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BEST OF 2013, Ludmila Ketslakh
Ann Arbor, MI
Project: Two images from reportage in the Philippines as part of the project XXI: My Pacific Ocean, initiated by the Russian news and information agency RIANOVOSTI.

© Ludmila Ketslakh

© Ludmila Ketslakh


Ludmila Ketslakh was invited by the Russian agency RIANOVOSTI to participate in a one-week expedition to 21 Pacific Rim countries for the project XXI. My Pacific Ocean. Her two reportage projects from the Philippines document the Damayan community in Tondo and the North Cemetery of Manila.

“Meeting the North Cemetery community was the most unusual event,” Ketslakh says. “An 80-year-old woman described how she was born and grew up in the cemetery and met her true love and brought up her children there, making a living by taking care of graves. She joyfully told me that’s where she intends to spend the rest of her life.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Ludmila Ketslakh: I’ve been in the photography business for eight years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

LK: I have been an ASMP member since 2012.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

LK: I am a documentary photographer addressing social issues that concern me.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

LK: Certainly my Nikon camera and my two favorite lenses, the NIKKOR 17-35 mm and 24-70mm.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

LK: Probably the fact that I relate to the people I photograph; I speak the same language as they do; I sympathize with them. Also, my sincere attempt to understand and explore different cultures or situations without judging makes me feel comfortable anywhere.

ASMP: What led to your participation in the project XXI. My Pacific Ocean? How did the Russian news and information agency RIANOVOSTI invite you to participate?

LK: I participated in FotoFest’s 2012 portfolio review in Houston, where Anastasia Davydova and Kirill Vasilenko were there representing RIANOVOSTI. Anastasia and Kirill thought highly of my project Uncertainty of Being, the very personal work I presented during the review. At that time they were implementing the XXI. My Pacific Ocean project and were in the process of selecting photographers. They checked my Web site and a month later I got an invitation to participate in their project.

ASMP: You’ve explored and photographed many different places, people and cultures as a documentary photographer. What specifically interested you about the XXI project, and what was it about you and your work that fit the assignment?

LK: It was an unprecedented, one-of-a-kind project for Russian photography. RIANOVOSTY selected 21 photographers with diverse styles and techniques and sent each of us on one-week expeditions through the 21 members of APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation). Anastasia and Kirill explained that I fit this assignment because every country I present on my Web site has its own face and feel.

ASMP: What were your expectations going into the project? What factors motivated you to accept the assignment and how did you hope or expect it could impact your career?

LK: It was a very challenging assignment. I was anxious and very proud to participate in this project and to be a member of such a select group of photographers. The outcome of the project was a big show in Vladivostok during APEC summit and an exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, followed by the publication of the project book. I visited the Tretyakov Gallery many times as a child and an adult; it is a renowned museum in Moscow. I never dreamed of showing my work in this famous gallery, and evidently it has boosted my career.

ASMP: How did you prepare for this trip? What were the most challenging aspects of the pre-trip preparation?

LK: Preparation for the trip was tough, as I was visiting Europe at that time and I had only two weeks to get ready. I have never been in the Philippines, didn’t know much about country and didn’t have any contacts. So while my husband was visiting museums, I was on the computer trying to learn about the country, the culture, and searching for interesting and uncommon places and events. I e-mailed all my friends asking for connections with people who live there now or are originally from the Philippines, as well as to get a lot of advice.

ASMP: What role did RIANOVOSTI play in planning/moving forward with the assignment? What kind of communication did you have with editors/sponsors in preparation for the trip?

LK: I made a decision to visit only two islands and two cities; the time was limited and I didn’t want to spend it on a plane or boat. I e-mailed my preliminary itinerary to RIANOVOSTI, they provided tickets, made reservations in the hotels, and arranged local tour guides for the first two days. For the rest of the trip I hired a private interpreter-fixer. I actually stayed in the Philippines a few days longer at my own expense.

ASMP: The goal of this project was to document countries that are Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) members, and you were assigned to the Philippines. Were there specific reasons why you were selected for this destination?

LK: I didn’t have any input and I wasn’t assigned to the Philippines; through a lottery, I drew the Philippines. It was a public event; we found about our destination in full view of reporters and TV cameras. I was very excited to draw the Philippines as my destination, a country I’ve never visited before.

ASMP: How and why were the Damayan community of Quezon City and Manila’s North Cemetery community selected out of all other locations in the Philippines?

LK: I have seen a lot of happenings around the world, but I’ve never heard about a community living in friendly coexistence with the departed. It was compelling.

The story about the Damayan community was unconventional and intriguing. Children are scavenging wood from a neighboring dump, while adults scout out the area surrounding Manila, and the entire community’s livelihood depending on turning the wood into charcoal.

