John Murphy & Nadia Sablin

In an age where the rapid consumption of media images creates a disconnect from the capability to create organic connections, the empathetic photograph has never been more important. Photographers John William Murphy and Nadia Sablin discuss the role of connection, community and empathy as a tools for photographers in representation.  

© Nadia Sablin

© Nadia Sablin

Nadia Sablin (b. Russia, 1980) earned a BFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2002 and an MFA from Arizona State University in 2011.  Her work investigates the relationship between documentary and fictional storytelling and explores the larger world through close personal narratives. Her ongoing projects are primarily based in rural Russia and Ukraine, spanning years of children growing up, elders growing old and the practical ways in which people cope with the passage of time in an unstable economic environment.

She has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, MacDowell colony, Firecracker, the Puffin Foundation, and the Peter S. Reed Foundation. Her work has been featured in such publications as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Moscow Times, Slate, The New Yorker, American Photo, and the Financial Times. Nadia Sablin’s photographs have been seen in solo and group exhibitions across the U.S., including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Southeast Museum of Photography, Blue Sky Gallery in Oregon, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Bellevue College in Washington, and Texas Women’s University School of Art among others.  As a recipient of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography, Sablin’s first monograph,Aunties, was published by Duke University Press/CDS in 2015.  She teaches photography at SUNY New Paltz.

John Murphy (b. 1997, Amityville, NY) is an artist who lives and works in Long Island, New York. His current explores the intersections of identity, community, and representation. He will be completing his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in Photography from State University of New York at New Paltz in the Spring of 2019.

His work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Exhibitions include: Self:SELF, ArtBar, Kingston, NY 2017, Tintype, Sojourner Truth Library, New Paltz, NY, 2018, Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Czech Republic, American Identities.

© Nadia Sablin

© Nadia Sablin

© Nadia Sablin

© Nadia Sablin

John Murphy: Hello Nadia Sablin, firstly I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. As a student of yours for two years now, I’m very excited for the opportunity to learn more about your work. What have you been up to since being awarded your Guggenheim fellowship this past year?

Nadia Sablin: I’m writing you from the small village of Alekhovshchina, where I’ve been living since the summer, and working on a long-term project about this place.  I’ve been coming here every summer for the last ten years, but the fellowship allows me the uninterrupted time I need to record seasons shifting, better understand the rhythms of village life and to get closer to its inhabitants.  It took me a long time to be accepted into this community and now is the perfect time to deepen these relationships and photograph the places and moments previously unavailable to me.

JM: Working with you in Large Format for The Stranger assignment was the first time I really photographed someone other than myself. Was there ever a time you were wary of using photography as a way of communicating? What would you say to young photographers who feel that way?

NS: Very soon after finishing my undergraduate degree, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Ukraine.  I was a foreigner, learning a new language and my desire to make connections and understand my surroundings better is what drove my practice.  As a very shy person, it was torture coming up to strangers and asking to make a portrait of them. Initially a refusal could drive me close to tears, but over time my skin thickened and my shyness faded.  To young photographers I would say, “Do what you really want to do, even if it’s uncomfortable for you. Respect the people you photograph and their needs, but also respect your craft -- don’t hurry to finish up when you get a yes, and honor your subjects by making a good photograph, which should take time and energy from both you and them.”

JM: Throughout all your work I see this fine line of documentary and fictional story telling, the images are so lyrical and story-like, what/who are some of your biggest inspirations? Storytelling is a kind of empathy. Why might photography need to promote empathy, and how do you personally achieve this?

NS: My biggest inspiration is literature and allegorical painting.  I think fiction can give you a clearer understanding of a time period or a particular place than a dry historical account of facts.  It’s a lie that tells the truth. Marquez, Bulgakov and Murakami are the authors that have most influenced how I see the world. Caravaggio, El Greco and Vermeer have taught me the power of light and shadow, although this winter has been more akin to Pieter Brueghel, the elder’s paintings.

