Listening to Sasha Samsonova speak about her work is deeply moving. The photographer-director is immensely passionate about her craft – when she describes that other-worldly moment in which she connects with an image, you get chills. Growing up in the Ukraine, Samsonova – like many creative greats – stumbled into photography by accident. Having once been a professional ballroom dancer, she describes how a stranger propelled her interest in image-making forward after approaching her at a dance championship. From there, she went on to photograph with her first big client Harper’s Bazaar at the age of 17.
Now based in Los Angeles, Samsonova no longer chases down strangers on the subway, convincing them to let her take portraits of them (not that we know of, anyway). Instead, her impressive roster of clients includes the likes of Kylie Jenner, Gallant and more. In fact, you might have recognized her work in Kylie’s steamy NSFW short film KYLIE. As is evident in both her video and photography work, Sasha paints a beautiful picture of feminism and womanhood that, quite frankly, only a woman could construct.
As we spend a day with Sasha to explore her work within the realms of both still and moving frames, we get an intimate look at the inspiring female who has gotten to where she is today through nothing but pure, hard work. Describing her approach to photography and video direction in a way that drips with visceral hunger, we get a raw, unfiltered look at one of today’s most exciting makers. Read on to read our full conversation, and watch our exclusive editorial interview with Sasha Samsonova above.
Tell us a little bit about getting into photography and switching from dance.
I was ballroom dancing professionally, and this ballroom dancer photographer came up to me at a championship because he saw some of the pictures online that I photoshopped and color-corrected; just basically messed around with in Photoshop. And they were just phone pictures – some lame Nokia 3000-whatever. And he said that I have a really good sense of color and I should think about doing photography, which I found interesting because I already loved messing with pictures in Photoshop. I loved even just taking them on my phone. It was fun. So I bought a little film camera and I started taking pictures. I would literally run up to random people in the subway and stop them and be like, “I swear to God, I’m not a creep. Let me just talk to you for a second. I want to take pictures of you.” And they would say yes for some crazy reason. I don’t know why. People in Ukraine are weird. It was the craziest thing. I would go to these little flea markets and buy really cheap clothes and dress the people myself and do weird stuff just to have some sort of work. And then Harper’s Bazaar called me and they asked me to do a little piece and I did that. From there, I just never stopped working.
So those kind of photos, that’s what you have online?
Yes, yes. Those were the photos. I remember seeing this amazing girl with huge curly hair in the subway and I just ran to her. Her name was Samantha, which was so crazy because she lived in Kiev, Ukraine, you know? She was a Samantha with a totally Ukrainian last name, which was hilarious. It never happens. And we spoke and she said yes. We went and took pictures on film. I still have them. I can probably pull them up and give them to you just so people can freak out about what I was taking pictures of nine years ago.
Can you talk a bit about making the move to the US? And always wanting to come here?
God, I’m gonna sound so harsh. I think Ukraine, unfortunately, as much as I love it, couldn’t give the opportunity to do what I wanted to do with my life. It’s not because it’s a bad country. It’s because my ambitions were a little bit too huge. And I decided to move to America. I first wanted to move to New York and do fashion photography and live in that world, but after a few years of doing that and experiencing all kinds of stuff on set with fashion photography, as much as I loved it, I felt like I wanted more control. And everybody would always say I should do video and stuff. I don’t know why, but people just kept saying it. And I remember every time I was trying to take a video, I wanted to stop rolling and take a picture. It drove me crazy, because I was never going to be able to do video because I cared about the stills so much. And then one day, I was working on this music video set in Italy, and it was so wonderful and smooth. And the way everything worked – it was an American crew – just made so much sense to me suddenly. And directing made so much sense. And I was like, “Oh wait, I can do this.” And I started paying more attention to film because I grew up loving film. I realized I wanted to do that, so I decided to move to L.A. and I did two and a half years ago.
How did you get your first directing job?
