For 15 years, Polish-born, Georgia-based freelance photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz has been committed to discovering stories and sharing them with others using her camera. Dedicated and passionate (she would even say stubborn), Mielnikiewicz has stuck through the inevitable highs and lows of independent work to produce personal projects she is truly proud of. Her commitment to narrative photography was recognized first with a grant from the Aftermath Project, which helped her produce a powerful body of work in Ukraine. Then in 2016, she was awarded the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Fund grant in humanistic photography, which came with $30,000 to support further projects.

Next month, she will be hosting a workshop in Georgia in collaboration with Tbilisi Photo Festival (more info below). In advance of her workshop, LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker exchanged emails with Mielnikiewicz to learn more about her dogged pursuit of visual storytelling that has taken her far from her roots in Poland—

LC: You were an auto-didact in photography. Can you discuss some of the key steps in your visual (self-)education? Whether it was books you looked at, texts you read, people you met, key conceptual breakthroughs?

JM: Photography books were very important for me. I learned what I like in photography—and which photographer I would like to be—by looking at every photography book I could lay my hands on. Back then, there were not many I could access, but what I did manage to find turned out to be some very important books!

One of these early books was by Sebastião Salgado. One in particular, his first, I found in a Mexican flea market in California. I picked it up without knowing anything about the history of photography, or even what Magnum was. Salgado’s book was lying there among old shoes, pictures of Maria of Guadalupe and other flea market oddities. These days, anybody can educate themselves with the internet—but back in 2000, there was far less access to the troves of information we have now, so this was certainly a lucky find.

Woman with a monkey at a beauty trade show. Tbilisi, 2001. From the book “Woman With a Monkey—Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.” © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

On the practical side, I learned a lot during my year working as a reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza in Krakow. I left after one year since I was not happy with producing portfolios of single images. I found that the daily press didn’t allow me to tell stories which were important for me; the rhythm of a newspaper doesn’t leave much time to dig deeper. Also, the newspaper had a few “star” photographers who were allowed to shoot the best stories. I was too impatient to wait at the bottom of the food chain for my time.

Still, it was a great experience—most importantly, I learned how to use a camera! Before that, I believed that an aperture any lower than 5.6 would spoil the photo. And before that, I was often shy about carrying a camera around my neck: “What if somebody thinks I am a photographer?” I worried.

But still, I knew when it was time to move on and try my hand at freelancing. At that point all the newspapers and magazines were based in Warsaw and I was in Krakow. Since I had to move anyway, my idea was to leave Poland altogether. I thought about Mexico and eventually chose Georgia.

When I arrived in Georgia, I gave myself 10 years to make a book on the Caucasus. This notion came from what [Nikos] Economopoulos did in the Balkans. It was as simple as me counting how many years it took him to produce his project and setting myself a goal to work long-term, just like him.

April 2014, Dniepropetrovsk. Two Gypsy sisters, Ruslana (16) and Milana (19), take an evening stroll along the Dnieper River. I came here from Donetsk and Slavyansk; in Dniepropetrovsk, the people strolling along the river seemed to exist in a different, safer country. The checkpoints and armed soldiers felt far away. A couple of days earlier, a gypsy family was attacked by armed and masked men in Slavyansk, a Russian separatist stronghold. Yet here, along the river, these girls told me they are fine, nobody bothers them. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

LC: On a practical level, was there a moment when you thought “Yes, this is what I want to do: I want to tell personal, long-term documentaries?” And then another moment when you thought, “Yes, I can actually do it!”

JM: I am from that generation where magazines were closing down, budgets were shrinking, etc. This means I never experienced the “golden” years of photojournalism. Still, despite the economic challenges, I was always eager to discover stories with my camera and record them.

After leaving the newspaper, I was on my own from an early stage. This forced me to do things myself because there was nobody to do them for me. I do not know anything but the freelance life—which might make things easier for me to survive today.

My first trip to Georgia in 2001 was a test to see if I could make it as a freelancer. I made a deal with myself that if I could sell enough material to pay for the trip, that would be a sign I was capable of making it work for longer. To help improve my chances, I made the trip as cheap as possible. For example, I took a bus from Poland to Georgia—it took four days of travel on just one night’s sleep. Somewhere in Bulgaria, I remember, the air conditioner broke.

Regardless, I arrived in Georgia and worked very intensely for three months. In the end, I did sell some images from the trip and understood that yes, this was the way I liked to work.

