Bringing today’s biggest stars into old world glamour, Sasha Samsonova has become the go-to name for Hollywood celebrities.
From her first shoot for Ukraine Harper’s Bazaar at the age of 17 to her recent Playboy covers, the Ukraine-born photographer and director has caught the industry’s attention for her sensual and empowering portrayal of women—thanks to an all-female team working alongside her and a solid dose of ambition from the start. Learn more about how COVID-19 has given Sasha time to reflect and return to a more organic, slower-pace of working.
This interview took place over email between Tate VanderPoel Smith and Sasha Samsonova in Los Angeles, with an introduction by Duc Dinh.
Starting off, where did you go to school?
First in Western Ukraine at Uzhgorod and then in Kyiv at a school I forgot the name of!
Do you remember your first job?
I’ve never had a job that’s not photography. When I was 17, I got hired for a feature with Harper’s Bazaar Ukraine. That sort of set me off on the path that I’m now.
What did you prioritize learning and being involved in?
I was really into art history and literature. In the one year I went to college, we had this really incredible professor, this woman, who sort of explained to us how to perceive art and literature through the lens that it’s been made in, and that changed my entire perception of everything that I consumed.
How did you sign with your agency?
After many years of doing everything on my own, my agent reached out to me as a fan of my work, and after four months or so, we were able to meet in-person and talk. Despite my reservations about joining an agency and having my workflow change for the first time, I felt like I could put my faith in him. And that’s how it happened.
How would you define your role as a photographer?
It's being able to utilize my ability to see beauty in things that other people don’t necessarily notice; or being able to translate it. It’s a hard question. It’s just what I do.
How do you prepare for a shoot?
I study the subject that I’m going to shoot as much as I can. Mostly through their social media, which is a great resource. I then imagine the character I’d like to create for them for the shoot. I’m rarely interested in just shooting it plain—I’m more interested in creating characters for people so that they fit into the universe we're creating. I, of course, let them know my vision, make sure we both love it, and are excited about it.
What are you looking for on set?
On set, I think I look for the particular feeling that I know I want to find before I even started shooting that day. That ties into the first question. I already know what kind of emotion and character I want to get out of the person. On the day of the shoot, I see what we have to work with and then find that little thing I had imagined we’d be able to create. Once I find it, I just try to make enough room for it as possible.
Who is on your team?
I would say my team is predominantly female. They are strong, quick, and incredibly funny. I love being around them. My agent, however, is not female, which I think is a perfect balance for me. I love how this energy works.
The biggest difference since being signed with an agency is pre-production, which falls very heavily on them. I feel a lot more calm now that I trust someone. It takes a lot for me to trust, but throughout this year, I’ve been teaching myself to trust more and more.
Then on days when I'm on set, my assistants and I take care of pretty much everything. My assistants are mostly female, because I need them to not only assist me but for my subjects to also feel comfortable with them. I mostly shoot women, and most of the time, they are not wearing many clothes, if any, and there is something about having an all-female set that’s appealing and fun. I love working with men, but with all girls, you just have a bit of a different energy going on.
For retouching, I have my wonderful retoucher from Ukraine, who I rely on. I spend hours scanning film, coloring it, and making sure it looks gorgeous.
Is there anything that has been keeping you motivated during this time at home?
What kept me motivated during the time at home was the feeling of not having pressure anymore—when the world was functioning as normal, as we’re used to, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to constantly produce content and constantly achieve milestones every minute. With the world being frozen, suspended in this ambiguous place, I could sit and do nothing or take on projects with flowers. At the beginning of COVID-19, they didn't have any commercial work for me, so I never felt like I was wasting time, or being taken away from an important project. So being alone in quarantine wasn’t a problem. It actually gave me oxygen.
What advice do you have for up and coming photographers trying to develop their point of view and grow a following?
I always reply to this question the same exact way. When I first started photography, many different kinds of photography were extremely attractive. I could love Helmut Newton and Tim Walker at the same time, and they could not be more different. When you first step into this world, it’s like you had a bite of delicious food for the first time. You want to leap here and there. You’re just not sure what you want to do. So I recommend looking at a lot of images and masters of photography. A lot of things have already been created, let them go through your brain, and then go out and shoot a lot. And once you catch that moment that makes your heartbeat two or three times faster, that’s what your vision is, and you’ll remember that feeling and try to bring it back.
Want a glimpse of what it sounds like on Sasha's set?
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Sasha Samsonova
Special thanks to Polaroid