[Laughs] Hilarious. Ok. So, I wouldn’t call it a job. I did these music videos for my really, really good friends. Well, now they’re my good friends, but then they were just artists who just loved my photography and believed that I could give them a good video. Joke’s on them. We had zero money. They rented me a RED, and I had no idea what to do with it. I have backstage pictures of me just holding it and not knowing where the roll button is, filming some crazy stuff with paint flying around. And it came out pretty cool. It wasn’t bad. It was the first thing I had ever done in my life.
Funny story: I shot different music videos three days in a row. I shot them myself. I did makeup myself. I helped styling. I did everything. It was insane. I put my heart into it, because it was my first directing job. A week after that, I went back to Europe just to see my family, and my best friend spilled wine on my computer as I showed her the footage. I picked up my computer to flip it and make sure that the computer wouldn’t break. The computer was new also. And the hard drive fell onto the ground, broke. Didn’t work. The computer wouldn’t turn on either. I called the guy in America who rented us the camera, “Did you format the cards?” And he was like, “I don’t know, but I left for two weeks to Canada for Thanksgiving. So in two weeks I’ll let you know.” And I had no idea if I could get the footage from the drives. My first directing job ever. I honestly have no idea how I still don’t have grey hair.
So did it end up being on the cards?
It ended up being on the cards and on the hard drive! And I spent so much money getting it back from the hard drive. And at the time, I had just moved here so I was broke. It was horrible.
“It’s like your body was built to consume beautiful stuff that makes your heart beat and makes you wet.”
Do you think it’s valuable to be self-taught and do your own thing versus schooling?
In my opinion, what works for me is being self-taught. Even with photography, I would study every legendary, huge photographer there ever was and I would try to understand what part of his photography made my heart beat faster. So I would try to figure out what got me high in every photographer and try to incorporate it in my shoots. I do these shoots where I kind of copy Helmut Newton, and then I kinda copy Camilla Akrans, and then I kind of copy Mert & Marcus. And this guy and that guy. And then from each shoot, I see actually how my brain works and which part of that I can execute. I take all those pieces and just put them in my little world and make them work for me. So that was my school for photography. And for directing, I started doing the same thing. I just started studying every director that I ever loved because ever since I was a kid, I grew up watching Pulp Fiction and Snatch and Fight Club. Those were the movies I was raised on. I started rewatching everything and studying every director and trying to understand how he thinks.
But I also think there’s nothing worse than a photographer who wants to be a director. Because we’re so dumb. We cannot think outside of this still space. You can’t break through. You think you’re breaking through and you think the model is moving and you think you’re kinda moving too, but you’re not. You suck. Because you’re a photographer. Seriously. It’s a curse for a director. But also if you can figure out how to get around it, it can be the best thing that’s ever happened, because you already have the visual. Once you can open up your head, you can throw out all the stuff you know about still pictures and start thinking in this dimension. It totally works. I realized it a year ago I think. And I was like, “Oh, my first videos suck.”
For your work, do you visualize the end product before you start every time?
I started doing that when I met Elias, my DP. There he is right there. Because with photography or directing, I could never achieve that result where I would envision something and it would come out exactly like that. Or better. Usually, I would envision something and then I would go on set and whatever happens kinda happens. And I know how to make it work, and that’s the good part about me. I’m very flexible and I can make anything work. But with him, finally, now that I have a real partner who has his shit together, we can actually take real references and can make them work. It’s the most insane feeling ever. It’s like being a good chef, but better. No offense to chefs. Sorry.
So you mentioned getting that Harper’s Bazaar shoot at 17. Do you think that would be able to happen in the US? Would anyone have taken you seriously?
Absolutely not, just because our Harper’s Bazaar doesn’t have enough money to hire career photographers. They always have to look for new blood. I got lucky to be there. My family was supposed to move to America when I was three years old, because half my family got political asylum. They lived in Philadelphia. I haven’t seen them in like 20 years. We were supposed to move but we didn’t. As much as I love America, I’m so happy I got a chance to grow up in the Ukraine and be the person I am.
“Once you can open up your head, you can throw out all the stuff you know about still pictures and start thinking in this dimension.”
Can you talk a little bit about how the Gallant video came about?
