IGOR CHEKACHKOV: FOR ME, PHOTOGRAPHY IS LIKE HAIKU

ВІТАЛІЯ ЩЕЛКАНОВА 5 ТРАВНЯ 2019 

Igor Chekachkov is a photo artist who continues the traditions of the Kharkiv school of photography. He started out as a photo journalist in 2008, before moving to artistic photography, which is what we’ll talk to him about today. The series “Daily Lives” is Igor Chekachkov’s first project related to the naked body. Why and how? Vatalia Shchelkanova asked these questions. 

Valeria Shchelkanova: Tell us about the series. How did it all begin, where did the idea come from?

Igor Chekachkov: I became interested in the personal. I was working as a photojournalist at the time and I really wanted to do something else. I understood that I had mastered certain skills and the language of photography, but I wanted to do something different. And because I was a student, I visited my friends in their dorms and photographed them.  

That was the first time I photographed a naked body. I just really liked interacting with people in such a small space, because I was really surprised when I first saw how they lived. There was something very intimate about it. There were four beds and each person on that bed had their own personal life, but they were all sharing one small space. We searched for something. I photographed different staged and unstaged scenes from their life together. I understood that by photographing from above you can get the clear shot I saw. The very first one, with the wash basin.      

  1. S.: Why did you photograph from above?
  2. C.: I saw that shot very clearly and I understood that it looked good. I took one shot from above and everything else was from a different position. At that point the series was about two people living together. That was around the time I met Pyatkovka. I showed him my photos and he liked what I was doing, especially the photos taken from above. He pushed me to continue, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t understand at the time that I wanted to continue photographing only from above. And once I understood, I tried to, but I clearly didn’t have the instinct or the skills, and the photos didn’t come out right. I think that’s why I gave up photography for several years.     

All the time I had just that one shot. And then at some point I felt that I knew how to make the shots. I didn’t have any images in my head, but I felt a renewed strength. I started shooting, collecting material. When something didn’t work, we would meet for a few hours and it was always a process, because in the beginning I didn’t know how to shoot correctly. And in that search I understood that I didn’t have enough time and enough opportunities. I jokingly told the girls that it would be good if we lived together so that they would always be naked and I could photograph them. They looked at each other and said okay, and the next day I came with my suitcases. We lived together for a while, a month, maybe a little less. I photographed almost every day, I was always searching. 

I wanted there to be two people in the shot, interacting. How, I didn’t know, but I didn’t like the idea of staging the scenes. Maybe because I was used to photographing stories, maybe because I really don’t like coming up with ideas. I think photography is interesting because it interacts with real life, and it can show that there’s a lot more art in life than in what we invent. And that’s why the situation when they lived with me allowed them to live more, and me to photograph it. Usually it happened that it wasn’t staged at all, or we thought about what would happen. I didn’t position everything, but I could create a space where they would interact.     

  1. S.: Why the naked body? Is it easier for you to understand a person without any clothes? If clothes is a hypertext that allows you to better understand a person, then removing this layer makes it harder or easier?
  2. C.: You said it right, clothes add meanings that you want to remove. I think the body is more honest. I think it was intuitive. I knew that they had to be naked. Now I understand that there are many different sides. First, clothes is an added reference to culture, of which there’s enough in the space that I was photographing. Second, it is completely unconscious, but in trying to analyze why we often photograph the naked body, I think there’s manipulation involved. In a good way. To interest the viewer, you have to show them something they’re not used to.   

And it turns out we’re not used to seeing the naked body. I’m probably speaking about what Vremya group called “theory of strike” – that the viewer has to be shocked. In sociology there is the notion of “ontological security”, when we are in familiar situations. But if something changes, for example, one of us is naked, it would already be an unsafe situation, it’s unusual. And putting the viewer in such unsafe situations is one of the ways of making this strike. People would probably pass by many things if everything was what they’re used to seeing. Surprisingly, the naked body is still something unusual. Although I find it strange that something so close to us and so intimate is perceived that way.     

But because at the time I was paying a lot of attention to composition, it was also a visual process. There is a lot of texture and patterns in everything around you, and the body contrasts with it because it’s a solid surface. That contrast of richness and poverty of texture, if you can call it that, works very well visually. At the Hokusai exhibition I heard something similar from a woman who seemed to know a lot about art, even though she was talking to herself and walking up to every picture. I heard her say that about texture and I found it interesting. At my exhibition in Paris a year later, an art critic from America came up to me and said two things: that the influence of Japan is noticeable (which surprised me), and that thing about texture. I realized that I felt that subconsciously, but, unfortunately, never read about it. If I had known that it existed, maybe I would have done it more consciously.   

