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Adopter stories: Interview with Yulia Lebedeva

Yulia Lebedeva is a a still and moving image artist, a Moscow-London city hopper and an incredibly positive human being. .ART talks to Yulia about what it takes to get clients, current photography trends and the time she interned for Annie Leibovitz.

How did you get into the arts?

I always liked drawing, but I started thinking about it more as a professional path when I was around 14. At the time we lived in Germany and my German wasn’t great, so my favorite subject was art. As cliché as it sounds, it’s the universal language! It’s a great age to get into the arts because at 14 you treat it very seriously and you’re dedicated to it. Once you come to university, self-doubt comes in, you put more pressure on yourself, start overthinking, and the whole dynamic of the creative process changes.

You have studied the arts in both Moscow and London. Is there a fundamental difference in approach between the two countries?

In the UK the focus is on creation, in Russia – on technical skills.

For sure. In the UK the focus is on creation, in Russia – on technical skills. If you started art school in Moscow at 14, you would be doing technical drawing for a few years, the same thing over and over, until the skill becomes a part of your subconsciousness. At that age I started studying art in the UK, and the most essential part of it was idea development. So, when you apply to university in the UK and you want to study art, they will ask for your sketchbooks – to understand whether you have ideas and how you develop them. These are way more important than finished pieces of work. Once you get into university the focus on ideas remains. You are given a lot of instruments for idea development, encouraged to think freely and get a lot of independent study time. There are, of course, some skills labs, but they are a lot less important. In the end, you can hire someone to execute your ideas, but you can’t hire someone to come up with them!

You did a New York internship with Annie Leibovitz, what did that experience teach you?

Her office is like a well-oiled machine, it was very impressive and intimidating at the same time. There is a producer, a production manager, a studio manager, a retouch specialist, an archivist, a client manager, multiple photo-assistants… And then there was me as a little intern who helped with everything. It was one of the best examples I could have seen on what to strive for, it really made me understand that a photographer is not a one-man’s job, not on that level of mastery. If you want mental space to come up with ideas and time to execute them, you need a team behind you.

A photographer is not a one-man’s job, not on that that level of mastery. If you want mental space to come up with ideas and time to execute them, you need a team behind you.

What has been your favorite project to date?

One of my favorite pieces goes back to the time when I was starting out on my creative path. It was still the time when I wasn’t analyzing too much, I just got visuals in my head and went straight into doing it. The piece I’m talking about is called “Pepsi or Coke” – to me it’s about positivity, freedom of choice, it has nothing to do with religion. It’s just about girls choosing what they want, which is the contemporary girl spirit that I think I’m about. In a way, it was easier and more innocent back then, before the Charlie Hebdo scandal. Around the same time a childhood friend of mine was staring a bags brand and I shot some promotional images for her. One of them was a girl with a huge fish and a school bag. It was very cool and to this day I’m very fond of that work. Perhaps it’s because it was more about the story than the pure commercial photography.

Your list of clients is rather impressive. How did you get into these projects?

I think these days it has a lot to do with your persona, the “vibes”, and what can be called personal branding. One of my most consistent clients likes me because of my positivity and lifestyle fit with what they represent. It’s no longer enough to be producing the right kind of content: all sorts of professionals (not just the models) are getting hired for their persona, charisma and the kind of values they project in day to day life.

What are the current trends in photography?

Contemporary photography trends right now are very dark, grungy, “from the streets”, a lot of it has notes of melancholy. I spent a lot of time thinking how should I respond to that trend, when realizing that the trends come and go, and it doesn’t matter if I’m part of a current trend, it is best to develop your own.

The trends come and go, and it doesn’t matter if I’m part of a current trend, it is best to develop your own.

What gets you out of bed every morning and how do you start your day?

My coffee machine makes a sound and gets me out of bed! Timing depends. Some shoots start at 5am and go on for 12 hours, then it really gets challenging to stay sharp.

Between inspiration and hard work, which is more important?

I think work comes first, and then inspiration. You simply won’t get any inspiration until you start doing something!

What advice would you give the young aspiring artist you were 10 years ago?

Success has to do a lot with luck, with being in the right place at the right time. But it’s very important to seize the opportunities you are given and do things when you’re asked to do them – not later. Don’t put things off! And also, just do more. More random jobs, more internships. When you are young you have all the time in the world to work for free, to fail, to do things that don’t make sense.

If you could get any client, who would you want to work with and why?

There is a UK brand of underwear called Beija London, which shoots women as they are, all shapes and sizes included, and the esthetics of it are stunning. You want to look at it, you want to follow it – and that’s empowering. I like brands that are able to be closer to the consumer. Another two brands I’d love to work with, despite them being mass market, are GAP and J-Crew – because despite being commercial, they manage to have that “girl/boy next door” look but in style.

You also have to remember that mass market is a big challenge for the creative professional. Just like in film-making, it’s a lot harder to produce a successful show like “Gossip Girl” that appeals to a wide audience, than to produce an art-house piece for a very limited circle of people.

Your short film mind(e)scape – what is it about? Ageing? Staying eternally young? Knowing nothing?

We made it to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and dementia. There were some studies which showed that art-therapy helps to prevent the development of these diseases, and with their symptoms. Those are the roots of the project. We wanted to show that it’s okay to stay eternally young, to keep doing crazy things, that we don’t need to act according to our age. It’s about the freedom of being silly at any age and not be judged for it.

It’s about the freedom of being silly at any age and not be judged for it.

Would you like to do more moving image?

Yes, definitely. I like doing collages and moving image, I think combining methods produces more exciting results than just taking a photograph. On the other hand, it’s much harder to showcase that work. But everything is online now, so in terms of being an artist there is no greater time than now. You can create your own gallery on your website!

Speaking of which, why did you get a website when you have a substantial Instagram following anyway?

My personality is a big part of my professional image and displaying only my works on my Instagram account wouldn’t work for me. A website is a way of keeping things clean, of having an escape for a conscience pool of images. It might seem old-school in the age of social media, but I think a website is a great instrument that lets you have a clean gallery of your own making, online. Mine is www.yulialebedeva.art


An object you can’t live without. My iPhone!

A character trait you value most highly. Inner peace

Favorite book. Harry Potter

Favorite color. Yellow, but actually black! (laughs).

Person (dead, alive or fictional) who influenced you the most creatively. Hard to single out anyone now, perhaps social media has mashed all together.

If you weren’t a photographer, who would you like to be? An interior designer.

You have a minute face to face with Salvador Dali. What would you say/do?

I’d just touch his moustache, that’s what I would do.

What’s your idea of happiness? Being able to create without the feeling of judgment and bias, to have the freedom to express myself.


Also published on Medium.

Anastasia Sukhanov

Anastasia Sukhanov

You can connect with her on LinkedIn.