THE FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPHER’S RISE TO FAME
Sasha Gusov was first introduced to photography at the tender age of 13. As a young boy, he was sent away for long summers to his relatives, at the coastal town of Taganrog, by the Azov Sea in southern Russia, where he was born. Travel was in his spirit at a young age because his father, Raphael, was an engineer involved in building nuclear power stations and satellites all over the Soviet Union, so his family were in constant movement – travelling from the far north of Siberia to Bulgaria. It was during these long summers when he learned the joy and intricate details of the art of photography – in his uncle’s darkroom. He reminisces, “It was a place where he taught me how to process film and prints”, he says.
His passion for photography was prevalent throughout the years and by the 1980s, Gusov was living in Moscow as a member of the Moscow Committee of Graphic Artists. That enabled him to work as a freelance photographer. His membership gave him a good idea of what was in high demand in the photo equipment market. It also allowed him the luxury of being able to read magazines denied to the ordinary Soviet citizen and produced by the bourgeois and western photographic press. Among them, his favourite, was the British Journal of Photography, which later published many of his works.
By 1988, he left the Soviet Union. Gusov says, “I went to the British Embassy, and they gave me a visa and that’s when I ran away to the West. I didn’t tell anybody I was intending to stay in London. I didn’t have many things with me — a camera, a couple of lenses and 10 dollars tucked away in my case. As I had little money, when I got to London, I was afraid to leave Heathrow airport. I spent a day and a night at the airport, and I woke up right by a newspaper shop where I saw a copy of British Journal of Photography on display. It was a Godsend! I turned to the back page and there was an ad for a camera shop in Waterloo, so I bought an underground ticket and went there to sell my Canon F-1N and two of the lenses that I’d brought with me from Russia, just to get some money,” Gusov explains. From such humble beginnings that was the start of his rise to fame as one of the most credible fashion and portrait photographers of the late 20th and early 21st century.
Q. What does travel and photography mean to you?
A. Being without travel is like being a fish out of water. Seeing different cultures is like seeing the most beautiful things in the world – to see different social lives and various geographical locations. This is the best way for humans to understand each other much better, by travelling and seeing how others live. Only ignorant people start wars. People who know how other people live would find more empathy. Without travelling I would not exist. So far, I have been to 60 countries.
I can’t spend more than two days on a beach. Even on a beach, I like to take pictures of people. I have so much energy that I just can’t rest and lie down. Once, I went to the Maldives and I ran away from there as I couldn’t do anything. I could not take pictures of people and I was very uncomfortable on the beach. Afterwards, I had a thirst for wild and adventurous places to travel to.
Q. How challenging was it to make it as a photographer in London?
A. I arrived in London in the late 80s and I lived a hand to mouth existence, doing whatever work I could, washing up in bars and cafes, waiting at restaurant tables, cleaning work in an Edgware Road gym. That’s where I had the good fortune to meet the fashion and portrait photographer Andrew MacPherson, who hearing of his background, introduced him to Roy Snell with whom he shared a studio and darkroom business in southwest London. For four years, I worked in Snell’s darkroom and film processing facility – running the processing room, and printing for a group of advertising, fashion, and editorial photographers.
In 1992, I walked into the Royal Albert Hall, gaining access to the troupe by blagging the line that I was a press photographer who was going to cover the ballet. Yuri Grigorovich, who was then the Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, was sitting in the stalls. I told him that he was a well-known Russian photographer and had come to shoot everything. To begin with he was not interested, (and he was drunk), but finally Grigorovich said it was ok and I can go on the stage. Then he yelled at me to get off and kicked me out. The next day, I sneaked back in and asked if he would let me stay and eventually, he said yes and let me shoot the ballet for one month. Virtually all the images (and certainly the best) were made during practices and rehearsals, where the dancers are shown in both stage dress and normal working attire.
