of my hand-painted pictures and another of a family series I shot a long time ago.
During the break, I showed the photos to her. She’s sitting at the table; I was standing. She’s looking at the photographs. I’m thinking, “Oh gosh, she is going to hate it.”
She’s looking at this picture and looked up at me and said, “My God, it’s great. Why did you stop?”
I didn’t have an answer – to be honest. She said, “You should go back to Russia and continue with this project. You should continue your hand-painted pictures. These are so unique.” She was telling me all this and I couldn’t believe it.
After the workshop, maybe a month later, she sent me a letter.
It was a long letter and as I read it I was crying. I had like a river of tears coming out of my eyes, where she said all these wonderful things about my photography.
Then one of the things she wrote to me that, “You owe it to yourself to produce your own personal body of work.” This really struck me really, really deep. I respected her so much and I believed her.
To me, this was a call to action. It was as if she’s telling me that I owe it to myself and that I should do it and I was going to do it.
I was thinking about doing self-portraiture with self-analysis about my childhood. So I started going through my family photographs. Then, I found photographs of family members that I didn’t know that I even had.
So, after really analyzing, this new series was born, that was basically my fantasy family album that I created for myself.
Lee: In the expressions, there’s a story there. Then in the way you’re layering it, you’re bringing it out.
Samoilova: This is the uncle that I didn’t know I had. I only learned that because on the back of it, he writes to my mother, it says, “For a long memory, from your brother Rinat.” It was sent in 1972 from a small town in Siberia. “Why is he in Siberia? Why nobody knows about him?” So there’s a story.
Lee: Did you ever find out?
Samoilova: I will try. I wasn’t ready to face my family history, but I’m going there soon so we’ll see.
Lee: I’m curious about what you know and what you were told about that person.
Samoilova: I’m just using the facts and then using my fantasy to create my own fantasy family, since I don’t have any.
Going back to Mary Ellen Mark, I was quite shocked and really touched by the attention that she took time and wrote me a letter and she didn’t have to. With so much encouragement, it really changed my life. I quit the business. What I am doing now is what I’ve been dreaming to do all my life. She inspired me to be selfless because what she did for a lot of photographers, including me.
She’s an example of what I can be for other women.
Lee: Tell us about Women Street Photographers. What led you to organize the group? What was the defining moment to take positive action, which later led to a show in New York late last year?
Samoilova: When I got involved in street photography … so I quit business, and I was going to move to Mexico to focus on my own work. But I was fortunate to get into Art Space – it’s a residency for artists.
This gave me an opportunity to focus, not only on my own work, but also be involved in the community helping other artists. We have three galleries in all. So I thought of putting together an exhibition of women street photographers. First, I wanted to put together my own exhibition. Then the election happened, which was a very dramatic event for lots of people, including me, because it brought up a lot of sexism and racism.
The elections brought up a lot of bad memories from my own past. It really upset me to the core. I just wanted to do something about it, perhaps a personal project.
Then I decided I wanted to do an exhibition of women street photographers but off the top of my head, I could only think of a few.
So that’s how I began researching on Instagram, looking for other women street photographers. I started the @womenstreetphotographers Instagram feed to save their pictures. It was my own catalog for future exhibition and it just exploded online.
I curated the exhibition last December – 75 women street photographers from 26 countries. It was quite successful. I discovered myself as a curator. I guess all my previous experience of working at AP, being involved in contests and exhibitions influenced my vision.
For the exhibition I also collected the background stories from each photographer. What did they feel when they took the picture? What did they want to show? What did they want to say? I also included the photographers’ Instagram accounts so the visitors can follow their work further. I thought this show was really educational.
I dedicated the show to Mary Ellen Mark. I had her letter in my pocket at the opening. It was really emotional for me to see that there are just so many women, so much talent.
So many women wrote or told me that they didn’t feel alone anymore. And that they had no idea that there were so many women street photographers.” It was very humbling.
Lee: Tell us about the upcoming show, and future projects.
Samoilova: I am actually in the middle of several projects right now. I’m curating another exhibition. It’s going to be shown at PHOS festival in Sofia, Bulgaria in May, and in Poland in October during Photo Art Festival. Then there are a couple more big festivals that I can’t talk about yet.
Another exciting news I will be announcing soon, is an artist residency for two weeks here in NYC.
At the end of the residency, I will help to create a solo exhibition for that photographer and it will be shown during the group exhibition in December.
I feel so grateful that I met people who encouraged me, especially Mary Ellen Mark, who changed my life. She’s a great example of who I want to look up to.
Isn’t it wonderful? It will be open to any women in the world. I am now looking for sponsors to pay for their flight ticket.
As for the Instagram I put a lot of time into looking at hundreds of photos every day and post a picture a day. My goal is to show good photography done by talented women from everywhere in the world.
This is a new venture. I’ve been doing it just for a little bit over a year, but I feel like I’m in the right time because people need it, and I think I can bring to the table my background and knowledge into the saturated world of Instagram. So when I post photographs I also explained why I like this picture, why I chose it, and why this photograph is good. As much as I hate writing I do it anyway.
I feel so grateful that I met people who encouraged me, especially Mary Ellen Mark, who changed my life. She’s a great example of who I want to look up to. Currently I’m organizing get-togethers with women street photographers in New York City. We already had a few and it is inspiring to meet so many wonderful women face-to-face, so we get to know each other.
I think this is important in our time of online existence to have face-to-face gatherings. Who knows, maybe this will change somebody else’s life.
Lee: I agree. Paying it forward.
Samoilova: That’s the goal!
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.