Gulnara Samoilova explores how her formative years in Soviet-era Bashkortostan shaped her, the artist and visionary behind a new book entitled Women Street Photographers.
With the recent publication of Women Street Photographers (Prestel), photographer Gulnara Samoilova has once again returned to the public eye — but in a very different way from when she won the World Press Photo for her photograph of September 11. After the trauma she endured that day, Samoilova left photojournalism, never to return. She established a successful wedding photography studio but eventually found herself depressed. Money and status simply were not enough — she needed to return to her love of making art.
Encouraged by the words of American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, Samoilova decided to change careers in 2015. She dreamed of traveling the world and taking street photographs, a passion she enjoyed since she first picked up the camera as a teenager in her hometown of Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia.
The answers became clear after the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. Triggered with memories of sexism experienced throughout her career, Samoilova decided to create Women Street Photographers, a now-highly popular Instagram feed, in 2017. With the success of the community, she could organically expand the platform to include a website, exhibition series, artist residency, inspirational films, and now the book, which brings together the work of 100 artists from around the world pushing the boundaries of street photography into new realms.
From Russia With Love
Women Street Photographers opens with Samoilova’s 2018 photograph, Cloud Eaters, made in Bashkortostan, where she was born in 1964 during the height of the Soviet Union. “Growing up, I was in the minority as a Tatar”, Samoilova says of her matrilineal roots, noting how Stalin’s regime forced the entire Crimean Tatar population into exile to Central Asia in May 1944.
Her mother, who was born in 1941 on the day the Germans invaded Russia, refused to speak Tatar. “She wanted to be perceived as Russian”, Samoilova says, an experience shared by many ethnic minorities who grew up during the Soviet era. “My grandmother barely spoke Russian, so I spoke Tatar with her. She was very Muslim, very religious, but my mother was not. She didn’t believe in God and didn’t like authority. She did whatever she wanted and that’s what I took from her. She didn’t care what I was doing.”
Growing up in extreme poverty with little familial support, Samoilova became independent at a very young age. She remembers walking to school alone at age 7 — the very first time she ever set foot inside a classroom. Bullied by students and teachers alike, Samoilova turned to sports to escape the stresses of daily life. She discovered slalom skiing at age 11, but by then it was too late to train for the Olympics. Then, at age 15, she discovered photography.
With a camera in hand, Samoilova felt a sense of purpose and an ability to connect with people she did not formerly possess. She remembers, “I would walk around the city, bring my camera to school, take pictures, go home, and lock myself in the darkroom I made in a closet to make prints. It was literally the escape from the reality of my life.”
While in high school, Samoilova published her first photograph, an image of a street lamp at night, in the arts section of a local newspaper. Thrilled by the recognition, Samoilova was determined to succeed, and began working freelance as a photojournalist after graduating. In the mid-1980s, she was offered a teaching position Ufa's Palace of Culture, which she had attended as a teenager to study photography. At the same time, Samoilova studied at Moscow Polytech College, where she later received diploma.
While in Moscow, Samoilova saw a Gilbert & George exhibition that changed her life. “I realized I could do whatever I wanted with my photographs,” she says. “I was cutting letters from magazines and gluing them to photographs. I started painting on them. I was experimenting. There was no stopping me. I could express my feelings about whatever was happening around me. I was super sensitive to judgments about single parents. I wanted to prove them all wrong.”
A Path to Freedom
In 1992, Samoilova helped to organize a multi-week trip on the Volga River that would travel to Moscow, making stops at little towns along the way that would give artists an opportunity to socialize with curators and collectors. “At the time, I was going through a lot of sexism and almost quit photography”, says Samoilova, who was the only woman fine art photographer in the community.
On the trip, Samoilova brought along a selection of her hand-painted photographs and struck gold. “A woman from America bought two of them for $50 each. Do you know how much money $100 was in 1992 Soviet Union?” she says with a laugh. “Nobody was selling photos! It gave me fuel. I didn’t have to quit photography because people appreciated the work I was doing.”
As fate would have it, Samoilova was able to secure a visa and study at the International Center of Photography. “On September 2, I arrived in New York with my $100, high heels, and a suitcase full of negatives and photographs that I thought were worthy of a portfolio.”
Revisiting Her Roots
Once a year, Samoilova returns home to travel the countryside making photographs. “Thankfully ethnicity and culture are celebrated now. People are speaking their own language and the schools are teaching Tatar. It’s on TV and the radio,” Samoilova says, feelings of joy mixed with loss. “At first when I went there, I was so sad and frustrated. I was robbed of my own culture.”
For Samoilova, photography has become a way to fill in the blanks, the missing pieces of her childhood. With both her grandmother and mother gone, she is alone in the world, having only herself to seek out answers to the questions that linger. With the series “Lost Family”, inspired by the discovery of an uncle she never knew, Samoilova collages archival photographs of her family onto her own photographs, then hand paints flowers across the work to create what she describes as “fantasy family photos”.
“This is my way of connecting the past, present, and the future,” Samoilova says. “The flowers are my signature. My name, Gulnara, means ‘a flower of pomegranate’ in Arabic, and my mother’s name was Rose. My next series is going to be called ‘Found Family’. When I did my DNA test, I discovered I had Turkish and Finnish blood, Mongolian, English — it’s all over the map. I’m going to travel to these countries, make photos, and collage pictures of myself onto them. Who knows, they could be distant relatives.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Women Street Photographers, Gulnara Samoilova
$ 35.00, £ 24.99