V.S.: Your favorite photographer is Japanese?

I.C.: Yamamoto? Yes, he’s one of my favorites, but I only discovered him a year ago. By the way, I like lots of Japanese photographers: Tomatsu, Fukase, Hosoe, Araki. 

  1. S: Have you been there?
  2. C.: No. But as the writer Alexander Genis said, there is more Japan outside Japan than in Japan. The Japanese aesthetic permeated the Western view of the country so strongly that it’s probably stronger there than in Japan itself. Even what we’re doing right now – drinking tea, although it’s a Chinese tea ceremony.     

When I started photographing all of this I became friends with many artists. People would come with Chinese tea and I became interested in the tradition. Then I read the book Zen and the Art of Archery, which, by the way, heavily influenced Cartier-Bresson. The book is about a German philosopher who went to Japan to study German philosophy, and at the same time studied archery from a Zen master. But it’s not really about archery. Archery was a way of understanding that philosophy. The master told him that his mistake was that he enters that state when he shoots the arrow, when he should be in it when he picks up the bow, when he bows to his target. What he meant was that all that was no less important than the process itself.      

And I understood that this could be applied to tea, because I like the ceremony, and it probably also works with photography; it’s not the result that’s important, it’s the process you immerse yourself in. I thought very little about it, because I was in what’s called in psychology a state of flow. So, Japan influenced me, in one way or another, through its Zen philosophy, artists, movies.   

What’s amazing is that at the time I wasn’t influenced by Kharkiv photography, I wasn’t even aware of it. I learned about Pyatkovka, and when I showed him my first photograph he said: “Amazing, that’s the Kharkiv school of photography.” For me at the time that was an insult. I thought: “Kharkiv, seriously?”. I thought that photographers in Kharkiv only photographed weddings and cheap studio portraits. A big problem with our city is that we have a strong photographic tradition that nobody knows about – just like I didn’t know. I’m really interested in Bresson, I brought myself up on the European photography I had heard about. I knew about Mikhailov, but hadn’t seen much of his work. It was only much later, when I began studying Kharkiv photography, that I realized that there was much in common, although it was generally drawn from the collective subconscious. It became very interesting and very close to me, although earlier I was very skeptical about it.    

I think I appreciated it more after communicating with Yevgen Pavlov. I was very impressed with how he thinks, how he speaks and what he does. It’s especially interesting to take in his work after speaking with him – if you look at pictures without the context they’re more difficult to figure out. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t know about Kharkiv photography. That way I didn’t become hostage to the aesthetic and may have copied it. But it’s interesting that I began shooting a similar topic.  

V.S.: Do you perceive the body in the ancient sense? The body as a microcosm, or something different?

I.C.: I don’t want to talk about the beauty of the body in the classical sense. I think that’s obvious. The body is beautiful. What interested me more was the body placed in context, the interaction of two bodies and the interaction of the body with space. The pictures are partly aesthetic, but I don’t want them to be too beautiful. I think it’s because when I was searching I didn’t have an understanding of how they worked with the body.  

V.S.: Was that your first series?

I.C.: No, before that I had photographed veterans. Thanks to Magnum and Bresson, I became interested in street photography. And before I was even dreaming about galleries, I had a website. It became a place where I could have exhibits. But I understood that if I posted anything it had to be a finished project. The first series that I posted was a series of street photographs from London. 

“Daily Lives” is my first project related to the naked body. The photographs interact with life. Staged photographs aren’t very honest. That’s why now I never plan shoots, although I used to. For me photography is the ideal Zen Buddhist instrument for understanding reality. Buddhism helped me understand the world better, things that I used to fear – the large system and how to maneuver in it. I was probably really impressed with Yamamoto’s photography because it’s very Zen Buddhist. 

And another thing, photography always reminded me of haiku. If photography is a language, then it’s definitely closer to poetry than prose. I think haiku is a perfect analogy. I had been mulling the idea for a long time and then I met a Japanese guy who called his photography haiku. That’s the danger of a series. You can sometimes remove this analogy and bring photography closer to prose. I really want to avoid that.     

In the series photographed from above I chose the easiest way – I found one visual route, saw that it worked, and repeated it. I’m saying this now, but at the time this search to understand how to work in this format was difficult and painful. Nowadays I want to do series where each photograph don’t use the same visual approach.   

The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).

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