I don’t know that photography necessarily needs to promote empathy, there are plenty of fascinating important projects that come from a detached perspective.  There is room for all kinds of image-making, but I am particularly drawn to long-term, slow documentary work, projects that really get close to their subjects and deep into a story.  For me, if I don’t fall in love with the person I’m photographing, the picture will be uninteresting to me. The empathy comes first, before I even think to pick up a camera.

© Nadia Sablin

JM: One of the things I admire about your work personally is the resilience of your subjects. Their individuality stands at the forefront of the elements that grab my attention. Susan Sontag said: “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort, but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is what’s in the picture.” What is your approach to making portraits, are you more of a fly on the wall or do you direct your subject?

NS: I do both.  Of course it is very pleasurable to be able to catch a moment on the fly, but that doesn’t always show what you want your viewers to see. There are times when I quietly sit in the corner and take photos of what’s happening around me, and there are times when I will rearrange the furniture, suggest wardrobe, bring in lights, shoot ten rolls of one person in one place.  I like to play with different types of image-making.

JM: You left Russia in September 1992, at the age of twelve, is that correct? What was it like leaving a familiar place at that age? Do you think this split of self affected the way you observed things? Was photography something that was on your mind at that time, and when did you really start to consider the photographic frame seriously?

NS: It was  in equal measure devastating and exciting.  America was a mythical place for a Soviet child, and going there seemed like a fantastical quest, but leaving behind all that I knew was difficult, especially at that age.  It cut off my childhood and left it on the other side of the planet. As a result, when I return to Russia, I still have a child’s eye and a closeness to magic that my American adult self has difficulty accessing.  I remember during the first weeks of being in the US becoming obsessed with the photographs we brought with us, stacks of black and white prints of relatives I didn’t know, places I didn’t remember, myself as a baby.  Of course I didn’t get to “consider the photographic frame” until my education -- both of my degrees are in photography.

© Nadia Sablin

JM: What made you want to teach photography? And what were some steps you took after graduating from your Bachelors/Masters to pursue it?

NS: I first tried teaching in the Peace Corps, as an English teacher to Ukrainian school children.  It was so rewarding, in a different way than photography, so energizing and exciting that I knew I wanted to continue doing it as a career.  While pursuing my MFA, I got the chance to be a TA and teach a few classes in a community college. Then, I spent a few years as an adjunct professor at various colleges around NYC, while looking for a permanent position.  Teaching photography combines my two greatest passions.

JM: Community seems to be a prominent theme in most of your work. Aunties, The Tundra, Endless Summer and Lodeynoye Pole all seem to explore a sense of place in a similar fashion. What is it like to navigate through so many places? Do you enjoy traveling so much? How long do you spend in/with the places/people you photograph?

NS: I don’t enjoy the traveling bit so much, it’s cumbersome and tiring.  But once I’m in a place, I want to know it, feel it, discover its hidden beauty, hear the stories of its inhabitants.  For that feeling, I’m ready to shlep heavy bags full of film and cameras, to spend sleepless nights in airports and go without a shower for a week, while living in a fur tent in the arctic (I’m about to do just that, starting tomorrow).  The time I spend with communities varies. Usually I start with a short visit, and if I can, repeat and extend my stay over multiple trips, over the years.

© Nadia Sablin

JM: What is your favorite picture that you’ve made and what is the story behind it?

NS: That’s so hard to answer!  The joke is that if you ask a photographer about her favourite picture, it’ll always be the last one she took.  Here is a link to an article about my ten best:  Have fun translating it from Russian!  Sorry, I don’t have the original English text with me.

JM: If you could say one thing as an educator to young emerging artists what would it be?

NS: Keep working, even if no one is celebrating your projects.  Don’t get into it for the recognition, but for the love of the process.  If you don’t have that kind of love for photography, find something else that will absorb and sustain you.