Gallant was the first artist who I cared about to work with. Not just cared about, but I would have died to do that video and do the best job. I was trying to figure out what we could possibly do for “Talking To Myself” and it was not an easy decision. It was not an easy anything. I just felt like everything was too lame because the music was too good. It was too good for my lame ideas. And then I just started thinking about A) what this music made me feel and B) what I was kinda good at-ish. And I realized that the first time I ever saw him perform live – the first time I ever saw him ever – was at a concert the day before a photoshoot. “Talking To Myself” was the first song he performed. I remember him on the stage and he started singing and I started crying. Not that I’m crying all the time. Not like, “Oh my god!” I was just crying and smiling. It makes your blood boil in your veins. It’s crazy. It’s not just music. It has electricity built into it. So I was driving around and I remembered that feeling and then I remembered that I’m kinda good with translating things into being sexual. I was like, “Oh let’s just do that.” Because this is how the song felt to me. It was so sexual. And literally the rawest feeling I could ever express was the video. It couldn’t have been anymore sincere.
Could you talk about being in the video and directing it as well and how that happened?
It’s going to make me sound like a bitch. I wasn’t planning originally to be in the video. By no means did I want to be the girl in the video. Like I said, this project was so important to me that I couldn’t let something like a bad model fuck it up. It would have been ridiculous. And I knew we didn’t really care about seeing the face of the girl too much. It was only the expression. It didn’t really matter. I knew that I wanted somebody who would be cool with whatever shot I wanted. That was my main goal, you know? I didn’t want to compromise on anything. And at the end of the day, after looking at so many people… I swear, I tried. I contacted so many people and I talked to them and looked at them, and they were either just models or actresses in a very glossy way, you know what I mean? They were either too perfect or beautiful. There was always something. I needed that kind of raw, kind of dirty, just very, very raw feeling. And I knew nobody was going to give it to me, because it’s just way too much. So I was like, I have this thing, so let’s just execute it.
Can you talk a little bit about how working with Kylie Jenner started?
I first shot with Kylie almost two years ago. She saw my work on Instagram and wanted to shoot with me, which was amazing that she recognized my work. We have this amazing chemistry when we work together. I remember my first shoot with her. I moved to America. I had no idea. I had just come out of all my fashion photography shoots, and I was used to thinking that way and working a different way. Here, it’s totally different in a lot of ways. So I was very interested in how it was going to go. I remember going there and meeting her, and she had this awesome pleasant energy. It was just so beautiful. And I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be so great and easy.” We spoke a little bit before the shoot, and it was really fun and cool. We stayed at that shoot for 9 or 10 hours. Even more I think. We did so many things, so many looks. She worked her ass off and I worked my ass off. It was wonderful. It was an amazing feeling, honestly. And ever since that day, we’ve shot a million times. I dunno. It doesn’t get old. It’s super fun for me. I rarely shoot the same person so much, and I enjoy it a lot.
What’s it like to also have her Instagram platform for sharing your photos?
That’s amazing. I love the gesture. I think having somebody like Kylie sharing our work and giving me credit and always being there and doing this in such a great way is a wonderful thing. It’s amazing. Think about it – there’s such an insane amount of people looking at it in so many different ways. You’re never going to look at this photo as we see it. You’re going to look at it as you see things. So I enjoy it so much. It’s the craziest feeling.
What’s one model you’d like to work with?
Model, not an actress?
Actress too, whatever you like.
Bump it up to actress. Amazing. I would love to work with Jennifer Lawrence. I just feel like she’s probably going to make me laugh so hard and I really appreciate it when people make me laugh. I just think she’s one of the most beautiful people ever physically and a genius actress and she just seems hilarious. I love that.
What’s one musician you’d like to do a music video with?
Such a good question. It’s probably my dream do a music video for Massive Attack. Because they’re incredible.
What advice would you give to a young photographer trying to stand out from their peers?
