Looking at Nadia Sablin’s images is like falling into a captivating scene in the middle of a book—the pictures leave the viewer wanting to know what happened before and after. Born and raised in Russia before moving to the US, Sablin has always found herself caught between two worlds. In recent years, she has been returning to Russia to make photographic projects. The work that she has produced while back in her homeland evoke whimsical moments, that when tied together loosely yet delicately, create a web of a bigger story.

Contributing writer Abigail Smithson reached out to Sablin over email to find out more about her work and her story.

Nadia Sablin: I left Russia on the cusp of my adolescence—a move which divided my life into two very distinct parts. When I left Russia, everything changed overnight. I swapped the palaces of Saint Petersburg for the perfect lawns of Middle America, and obsessive reading of the Russian classics for episodes of Full House. I went from being an over-pampered child to suddenly understanding more than my parents. Everything I knew was left behind and I became a new person, even changing my name to a more Westernized version.

When I go back to the former Soviet Union, much of my childhood comes to life again: the smells, the sounds, the angle of light, the way a train car rocks you to sleep on a long trip north. It’s as if I’m traveling not just to a different location but to a different time, and to a version of myself I only vaguely remember. The vastness of the region is a draw as well. Threads of family connections, fairy tales and rumors pull me further and further in. I think I could spend my life focused just on this region and never get tired.

Roger Ballen has described that he goes deeper and deeper into his own psyche for subject matter. For me, going deeper into Russia amounts to the same thing. I’m disappearing into my own head, my own invented memories, retelling forgotten stories through my photographs, looking for something I lost.

Abigal Smithson: Your drastic move at such a critical age really seems to have shaped the development of your photography.

NS: When I came to the States at age twelve, I was really scared and cripplingly shy. I didn’t know how to talk to people. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t speak the language, I learned English very quickly, it was more that I couldn’t relate to the culture. I didn’t know the bands, the TV shows, what stores people were shopping in, what was important to them. So I became an observer. I started watching and trying to get it, trying to understand the culture and my peers. Trying to see if I could or if I even wanted to become one of them. I think that was when I changed from being a participant in society to an observer. And I liked it so much I never went back—I enjoy being invisible in public.

I like to connect one-on-one with people and learn about them. I like to figure out who they are, make up my own story about their life and supplement it with what they tell me. We can make this new world together. It’s probably not exactly true or real, but for the duration of our conversation that’s who we are—characters of a new story. Most of what I photograph doesn’t exist, it’s just in my head. I create it by inviting the people I photograph to participate in the building of this temporary world.

AS: Is speaking fluent Russian crucial to your work?

NS: It is definitely a key part of everything I do in Russia. Sometimes I’ll just strike up conversations with strangers and listen to them for an hour before ever reaching for my camera. Then again, I went to Romania for a couple of days not speaking a word of Romanian and people still worked with me and I was able to get the shots I wanted. Sometimes they would misunderstand and wonderful things happened. I met a shepherd in the mountains and was trying to ask him to sit on a little bump on the ground. He misunderstood me and lay down instead, clutching his walking stick, and it was so beautiful! I just thought, “Thank you. I couldn’t have said that better myself.”

I don’t know if the same method would also work in Russia. In the villages where I photograph the first line of questioning I get is, “Where are you from? Who are you related to around here?” There is a palpable sense of relief and acceptance after they find out about my local roots.

AS: How do your projects develop, how do you make sense of different places?

NS: As a general rule I don’t start out with a specific agenda in mind. I go and explore, see what I find and let the project happen. I just talk to people, gather pictures, and gather stories. After I look through the photographs and jot down the stories I heard, the series begins to take shape. I always leave things very open-ended to see what will happen and what my interaction with the place will bring about.

Taking pictures of people is a way of telling a story of a place. Their perception of where they live creates and conveys a place’s personality. Murmansk in City of Night, City of Day was different in the sense that the landscape was already such a powerful character. I had never seen anything like it. To my eye it was so unique and foreign that I tried a slightly different approach in taking a portrait of this city. A lot more landscapes and buildings made their way onto my film than usual.

AS: Why is it important to tell stories and make images out of them?

NS: I became addicted to reading when I used to visit my grandfather’s house at the age of seven. At the time, spending summers away from the city felt like being forced into exile. I missed my mom’s bedtime stories, all my friends, and the constant attention of my grandmothers.

To get me out of her hair, my busy aunt directed me to the library and I was lost. I would spend whole days reading fairy tales, Russian classics and everything in between. My favorite books growing up were magical realism—I must have read Master and Margarita and One Hundred Years of Solitude a dozen times. When I wasn’t reading, I’d be pestering my grandfather for stories, or make up and act out adventures of my own, starring myself and my cousin or small plastic toys.

In a way, that’s still what I’m doing: demanding stories from strangers, re-imagining them and staging my interpretations as photographs. I don’t think I’m alone in this thirst for stories—otherwise there wouldn’t be so many great films, such a boom in photo books and so many people reading on the subway.

I think it’s important to tell personal narratives so that the individual doesn’t become lost in a sea of generalities and stereotypes. Seeing life from the point of view of someone else creates a more empathetic, richer understanding of the world. What we are shown in the news tends to reduce global movements to digestible size. I’m interested in doing the opposite: reaching for the universal through the personal; telling the truth through fiction.

—Nadia Sablin, as told to Abigail Smithson


Abigail Smithson is a contributing writer for LensCulture and
an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. She is continually fascinated by contemporary photography and the role that it plays in her own understanding of the world. A California native who left her heart in Brooklyn, she is willing to go anywhere, at any time, in search of good images. Read more of her writing or follow her on Twitter.