this photographer vowed never to retouch her photos after losing a friend to anorexia

Photographer Anastasiya Lazurenko’s project “Pearly Gates” is a haunting tribute to a lost friend and the real, raw experience of being young.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
Nov 19 2015, 3:55pm

"My muses are the gateway to heaven," says Ukrainian photographer Anastasiya Lazurenko, explaining the title of her project "Pearly Gates." She's been working on the photo series for five years, shooting women and girls - both friends and near-strangers - in the forests of the Ukraine, skinny dipping in lakes, kissing, screaming and lying side-by-side in beds and baths. The images are a mixture of striking, face-on color portraits, and soft black-and-white vignettes that capture the small, real moments that make up female friendships.

The book, scheduled for release next year through Centerfold Editions, is dedicated to Anastasiya's friend Valeria Koshkina. She was "an incredibly bright and charismatic fairy alien," Anastasiya remembers, and she was one of her favorite subjects to photograph. She also struggled with anorexia, and her death from the disease in 2013 led Anastasiya to interrogate her own conceptions of beauty. "I felt guilty for all of us, who worship the media cult of the skinny and support fake destructive stereotypes of beauty," she writes in the artist's statement for "Pearly Gates."

Her reaction to Valeria's death had a secondary effect, too: she promised never to retouch her photographs again. Now complete, "Pearly Gates" is a document of Anastasiya's own efforts to rediscover what felt real to her. She describes shooting the project as a meditative process, and the images, she hopes, communicate "the energy of freedom, intimacy and love."

Who are the women in your images?
This project is my obsessive archive of girls I've met everywhere - streets, supermarkets, friends, friends of friends.

What reaction do you hope the book provokes?
I hope people will throw away their iPhones and start praying and meditating. I'm joking. I'm just an artist and I don't want to waste my time hoping to change the world. I change it constantly with my inner work.

You've spoken about the guilt you felt after Valeria passed away. Did making this book help soothe that?
Constant guilt is degradation, it means you can't move on. You can only use it as a step for understanding and seeking the truth.

How else did you deal with the loss?
I didn't cry for three weeks. When it comes to this project, so many questions are asked about Valeria's death, and now I feel there is too much talk. But she wanted to be famous - I was thinking a lot about this aspiration for approval by mass media and cameras. I took plenty of photos of girls for free just to tell them, 'You are the stars, you have the light inside, don't bother about anyone else.'

What, do you think, is problematic about the way we think about female beauty?
There is no problem at all - everyone can choose [what is beautiful] for themselves. The outward [world] influences us so much that it takes us away from uniting with our true selves. A constant feeling of happiness is the indication of one's spiritual maturity. But our happiness too often relies on others.

Are there other artists in the Ukraine dealing with similar themes?
It's very difficult to be an artist in Ukraine because the economic system is not on the same level as in countries where being an artist is a profession. That's why many artists prefer to work for the advertising industry, and then the art dies. There are many underground artists who just follow their unique way. In our country, to keep your balance and follow your spiritual path is the real art now.

What else are you working on at the moment?
I've been working on a project called "Goans" for four years. It shows the lives and destinies of people all over the world who have found their peace in Goa. It's about contemporary spiritual seeking and people's drive for achieving transcendental experience.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Anastasiya Lazurenko

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anastasiya lazurenko
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