Alena Kuzub was born and raised in Minsk, Belarus, where she graduated from the Belarusian State Economic University. After four years working in finance she decided to become a professional photographer, moved to Boston to study at the New England School of Photography, and graduated in 2013 with concentrations in Documentary Photography, Fine Art Black and White, and Advertising. Her work has been included in several exhibitions such as the Flash Forward Festival group exhibition "Undergraduate Photography Now: A Celebration of New England's Best Student Photographers", NESOP's Black and White show at Panopticon gallery, and the Griffin Museum of Photography's 19th Annual Juried Exhibition. She was also awarded second prize in the Portrait category and second honorable mention in the Feature category of the Boston Press Photography Association College Contest 2013.
In this interview with editor Catalina Piedrahita, Alena talks about the geometry of Downtown Boston, about life in Belarus, and about Russian-speaking people in America.
CP: In Downtown Geometry you offer a very unusual point of view of downtown Boston. Pedestrians rarely stop in the middle of their work day to contemplate the top of the buildings they work in. How is the process of selecting the scenes you photograph? What makes a building worthy of a frame?
AK: I agree, most people don’t look up too often and some have repeatedly told me that, looking at my work. Maybe I am a different kind of a pedestrian because I don’t work in that area, I have more time to contemplate, I look at the world constantly searching for photographs and the architecture at home was different. We don’t really have a business district with very tall buildings and skyscrapers like most American cities.
I usually try to go to downtown on weekends when there are less people and activity there and I can focus on my sensations, because basically my process is based on the gut feeling. I choose a direction randomly and walk along the downtown streets, constantly looking up. There's a lot of beautiful architecture down there. Many buildings have interesting geometry, lines or details; or create interesting shapes against sky. I walk paying attention to them and sometimes I see a photograph. I double check with my viewfinder whether that could really be an interesting frame and I take a picture.
I usually combine separate photographs into diptychs, triptychs or multiple frames collages. In the beginning of this project I didn’t know at all what frames would work with each other. I would photograph scenes that I considered beautiful separately and would combine them together afterwards if I thought that they worked visually. Later on I started to work more around just one building, squeezing everything I could see/get out of it and reshaping it afterwards. That is why now I sometimes know what I am looking for but as soon as the process becomes standardized it gets boring. That is why I am constantly looking for new approaches or shapes that I could build or different time of day or print size, etc.
Thus, I take someone else's creation, appreciate it and turn it into something new in my artwork.
CP: Would you have done a Downtown Geometry series if you were back in Belarus? How different would it be if you made a Belarusian version?
AK: I am not sure I would have ever come up with this project in Minsk, my hometown and the capital of Belarus. I am not really an architectural photographer. Somehow my photographic visits to Downtown Boston developed into a fine art project and buildings happened to be the subject but I wasn’t as interested in architecture back at home. Now I might look at buildings at home differently and try to photograph them, but I like to think that Downtown Geometry was specifically about Boston and I limited myself to Downtown.
CP: I would like to talk about your experience as a Belarusian artist in the US. How does American art differ from art back home, and how is the Belarusian artistic life style different from the American one?
AK: Well, I would say that to maintain the Belarusian artistic life style is even tougher than the American one. The audience is not ready to pay for art or to buy a lot of art, especially modern art. Thus, it is even harder to support yourself by creating art. There are very few private galleries and they make much less of an effort to promote and sell work. Artists are usually not represented by any local gallery. I don’t mean that it is easy to be an artist in the US, but at least there are much more options and possibilities.
Also, I think our education in Belarus focuses more on classical art, unless it’s a specialized art educational institution where students might learn more about their specialty (and I am not really sure here, because I graduated from a University of Economics back at home). I mean when I was in high school we didn’t talk much about modern art in art history class. We would talk about art before the 20s, 30s, 40s of the 20th century, about Soviet art, but not about international art of the middle to late 20th century, or 21st century, or photography at all.
At the same time, I should say that thanks to a private photography school in Minsk, the Center of Photography, where I was doing a part-time/after work type of program, I have learnt a lot of famous and influential names in photography. But that is an example of private efforts in establishing a better education and promoting photography as a form of art.
CP: In your documentary series "Russians" in Boston you bring out an issue that pervades our society. The lack of information about other cultures and ethnicities within the US causes demographic fragmentation and the isolation of certain groups that otherwise would enrich the whole community of the city or even the country. Is it part of your intent to expose these misunderstood cultures and educate the public? Are you planning on continuing this project?
AK: I would say it wasn’t quite my intention. I wasn’t setting big goals for myself or considering it my mission. This project started as a personal project when I needed to produce a documentary body of work for school and decided to learn more about Russian speaking people in Boston, see if there is a community and whether I could or wanted to be part of it. I had lived in Boston less than a year at that time and didn’t really communicate much with local Russian speaking people myself.
In terms of educating the public in Boston or America, as I mention in my artist statement these people are not necessarily Russian, but because they speak Russian they are considered Russians here. It is a more complicated group than, say, just Germans or Brazilians or Indians or Thai. These are people from different nations and countries and oftentimes with their own cultural peculiarities but who were highly influenced by their common Soviet past and knowledge of the Russian language. Thus, my project deals with some kind of stereotype and is aimed at showing the palette of Russian speaking people, who they are, how and where they communicate with each other and how they live within American culture.
So far I haven’t covered everything that I wanted about Russian speaking people in Boston. That is why I consider it as a project in progress.
CP: Can you tell us about future projects? What should we look for in the future from Alena Kuzub?
AK: Well, I have several projects in mind, both fine art and documentary. I am working on finding subjects and getting access. That is why it is too early to announce them.
At the same time I continue working on Downtown Geometry and my new pieces can be seen in a new show at the Panopticon gallery in Boston in January 2014. Moreover, I am planning on adding some night time photography to this project when it gets warmer.