I also visited and photographed other captivating places, among them Danao city, the capital of illegal gun manufacturing. I talked to people who make them; they talked very openly about the motives and they showed me their production process. In addition I went fishing, and there I became aware of the laborious, tough life of the fishermen, lack of fish during some seasons and very little income. Often only a few fish for a day’s worth of labor. Cockfighting was fascinating; the Philippine’s obsession with cockfight was beyond my comprehension.

ASMP: What preparations or negotiations were required for you to photograph subjects in those communities, especially given the time constraints of a one-week assignment?

LK: RIANOVOSTI helped me obtain a permit to photograph the North Cemetery. The Damayan community was more difficult. I didn’t know about a permit to photograph there, and I spent the entire day in the City Hall trying to reason out my purpose and intention, since the Philippine government objects to foreign journalists photographing these dumps.

ASMP: Did you confront language barriers during your travels in the Philippines? How did you deal with any communication issues, especially since you were interacting so closely with residents in these areas?

LK: The official language of the country is English, but only the educated part of the population speaks this. The majority of the people speak their local dialects or a very poor English. I had a translator almost all the time.

ASMP: How much time did you spend in each community? Were you able to document everything you wished, especially given the time constraints of two locations in a one-week period?

LK: I spent two days at the North Cemetery and almost two days with the Damayan community. The rest of my time was spent scouting for other locations.

ASMP: Where did you stay while you were photographing in each community? Did your status as an outsider have any impact on how you were perceived by your subjects?

LK: I stayed in hotels and used public transportation to get around in the cities. Certainly my status as an outsider played a role, and in the end it was our mutual curiosity that became a connection.

ASMP: How did the people in both communities react to your presence and to your photography? Please describe the similarities and differences in terms of interactions with your subjects. To what do you attribute these similarities and differences?

LK: Both communities reacted very similarly to my presence. They asked me why I was photographing them. I showed them pictures and honestly explained my intention.

ASMP: Did your interaction with children differ from interactions with the adults in each location?

LK: Children are children; their happiness doesn’t depend on the number of toys they have and, if they have a loving family, it doesn’t matter where they live. Children don’t compare, they don’t have a point of reference. The North Cemetery is just a different way of living, it doesn’t mean sinful. The Philippines is a very poor country and millions of people don’t have proper housing. I purchased candy for the children from the local community stores, something familiar to them. I avoided bringing fancy stuff. I always show them the pictures I take of them. Very often my presence is an entertainment for the children. At North Cemetery they followed me, they posed for me, they just played around me.

ASMP: What kinds of strategies did you use to get close to people and gain enough trust for them to allow you to make pictures?

LK: My strategy is always the same — show people my good will, be very open and, the most important approach — don’t be judgmental.

ASMP: Did you work with fixers during these assignments, or did certain community members help you to integrate into the populace?

LK: It was both. In the beginning I worked with a fixer, but he happened to be unreliable. I did ask people around me for help. The manager of my hotel helped me more than the fixer; he introduced me to a person who knew the area, having grown up near the Damyan site.

ASMP: Please describe the emotional impact these assignments have had on you.

LK: I am very grateful to have the opportunity to visit different countries and to meet new people and learn about different cultures. Photographing these places enriches my life enormously; I enjoy it and thrive on it.

ASMP: What, if any restrictions, either self-imposed or imposed by the subjects, did you confront during these shoots? Are there any strategies you employed to push these boundaries?

LK: Sometimes people don’t want to be photographed. I always respect their wishes; I don’t insist. Very often people ask me to take a picture; they pose, smile widely and show the V sign. I do photograph them and show them the photos, but I never use those images.

ASMP: The poor living conditions and the environment of hopelessness amid the Damayan community laborers was the most challenging part of your trip. Please talk about how you were able to navigate the chaos and toughness of this environment to get compelling images.

LK: It was 95 degrees fahrenheit with burning ovens all around. After working for three hours, I ran out of water, was dirty and drenched with sweat — I looked like I belonged there. Folks respected my determination. I didn’t feel uncomfortable and they sensed it. I showed them pictures and answered their questions. Unfortunately I had very little time to spend there.

ASMP: What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

LK: Overcoming bureaucratic resistance to my presence in the area. I spent a whole day in City Hall arguing my case.

ASMP: Please talk about any particularly uplifting or positive situations that you experienced in both locations during your documentation.

LK: The most touching moment happened at North Cemetery when an 81-year-old man named Maxima Zapata asked me to come back with a microphone and interview people. He believed that the individual stories should to be told, and I felt appreciated and welcomed.

ASMP: If you were to re-visit the Damayan or North Cemetery communities again, what would you do differently?

LK: I would definitely like to go back and spend more time in both communities. I am thinking about continuing the project and carrying on with individual stories.

