Danila Tkachenko is an award-winning visual artist from Moscow who describes himself as a "composer" of a new reality and explores various consequences of the human quest for a utopian future with documentary photography.
Danila Tkachenko was born in Moscow in 1989. He meets photography as a coincidence of a cohabitation. He started taking pictures alongside his roommate, but in 2014 his talent earned him a place at the Rodchenko Art Academy for Photography and Multimedia in the Russian capital, where he studied the documentary side of this art, and that same year, when he was only 25 years old, won first prize from World Press Photo for his portrait series "Escape". In it he shows people outside the society who have chosen to live as hermits in nature. While in it he explores the reasons why people fall away or abandon social norms and systems, in his other popular series "Restricted Areas" he criticizes the pursuit of utopias and the technological progress that has led to this. There he presents abandoned secret military cities and restricted areas that were once places of great national importance, but today their buildings, machinery and equipment are relics of the past. In 2015 it won the European Publishers Photography Award and first place in the series category of the LensCulture Exposure awards. A few years earlier, when he visited his grandmother in the closed city of Ozersk, where some of the first atomic bombs in the USSR were produced, he was inspired for another very impressive project of his called "Acid" where he confronts the invisible threat of radiation and uses spotlights with a green filter to depict places infected with radiation that is impossible to detect or be felt with the senses.
What was the reason to start making photographs in the first place?
It was a coincidence. I rented an apartment with a girl who was a photographer and gradually I became engaged in photography. After that I decided to start studying photography and entered The Rodchenko Art School (Moscow).
How did that develop in visual art with documentary elements?
While studying at the Rodchenko school I got introduced to a different medium and realized that photography fits me more than anything else. I don’t consider my practice as documenting or simulating reality. I see myself more as a ‘composer’ of the new reality. Photography for me is the way to create new meanings and interpretations, and not the method to show the world as it is. I’m using the artistic prism as a means to purposefully manipulate time and weather, and the possibility to unite different places into one visual space.
Your work requires a lot of research. Do you consider yourself some kind of detective with a camera in hand or are you more like a hunter of lost stories?
Probably something in between. Before the shooting, during the preparation of the project, I have to do a lot of research work - just like the work of a detective. But you never know what awaits during the shooting, whether you will be able to take a photo or you will have to postpone the "hunt" for another more successful time.
You say that every single one of us is individually inclined to exploit images of the past for the sake of our current needs or future goals. What are your current needs and future goals?
I think we find ourselves in an interesting situation of loss. People are less likely to believe in all kinds of utopias, religious and political, that were previously involved in shaping this future. The attitude towards the past is also being transformed. Today the country in which I live is in isolation, not only because of the pandemic but also in a political sense: freedom of speech is becoming more and more repressed when public discussion is impossible.
For your book “Restricted Areas” you travel in search of places which used to have great importance for technological progress – and which are now deserted. All of them seem to show forgotten and lost hopes for the future in the past. What would our abandoned hopes for the future look like in 30 years or less?
Any guesses will only be guesses. I am a photographer and the conclusion that I can draw from my work is that big utopian ideas led to big disasters. It seems to me that humanity has not yet learned to draw conclusions from its mistakes and there are still many shocks ahead of us associated with human ambitions and technological growth.
What was your experience in Bulgaria?
I flew to Sofia and was greeted by Russian bikers who took me to a hotel near the Buzludzha mountain which was owned by the local gypsies. We made good friends with them and talked every evening. The hotel was completely empty as it was out of season. I spent a week there. Every day in the morning I went to the object for which I arrived (the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party). I stood there for seven days from 9:00 to 17:00 at one point next to the object and waited for an appearance of the gap in the clouds to capture the object. A local dog often walked with me and waited with me.
Do you think people talk and think about the past differently in the different countries you visit?
Oh sure. The cultural context is a decisive factor in shaping attitudes towards the world and time.
Tell us about some of the most difficult places to get to?
I often face physical difficulties while working. Probably the biggest difficulty was when I lost all the films that had been shot for two years and I had to re-overcome the path of 15,000 km in various hard-to-reach places. It was the “Escape” project. At that moment it was a strong blow. But over time I realized that it was beneficial - I changed my attitude to difficulties.
Your project “Acid” explores the invisible threat of radiation and the remains of its use. What equipment did you use to protect yourself and how dangerous actually it was to your health?
I tried to be as safe as possible. I chose the time of the winter shooting as water, how is known, retains radiation and the snow cover was an additional shield. I had a Geiger counter to help me determine the level of danger and I also used a protective suit. While shooting I used flashes and spotlights which often, together with a protective suit, had to be left at the shooting site due to their irradiation. As you know radiation is everywhere in varying degrees. I think that in the end I received a small dose of radiation which can be compared to 30 flights from New York to Moscow.
Would you explain your research process? Where and how do you find the places and stories behind them? Which are the stories that struck you most?
The main part of my work is research and information gathering. It takes the most time. Of course, first of all I use the Internet for this, then I make preparatory trips, communicate with people, assemble a team. Every story with which I work amazed me in one way or another. If we talk about radiation, then this is a monstrous negligence: still hundreds of thousands of people in the post-Soviet territory are exposed to radiation without even knowing it.
Your projects (except for “Escape”) show places where human beings are absent but the trace of the human hand involved is always there. What do your pictures show us about human nature in general? “Escape” is the opposite - it involves people who are trying to escape the systems and the society we live in. Who is the abandoned in this case - we or they?
I think these projects are about a city dweller, they reflect his subconscious. People in a big city can be more lonely than hermits without people.
There is a whole kind of wave of photographers who seek to capture abandoned places all over the world now. Why do you think this is so fascinating?
I think photography is a means of confirming to yourself and others that you exist, which is why it has become so popular that everyone has a camera in their pockets. Being in an abandoned place, you can stand out a little from the crowd.
What are you interested in right now? What are you working on or planning to explore next?
Now I am interested in collective practices. I realized that for me the most important thing in art is the experience that I get while working. So I want to focus specifically on creating the experience and invite people to it. Now I am finishing a collective project on the topic of decolonization in one of the regions of Russia and I plan to continue to create collective art actions.