Chiko and Layla at an artists’ retreat. Garikula, Georgia, 2001. From the book “Woman With a Monkey—Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.” © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

LC: I know many creative people struggle to make the decisive leap into complete independence—can you talk a bit more about how it’s been on a creative level?

JM: For the last 15 years, I have had my professional downs and some precious ups—those kept me going. But I kept on working, no matter what. I often feel like a circus juggler, handling so many different things at once. Yet I like things this way because I have many ideas floating around at the same time and numerous things that are being planned on the horizon.

Remember: just like a marriage, your profession is not a life sentence. If your situation is not working the way you envisioned, you can walk out at any time or try it from a different angle. It is important to have dreams—and it’s important to stay firmly on the ground so you can assess those dreams from a fixed perspective.

Of course, many people still struggle to dive into complete independence. In truth, I think it might not be a suitable choice for most people. It is a risk to live from payment to payment without anything set and given. Yet for me, as banal as it might sound, the price for doing what I like is worth that insecurity.

July 2015, Dniprovka Village, Ukraine. A headless statue of Vladimir Lenin, painted gold, stands in the center of the village. This site is next to Energodar City and the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station, the biggest atomic power plant in Europe. Located on the bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper River. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

LC: You’ve described your life in Georgia in the following way: “Life here…is a voyage to extremes, where even a simple taxi ride can turn out to be a trip down Alice’s rabbit hole.” Can you say more about what’s it like to be the outsider in Georgia? What is gained from this perspective? What is lost?

JM: Georgia is dynamic, ever-changing, loud and emotionally intense in ways both good and bad. Lots of its history has been marked by people who came as outsiders and stayed. It takes, at minimum, a generation to become a local. It is a place with bottomless hospitality, a place where strangers communicate easily—yet behind that friendliness, there is a stark division between “us” and “them.”

I am not sure what is gained and what is lost by being an outsider in any place. It depends both on the particulars of the place and your personality. But possibly, an outsider can see some aspects of life more clearly or differently given the distance she/he has.

For me, there is a funny metric I use to test how at home I feel in a country: if I can look at any person and roughly imagine what his or her living room looks like, then it means I am not an outsider anymore.

April 2015, Mnogapolie / Iliovaysk, Ukraine. Local youth clean the schoolyard ahead of an exercise for a patriotic youth war game competition called Zarnica. These competitions are of Russian origin and the best teams travel to finals in Russia. Mnogapolie was a place where the first battles of the Ukrainian war took place in July-August 2014. This school was transformed into headquarters for the Ukrainian army until it was captured by pro-Russian rebels. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

LC: You once described that “news junkie fix where you’re obsessively going through the photos in the evening.” Especially in relation to visual storytelling, can you talk about the relationship between taking your time and putting together a distinctive story? Did you learn this from your own experience and/or from mistakes you made?

JM: I’ve always liked to use different cameras—from old, fully manual models to analog and digital formats. Beginning in 2008, I envisioned a longer project on Ukraine but I could not find any financial support for it. Eventually, in 2014, I started that series anyway, and—as I did not want to be bothered by checking my digital images each evening—I shot it on medium-format film. By doing so, I was not distracted by thinking “Maybe I can propose this to somebody…maybe I can sell this image here or there…” I like to call it my “news detox.” I still love doing news, but I need my long-term projects to think and create something bigger.

My work requires that I spend a lot of time on research—I love that part. But I also trust my intuition and feeling. Even once I begin shooting, it often takes a while until I’m satisfied with the work I’ve done. From time to time, I feel an urge to photograph slightly differently. I might stop seeing in 35mm and prefer a medium format, or switch from a 28mm lens to a 50mm lens. I do not know why this happens, but I trust my feelings and let them flow.

July 2015, Odessa, Ukraine. Amina Okuyeva poses for the photo in a flat she shares with her mother and son. Amina left war-torn Chechnya during the second Chechen war. She moved to Odessa where she studied and become a doctor. She was on Maidan square from the beginning, in December 2014, volunteering her medical skills there. During that time, her husband was in prison as he had been accused of an attempt to kill President Putin. After the Euromaidan revolution, he was pardoned and together with Amina joined an “international peacekeeping battalion” of volunteers who supported Ukraine’s fight against pro-Russian insurgents. Presently, she is a fighter in a brigade named after the first Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev. She also serves as the brigade’s press officer. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

LC: I really enjoyed looking through your project/book Woman With a Monkey. The Caucasus is a complex region that people have been trying to unravel for centuries. I’m curious—what can photography, in particular, add to our understanding of this subject? What about your photography specifically?

