Daria Svertilova is a 19-year-old female photographer from Odessa, Ukraine. Using her camera, she paints portraits of modern youth with, for her age, an unusually serious consideration for form and content. “Young men” is a signature subject of Daria’s work. Captured with Daria’s clever eye on medium format film, a balance is struck between the ideal and the real male. Her series Boys Next Door was included in Boys on Film. Vol 2, published by SSE Books. You can view more of Daria’s work at dariasvertilova.com.
Your work is calm, measured. There’s nothing outrageous about the imagery; no shock factor (something that has become a norm almost) …
Shock factor is an emotional manipulation to win the attention of an audience and, ultimately, their love. It’s such a drum roll: “Now I’m gonna show you something you definitely won’t ever have seen!” I think that betrays a preoccupation with the form not the content. If someone takes a picture of a woman with a member, then it will certainly get attention. But this is a trick. And the viewer gets tricked into emotional feedback.
I don’t gravitate towards the outrageous, and I’ve never tried to shoot for effect, like ‘Wow! Crash boom bang!.’ There’s no nudity in my work either, which again is almost against the common trend of undressing models. To me when a person is undressed there’s actually less of them left; I feel like there isn’t as much to say anymore. Nudity doesn’t evoke more interest but rather removes it.
Strangely I’ve also noticed the diminishing effect of nudity at a practical level in my work. Whether a model is totally comfortable with it, exhibitionistic even, or on the other hand becomes insecure and uncomfortable when naked—either way it’s inexorably what the shoots becomes about. They switch their thoughts to the fact that they aren’t wearing clothes instead of trying to establish some form of connection with me as a photographer.
You told me before that you don’t ‘do drugs’. Do you feel any kind of fall out from the world of art/photography because of this? Drugs are frequently such a part of the scene—‘doing them’ sometimes feels like a prerequisite to membership of the ‘Creative Club’. Do you think you’re missing on something?
Of course I’ve tried certain things but only for the purposes of self-exploration and not ever with the intention of provoking inspiration or a flow of creativity. The problem I’ve seen with many artists is that they come to depend for their creativity, let’s say, on a certain ‘state of mind’. They become psychologically attached to that kind of inspiration. It becomes a reflex: ‘unless I’m in that state of mind, I can’t create.’ I hear that quite often: “I need to get stoned to do something—to draw, to write …” I’m not criticizing, I’m sure it works for some people, but my point is that it’s surely a problem if that becomes the only way you can work. And for me personally it doesn’t work at all. Drugs give a vegetable state of mind, which is not productive and turning out work in the large quantities that a certain frame of mind encourages doesn’t equate with value.
Ok, so no substances while you work. Do you do anything else to set up a mood and relax your models? Music, conversation, cigarettes? Perhaps a drink?
Well I talk a lot while I shoot. I try to learn as much as possible about my models’ lives and what kind of people they are. Not everybody wants to open up of course … and I don’t insist on some kind of constant patter as this is also a trick – it’s a trick when you try to weasel your way to somebody’s trust. One thing I always do is to joke. It immediately relieves the tension on the set and creates a friendly environment. That is as much as I can hope for at a shoot.
Have your ideas and perspectives of ‘beauty’ changed as your work developed …
Yes absolutely. When I started taking pictures I was only interested in what at that point I thought was ‘classic’ beauty – all those big eyes and sensuous mouths. I wanted to shoot super beautiful people – what I now think of as ‘primitive’ beauty, something which is understandable to anyone (and that sells well too!) You know … superboys with lean muscular bodies and perfect faces or a girl with a perfect body and a pretty doll face. For my own part, I think chasing after conventional beauty was some form of compensation – when I’m unhappy about something in my appearance, I look for it in others.
Now I like to take pictures of people who I consider beautiful, but who perhaps might not fit with everyone’s ideas on that account. I like more exclusive beauty that is not mainstream. However trivial or insipid it may sound, beauty really is a factor of a person’s inner qualities. Also I think people become attractive – not necessarily beautiful – when they are smart.
Can you tell me about what we discussed when we first met? How your own appearance became kind of a catalyst for the work you are creating now…
Well my appearance was a very potent part of my adolescence. And there’s nothing unusual about that. What was unusual, and why I am lucky perhaps, was the role that art had in helping me break away from some very negative ideas.
So I remember the times at school when kids teased me because of my ears. I had a lot of fights even with the boys. I had a lot of complexes and I wore a hairband to cover my ears. The turning point was when I modeled for a photographer, Anastasiya Lazurenko (who later became my teacher). When I sat for her, she was very specific about having me pull my hair back and exposing my ears. It felt horrible. It was worse than taking off my clothes. But it was a defining moment for me. The photos came back and everyone was like ‘Oh my god, they are so beautiful!’ Nobody mentioned my ears, even though they were very apparent in every shot. It seems a small thing but it allowed me to overcome something that in my mind was monumental.
After that I could leave my flat wearing a pony-tail and not be worried that everyone would stare at my ears. It was a huge kind of shift. My mother, who had the same ears, had hers corrected with surgery when she was 18, and I fully expected to do the same eventually. But that feeling completely left me.
