Kiev, a graceful Central European city full of history tragic and glorious, has gifted many things to the world. It’s a long list but the topper is Chicken Kiev, a stuffed and breaded chicken dish renowned the world over and without a doubt hailing from said city; it’s right there in the name. However, Chicken Kiev has some new competition in the sphere of notable Ukrainian exports. Her name is Anastasiia Sapon and she is not food. She is a photographer, a very good one, highly adept at a number of photographic disciplines and able to move seamlessly to and from commercial work and more personal projects. From glaciers to chunks of bloody whale meat displayed on a wooden cutting board, the work suggests an appreciation and an openness to existence in all its forms, be they judged grotesque or beautiful, extraordinary or quotidian.
Anastasia was born in 1985 to a couple of small-business-owning Kievans. Cameras were frequently present due to her father being an avid shutterbug. An overheated American brain such as mine can’t help but imagine Ms. Sapon’s father as a dedicated family man whose hobby in that context is completely benign but, after donning his trench coat and stepping out into a Kiev crackling with intrigue and menace, takes on a totally different aspect. As I said, these are but the feverish cranial spasms of a mind loaded with colorful Yankee propaganda. In any case her father’s hobby served, if not to supply the local apparatchiks with damning photographs, then to ignite in Anastasiia an interest in photography.
Anastasiia found that conversation and sometimes a little booze helps to ease people’s
natural self-consciousness and anxiety and cure what she terms the “Zoolander Effect”.
Before she came around to her eventual calling, her career trajectory pointed to Hospitality Management, which she studied in Ukraine. Upon completion of her major, she moved to Reno, Nevada for an internship. However, the stray purchase of a camera during a trip to San Francisco with a friend would take a wrecking ball to the edifice of her plan to become queen of Reno hospitality. Her friend, seeing her natient photographic work, declared she build a portfolio for the purpose of entering the Academy of Art College in S.F., which she did, graduating in 2012.
Jump cut to Barrow, Alaska, situated upon that state’s northernmost point, above the Arctic Circle. It’s a boom and bust, hard scrabble oil town of some 43,00 people, the majority of whom are Native Americans. Anastasiia Sapon, who, through the course of our interview, increasingly comes off as unnervingly relentless and enterprising, journeyed up to this remote, frozen land in July of 2014 as part of her endeavor to build a resume of travel photography. The photos she compiled from this trip are stark, compelling and well-composed without coming off as contrived.
They present Barrow as a place both familiar and alien: here’s a backyard strewn with tools, rusted car parts, a couple of brightly colored children’s bicycles….and, oh, there’s a bloody carcass casually splayed out on a blue tarp, perfectly preserved in the chilly noonday arctic sun.
Barrow, Alaska is defined and shaped by its remoteness. The whole place resembles one big junkyard because it’s too expensive to import or get rid of anything. It’s also one of the few places in the world where you can still hunt and kill whales for food and fuel. One of the most startling photos in the Barrow series is of a wood cutting board upon which rests three large briquettes of pink whale meat, each capped with a thick slab of black, rubbery hide. Lying next to these neatly cut hunks of flesh is a tool that looks like a cross between a knife and hockey stick. Was it used merely to break the carcass down or did it double as the murder weapon? These are the musings that a good photo elicits.
800 miles south from Barrow, Alaska is Homer, a town not much larger but possessed of a slightly brighter patina. Homer sits at the entrance to Kachemak Bay, famous for a proliferation of halibut. Anastasiia captures something of the daily lives of one particular Homeric community in a series called Old Believers.
These Old Believers are Russians, emigrees from Communist Russia from which they fled, fearing persecution for their adherence to a very strict brand of Russian Orthodoxy. First they went to China, then Brazil, and then finally Alaska; ironic, considering how close to the Motherland they wound up being in the end.
There are almost no men in this series of photos, something I chalked up to a strict observance of gender segregation. Ms. Sapon offered a different explanation, attributed their absence to the all-consuming vocation of the communities’ menfolk: fishing and hunting.
The immaculate dress of the women recalls to mind the Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania, but where I associate such a cosseted existence with general misery (probably unfairly), these pictures convey a sense of lives in which hard work mixes seamlessly with good cheer and humor.
Her portrait work, while lacking the exotic appeal of the Alaska series, is just as skilled. She primarily chooses subjects she knows and/or non-professionals. She found models, especially the dudes, were too poised and postured. After choosing the subjects for their unforced charisma, Anastasiia found that conversation and sometimes a little booze helps to ease people’s natural self-consciousness and anxiety and cure what she terms the “Zoolander Effect”.
To delve deeper into Ms. Sapon’s body of work, in addition to getting your hands on the nitty gritty details like contact information and places to see her work, check out anastasiiasapon.com.
words by Matt Fink | photos by Anastasiia Sapon