That’s a good question. Ah. I’m gonna show you something Mario Testino said when asked the same question by me in Paris. He said that you only have to do what you believe in and what’s truly you and how you feel things, which I totally agree with. Otherwise, why would I ever pick you over anybody else if you’re going to do the same exact thing that everybody else is doing? So I really appreciated that, and I think it’s really amazing advice. My dad said the same thing to me when I started doing photography. I’ve never tried to impress anybody. If you’re going to try impress people and make them like you and make them like your photography, you’re never going to succeed in anything. And that’s very true.
But from my perspective and what I like to recommend to young photographers – honestly, I would want them to absorb and think before they take a photo a lot more than they usually would. And I would love for them to stop and take a second before they take a picture and break it down and imagine their biggest dream person – for me, it’s David Fincher, who’s a legend to me. And every time I do something questionable, I imagine him next to me and what would he say about that. And if I think he would be cool with it, I think it’s okay. So, if you’re a young photographer, imagine Helmut Newton looking at your picture and what would he say? And if you’re okay with what he’s going to say, keep the photo. And if not, you better delete it. It’s better to have a photoshoot with two good pictures than 20 “eh” ones.
Can you describe what really inspires you – like the feeling of you seeing a photograph and your heart beating faster? Describe that feeling and also how do you set goals for yourself? You’re so accomplished at your age, so how do you set those goals?
I’ll start with goals and then I’ll go to the inspiration. So I think I’ve always had very unrealistic goals; very “laugh at me, I’m an idiot” goals. I’m very ambitious. So far, I’ve been able to achieve all of them. I don’t want to say out loud what I have in mind for my future, because I hate speaking about work that isn’t done yet. I’m not going to mention that, but I promise those are the most ridiculous, pompous, crazy, Napoleon-type of goals you’ve ever heard. And I promise I’ll make them all happen or you’ll probably see me falling off of this building.
How important do you think it is to set those lofty goals?
I think it’s as important as this morning when I got in my car and opened my navigation and put the address for the studio. It’s as important to do that to get here as setting your goals to get there. Because if you’re not gonna set it, what are you trying to do? You’re not going to have a path. You’re never going to get anywhere. All your energy will be everywhere but not in the one place you have to put it.
Oh, inspiration. Honestly, it’s so easy. I think it’s the easiest thing ever to tell if I like a picture or movie or anything really, because once I see it, it’s like – you know that little toy that little kids have that’s a square thing and you put shapes in it and it fits? That’s the kind of feeling. Like, “Uh! There is it!” You to don’t to have to know the mathematical code to it. Or like, “This is on this part of the screen for this reason,” and “This person is looking in this direction because he’s bad” and “This person is looking in this direction because he’s good.” That’s all bullshit. Unless it does *click* that thing in your brain, and your heart just goes *gasp* it doesn’t work. It’s so easy, it just clicks. It’s like your body was built to recognize those moments. It’s like your body was built to consume beautiful stuff that makes our heart beat and make you wet. It gets you happy.
When you first started till now, how did you find balancing all the work – your ambitions, real life? Or do you believe work is where life should be?
Work is my life. Balancing social life and work – I don’t need anything but my work to be happy. And as much as I love social life and as much as I love other aspects of life, I could be absolutely doing great with just my work, because it gives me every feeling on the planet. All those tools that come together on a set to make stuff happen can give you a feeling that no drugs, no social skills, no relationship, no nothing, can ever even come close to. So I never thought about balancing social life and work, because of that. Because it made me super happy. But when I started doing photography and for many, many years and until now, I’ve had two best friends. They’re twins, and they’re both photographers. And they’re amazing. Basically ever since I was 17, we’ve been best friends. And we literally grew up doing this together.
We even had shoots where we would take several models and shoot them the same day, kind of the same location. We would just take the same girls to different places and do whatever we want. And we would comment on each other’s work or say something or play around or help each other in the most pure, chaotic, childish way just to make it happen – just to be great, even though our photography is so different. All three of us, we’re super different. And we’re different people. But having those two girls when I was growing up as a photographer was the best thing that could ever happen, because we’re three photographers. We don’t have a real schedule. We don’t have a real job. We’re just three weirdos that do weird stuff. And you know it, it helped so much. They taught me so much, and I hope I taught something to them too. Maybe. It wasn’t on purpose, though.
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