JM: Photography is not an encyclopedia; it does not give exact definitions or descriptions. Its power is in its silence—the image is much less definite than the word. Today, I still do not understand the Caucasus, as it is so full of contradictions that it could make your head explode. But there are many similar places all over the world…

I love photography because, by its nature, it is not linear; it can trigger an emotional reaction when done properly. Photography gives each viewer the freedom to read it the way she or he wishes. The main role of photography is to engage the viewer, catch them by surprise—and if that happens, the viewer will hopefully seek out more information about that place or person or issue. Photography acts as the first portal, luring the viewer onward with the promise of a further story.

Nurses line up to march for independence celebrations. Tskhinvali, 2005. From the book “Woman With a Monkey—Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.” © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

In my work, I personally try to provide some of that additional context using quotes from interviews I conduct. I also include as much detailed information about the people and places I photograph as I can. But I’m just as content if the viewer seeks out more information from elsewhere after seeing my work.

LC: To help make the idea of “visual storytelling” a little more concrete, I’m curious if we could talk through a few sequences in Woman With a Monkey—something like a short demonstration of what we mean when we talk about editing, visual flow, the importance of sequence…

JM: Editing a big body of work is a long and painful process—but lots of fun as well! When I edited my pictures for the Caucasus book, I first made about 300-400 small work prints of potential images. I showed this group to many different people: other photographers, my family, friends who were not necessarily photographers. I asked them to make three piles: yes, no and maybe. This first step helped me cut the amount of images by half.

November 2008, Simferopol, Crimea / Ukraine. Varvara Nikolayenko on the stage in the theater play where she performs the role of the Soviet Pioneer. The opening night of the play “Stalin’s Roads” was scheduled for the day Ukraine commemorated victims of the 1932-1933 famine. The play presents Stalin as a man who created the famine artificially with the purpose to punish Ukrainian anti-Soviet nationalism. During the performance, police were deployed outside and inside the theater to avoid possible clashes with the pro-Russian residents of the city. This group’s views on the reasons behind the famine were radically different. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

To achieve the final edit, there was endless changing back and forth. In the Caucasus work, my final editorial decision was to remove all politicians from the book. That was the “something” which took me so long to figure out. Finally, after three years of different efforts, I felt like I had gotten it and it was what I wanted it to be.

I really like working on editing, but it requires time—and lots of it—which I do not always have. When I work with students, I demonstrate how different orders of images can drastically change the meaning and the mood of the story being told.

For me, both photography and editing contain elements of music. When I photograph, I see something and then I try to record it with my camera. At first, the subject is not there in the viewfinder. I start something like a dance, moving around the scene until I finally feel in tune with my original vision. That’s when I know I have the image I wanted.

With editing, there is a similar process—looking for some rhythm, seeking out how the story will flow smoothly. Like in music, sometimes I seek out the flow and intentionally break it down, pushing it to be slower or faster. I like when the story line stutters a bit.

Refugees from Chechnya. Tbilisi. 2005. From the book “Woman With a Monkey—Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.” © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

LC: Finally: you’ve taught workshops before. What are some of the most common mistakes made by aspiring visual storytellers? What is your approach to rectifying these errors?

JM: It amazes me how many people do not know how to make proper portfolio! But if somebody is coming to a workshop for the first time, that is understandable, and I’m happy to help. Beyond that, I believe mistakes are very important. In any profession, you move forward by learning from your mistakes and drawing from your overall life experience.

As a teacher, I sometimes even prefer to see mistakes because they tell me a lot about the core vision and individual approach each student has. From there, I can adjust my teaching to better suit the individuals in the class.

On the border between Georgia and Russia—more specifically, in the separatist region of South Ossetia. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz

I believe that the aim of a workshop is not to impose my vision on anybody but to try and understand the other person’s way of looking and build on that. I am there to share my experiences and lessons I have learned in my journey to become a better photographer. But I am not there to change the person or replace their vision with mine.

After all, people use photography in many different ways. Some look at it as their career, while others want it to remain a hobby. Some people even use it as therapy. Thus, when I teach, I need to take every person’s goals into consideration and work accordingly.

—Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Editors’ note: For its 8th edition, the Tbilisi Photo Festival is partnering with AtlasGlobal to hold a Masterclass workshop in the remote village of Shenako, nestled 2000 meters up in the Greater Caucasus mountain range. Justyna Mielnikiewicz will host the 6-day class, running from July 22-28, which will focus on the subject of visual storytelling. This is a great opportunity to receive intensive instruction from a globally acclaimed photographer. Learn more and book your place now.