ASMP: You were born in Minsk, Belarus, and have lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan since 1979, but you’ve only been working as a photographer for the past seven years, after first working as a mechanical engineer. Please briefly describe your path from Belarus to the US and your subsequent motivation for a career change.

LK: I emigrated from Belarus in 1979 during a brief moment of opportunity to exit the Soviet Union. I am trained as a mechanical engineers and worked for various engineering companies in the Detroit area, including Ford Motors at the end. I was a project manager when I discovered photography. I took my first workshop in 2002 and became obsessed. During the past eleven years, I’ve attended numerous workshops in Santa Fe, Maine and at the Toscana Photo Workshops, and I have had the chance to meet and study with outstanding teachers. They are the most influential photographers of our time, who changed the way I look at the world. The list includes: Antonin Krotochvil, Eugene Richards, Alex Majoli, Andrea Modica, Miguel Gandert, Paul Elledge and Leasha Overturf, and many others. In 2005, I left engineering to pursue photography full time.

ASMP: Most of your images were shot with a Nikon D800 and the NIKKOR 24-70mm, f/2.8 lens. What kinds of additional equipment did you bring with you, including any lighting gear, reflectors, power supplies or digital back up etc, that you used.

LK: I had only a Nikon D800 with a few NIKKOR lenses 24-70 mm, 17-35 mm and 35 mm. I also had a Nikon D300 as a back up. Certainly, I traveled with several batteries, 12 memory cards and a portable hard drive for back up. I never use lighting gear for the documentary work.

ASMP: Did you have any equipment malfunctions or complications?

LK: During this trip I had no problems with equipment.

ASMP: These images and the other work on your Web site are all presented in black-and-white. What is your reasoning for this?

LK: I feel that black-and-white highlights emotions and reveals insight better; color distracts. My initial capture is in color because there is more information in a color image file.

ASMP: How — and in what formats — did you supply files and/or images for the resulting book and exhibitions in Vladivostok during the APEC summit and at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

LK: I sent about 3,500 low-resolution JPEG files to Moscow, then I sent a pre-edited selection of 200 images at an acceptable file size. I assumed that the final selection would come from those files. However the curators, Anastasia Davydova and Kirril Vasilenko, took a different approach, they had their own preferences. It was fascinating to see their selections. Anastasia and Kirril impressed me by finding the jewels in my own portfolio. The curators did the final selection for the Vladivostok show, then for the book, and finally for the Tretyakov Gallery. We always discussed the selection and were in harmony with final choice. The final selections were sent in high resolution to Moscow via the Internet.

ASMP: Were you able to travel to Moscow or Vladivostok to attend either exhibit? How have these exhibitions been received by the public? Will the work be exhibited or published in other venues in the future or made available for licensing?

LK: RIANOVOSTI produced a show based on our photography in collaboration with musicians to create 21 stories, unique for each country. 5,000 people attended the opening in Vladivostok. I was not able to go to Vladivostok, but I went to Moscow for a glorious opening. There was a huge crowd of photographers, artists, people from Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, journalists and TV cameras. A beautiful catalog was produced. The preliminary plan for the collection shown in Moscow was to show it in the APEC member countries. After 2014, I’ll be able to license my work freely; until that time I can publish the work giving credit to RIANOVOSTI.

ASMP: You mention wanting people to know about this project and hoping that your work makes people more aware of the “real life of Filipino people,” especially those living in poverty in the Damayan community. Have your expectations for this been met?

LK: The Philippine government saw my images during the APEC summit in Vladivostok, but I simply don’t know what affect my work had on the communities. I hope that some positive impact will come out of this project.

ASMP: Since these exhibitions occurred in 2012, what impact has the project had on you personally and professionally?

LK: This assignment has kindled an interest in me to explore and document child-labor issues around the world.

ASMP: In addition to this project in the Philippines, you’ve photographed the work of the Ortho-FOCOS (Foundation of Orthopedic and Complex Spine) group in Ghana. Which project came first, and what influence did one project have on the other?

LK: My work in Ghana came first, and the difficult conditions there helped prepare me for my work in the Philippines. Working for a non-profit organization like FOCOS was an absolute revelation to me: It taught me the meaning of genuine giving. Following this trip, I published a book about the dedicated volunteers of FOCOS who have treated thousands of bone disorders in Ghana.

ASMP: Have other opportunities arisen as a result of your work in the Philippines?

LK: I’m unable to discuss forthcoming opportunities at this time.

ASMP: Are you planning any future documentary projects? Please talk about your plans and dreams for future assignments.

LK: I’m in the initial stages of planning a project about child labor. Currently, my focus is to complete my Uncertainty of Being project — a portrayal of aging around the world.