I think everyone has their ‘ears’ – everyone is insecure about something. I’ve photographed a lot of very beautiful people who nonetheless had something they were stiff, insecure or uncomfortable about. The moment when people look at my shots and they are overwhelmed with their own beauty is the most exhilarating for me. When they say “Wow! I like myself!”
With your portraits of young men you’ve created a unique view of modern youth. Do you feel able to articulate that interpretation or is it something ineffable?
It’s true there’s a lot of instinct at work in what I do. Perhaps I’m conscious only of what I don’t want, and beyond that it’s intuition. What I see a lot of is the ‘young, thin rebel’ cliché. A feral young man already in deep crisis at the age of 19. My boys are somewhat shy, not overly self-confident but they are beautiful the way they are. They don’t try to conform to some trend or fashion. They don’t use sexuality to attract attention. They are just natural, which is the hardest thing, I believe.
How do you take criticism? Can you be a fair critic of your own work?
It’s cool if you can distance yourself from your work so you can give it an adequate, impartial assessment. But also I can be too hard on myself. It often seems to me that what I saw through the lens was better than the picture. I have such conflict between the fleeting moment and the result.
It’s important for me to hear what people whose opinion I value say. I’m always to some extent looking at my work from the inside—part of me remains in that moment when the picture is made. Others see it from outside that moment. I like feedback, even when it’s negative—apart from anything it’s usually interesting. If everyone says ‘Oh that’s cool’ it’s dissatisfying because there’s no place to go further, to grow. Every time I pick up the camera I want to go somewhere new. So to me it’s not a good sign when everybody likes your pictures. I guess it means the images aren’t very…well let’s just say intellectually nuanced.
Do you feel your age offers certain advantages? We live in a youth obsessed culture.
I started photographing at 13. I’m now 19. I don’t think an early start is the huge advantage many assume. Firstly (and this is one of my biggest fears, I admit) it’s easy to burn out when you start so early. Secondly, I think there’s only so much depth and profundity a 19-year-old can offer the world!
I don’t think my pictures offer any moral lessons so far. But like all visuals, and pretty much everything people consume – books, music, outstanding personalities – they do have the capacity to shape tastes. I would be happy to know that I have some part in influencing people’s tastes.
As for the culture you mention, obviously there is constant flood of images these days. The internet is like a blizzard of images – everyone knows how to take pictures but ‘quality’ is still a very hazy concept. There’s a whole public domain of self-published imagery – most of which has very mundane purposes. Then alongside that there are still kind of ‘official’ channels and formal publications, which I’ve found myself moving within (perhaps despite my age!) What I try to keep in mind always, and I say this to other people, is the very large amount of faith we place in these publications (whether we are aware of it or not). There are people with very subjective tastes who have filtered that body of work that we get to see within those official media. It’s wrong to immediately think that once a picture makes it onto the screen or the page it’s art.
Who shapes your tastes? Which photographers?
I have a very special place in my heart for Anastasiya Lazurenko. I love Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nan Goldin – she is just mind blowing. Among the nowadays photographers, I like Harley Weir. She is ever so slightly older than me and she does very interesting, quality work. Everything about her photography is cool – the color, the content. I like the freedom of Ryan McGinley and that he is not afraid to be who he is.
What motivates you in your work? Recognition? Money?
To begin with very typical teenage things motivated me – the need to be cool, the need to be liked. I felt lonely and I thought boys didn’t like me, and in order for them to like me and to find friends, I had to be cool.
Then I experienced various other little motivations, but still quite adolescent ones. For example I wanted to go to a Milan Fashion Week. I thought this would be some kind of proof that the work I was making at that point was worthwhile. How I came to link those two ideas I couldn’t now tell you!
Eventually I grew up (it makes me laugh to hear myself say that!) and I began finding the most satisfying and genuine motivation for working – which is creating those moments of beauty that articulate themselves from within, that surprise and overwhelm you because they don’t come from surfaces.
Do you feel the lack of formal education?
Yes. Good schools help broaden the vision, enhance taste and raise confidence. For example, the photographers I know from St. Martins – they are not afraid to experiment and do whatever they like, and at the same time there is solid quality to their work.
What about the signature style that such schools impose? Does it kill individuality?
It depends on the person. An artist must have strong backbone to defend their style, their views. There are two sides to this coin – the possibilities such schools open for you, and then the mold they may force you into as well.
If you were to make a portrait of yourself with words, what would you say?
I think very often what others think of me doesn’t quite correspond to what I think of myself. I have encountered the idea that I have some kind of bohemian air and it really puzzles me why anyone would think so!
I wish to believe that I carry some purity and light. I think what we are is reflected in our work. This is an important notion for me because in my pictures I am not only concerned with beauty but also I am trying to charge my images with positive energy.
Daria Svertilova was born in 1996 in Odessa, Ukraine. She is a self-taught photographer who shoots on medium format film camera. Her photography focuses on male portraiture. Daria’s work has been published in TheOnes2Watch, Buro 24/7, Boys on Film, PLATFORM, Soabos, The Raw Book, KNEON, and The Review. More of Daria Svertilova’s photographs can be viewed at dariasvertilova.com.