Q. Tell us about your big break?
A. The pictures I took behind the scenes at the Bolshoi Ballet were so striking that they also attracted the attention of the late Isabella Blow, legendary fashion stylist. He adds, “Issy took me to Vogue magazine and introduced me to the picture editor as the ‘genius photographer’ and they began to give me jobs doing editorial portraiture.” This was Gustov’s introduction to fashion photography. He also became known as a street-photographer of remarkable observational powers, with a lifelong fascination of the human condition he continues to capture remarkable raw material, which is shown in his published photography books – each of them a new chapter in his ongoing documentation of human comedy.
Q. The best places you’ve travelled to?
A. Sri Lanka was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. I went everywhere – Columbo, Ella on the mountains, and many of the beaches. I was at a wedding and the couple paid for everything over the 25 days that I was there. If you haven’t been, I suggest going to Ella and you will be amazed by the people. I took a lot of pictures of fishermen at the coast. I look for the extraordinary life of normal people. I spent time with the fishermen and people in plantations. No matter what you shoot from skyscrapers, or beautiful locations, the most important thing is the people who live there. It is about the beauty of the people. What is the point in shooting a forest if I can’t shoot the people who have taken me to the forest? The people are the inspiration.
Q. What are the most captivating photographs you’ve taken recently?
A. I want to do the same thing all the time, which is take more photographs in more countries. Next, I want to go to Columbia and Venezuela. I would like to return to the places I have been to. Now I have a beautiful wife, I want to show her these places. I want to share these experiences with her. Every year, we go to Spain. When the season starts, I shoot the bull fighting. We are going back to Valencia for the bull fights. The culture and art’s amazing. I speak Russian and English, but I want to speak Spanish due to this project. Also, I was shooting in Kyoto, Japan, not so long ago, in the greatest fish market in the world. It’s like a whole city with so many fish from all over. It was a fascinating place to see.
Q. You’ve travelled to so many places, but what’s your favourite type of cuisine?
A. Lebanese food. When I came in 1989 to London, Edgware Road was full of Middle Eastern food. I fell in love with the cuisine. My second greatest cuisine is Italian food. Olivomaro is the best restaurant for me in London. All the Hollywood stars go there. But I am well adapted to every type of food wherever I travel to. I remember in Mauritania, in the desert, they cooked rice on the fire, and it was amazing! And in Japan, I only eat sushi, which I love.
Q. Where’s next on your bucket list?
A. Everest. I want to go to base camp and take pictures. I’d like to go to the North and South Pole. I will go soon. I’d also like to shoot camels in the UAE, in the Middle East.
Q. Your top three places to visit in the world?
A. Namibia, in southwest Africa, was the most beautiful place in the world. It has the most amazing desert, and the Skeleton Coast is just unbelievable. Mongolia is also beautiful – rich in beautiful sceneries of mountains, forest steppes, Taiga, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, flora and fauna, history, and culture. It’s a captivating place. And China, I was staying with Shaolin monks in a monastery. It was a spiritual and beautiful experience. The mountains were incredible.
Q. Your best cultural experience?
A. Culture is all around us. The question is do you want to notice this culture? For instance, in London, we are surrounded by the most beautiful museums and galleries, but many of us don’t see any of this. My job is to watch and look at things. People ask me how I see certain things that they may miss, but it’s my job to see things differently. I like to watch and observe people and the world.
Q. What are you planning for your next tour?
A. I’d love to visit Nepal and stay in the mountains to live amongst the Buddhists. I’d also like to see the spirit of Bhutan. I’d love to stay in southern Spain, in Rhonda, and live with nuns in a convent, or in a monastery with the monks.
Q. The most unusual place you’ve ever stayed?
A. It was in the Sahara Desert where I slept under the stars. It was an incredible experience being in solitude, under a sea of stars. There are no mosquitoes in the desert, and you can reflect on the universe and your own personal self-journey. There was no civilization, and you realised you can live without it as we are all part of nature. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia.
By Hershey Gargash