To see, experience, and photograph everything…

Autor of text: 

Anatoly Ustinenko is a photojournalist, full member of the Academy of Journalism Kazakhstan, twice winner of Altyn Zhuldyz award, multiple award winner of various international photo competitions.

He is sure that photojournalist’s occupation is the most important one on Earth, because documentary photos speak only the truth. People die and things change, but photographs remain and keep memories about the past. And there will be no future without our past. Because memory is just what makes Human different from all the rest living creatures.

Interviewer: How did your road to photojournalism begin?

Anatoly Ustinenko: It was obviously my vocation, although I didn’t understand it at first, and after I finished school, I went to be enrolled at the agricultural institute. I passed all my exams with ‘A’, but the last one – paper –I failed. I was writing it in a hurry and made too many mistakes. Back at home I was about to get job at the sulfate integrated plant, but the fate had another design for me. My mother bumped into her acquaintance, the former editor of the regional newspaper, who told her that the paper had a vacancy of a reporter. Remembering my articles for a school newspaper, he advised that mother send me to their office. “Go and see”, mother told me and I obeyed. I began writing articles for them and was employed. Thus my way into the professional journalism began.

My first tutor was Anatoly Pavlovich Tyunin, Voronezh University graduate. He told me: if you want to become a true journalist, then you should know more than just to write with a pen. You should master both a photo camera and a typewriter (there were no computers yet), and you should know how to drive. I never acquired a car, but I rode a motorbike; I bought a camera and began complementing my texts with photos, and I came to grips with the ten fingers method. Far and by, the ball was set rolling.

Next year, I entered the University in Alma-Ata, department of journalism. Having graduated, I went to do my military service. Within two years I returned to Pavlodar, where at first I was a reporter, then in charge of data on sports, then deputy to executive secretary to a local newspaper, and afterwards executive secretary to a newspaper of oblast. All this happened quite fast; by age 30 I built a meteoric career in journalism and became the youngest executive secretary to oblast newspapers in Kazakhstan. I went on working, was taken notice of and invited to work in Alma-Ata. 

I: And what was your further career like? Now photograph is all you do.

AU: In 1989 I was offered a position of editor-in-chief to a news photography department in Telegraph Agency of Kazakhstan (KazTAG), the Kazakhstani ITAR TASS. I had 30 employees under my authority then – we had our representative with a car and very good professional equipment at every oblast of Kazakhstan. While at KazTAG, I worked both as writing journalist and photojournalist for four years, but the photography was gradually enticing me away. I realized that even one good picture can tell much more than a whole page of text. There were paradigmatic cases when one snapshot drastically changed the current of events.

I: And what did you do after the Soviet Union had collapsed? At that time many people lost their jobs and didn’t know what to put their hands to.

AU: Since Kazakhstan had become an independent state, I began accompanying our President Nursultan Nazarbaev in his first travels abroad: this was his trip to England, his first speech at the UN General Assembly session in New York, countries of Europe, Asia, and Near East. In point of fact, it was President’s Press Office, although it wasn’t called thus yet. Then I worked together with such leading figures of home journalism as Josef Budnevich and Yuri Kuidin. Our photos of crucial events of that period were spread almost all over the world. They were published by all the international agencies, such as Associated Press, CNN, АПН, Newsweek, and such papers as The New-York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, etc. I’ve cooperated with many of them up to now.

When the governmental Press Office began working officially, I was invited to become a personal photographer to President of Kazakhstan, and I am very proud of it. But there was one requirement that didn’t allow me to occupy this prestigious position: it was an obligatory move to Astana. I must have stayed in Alma-Ata due to many reasons, which were important for me. Next, I was offered an official position at Atamura Publishing Corporation, where I’ve worked for more than 15 years, since 1997, and I love my job there.

The range of subjects for art is virtually incomprehensible here: it’s history, geography, nature, ethnography, cultural and political events related to the growth and development of the independent Kazakhstan. I have a constantly forming huge archive that I can use in books, which endure much longer than papers and magazines. It’s a job both for our contemporaries and next generations. Events pass, people die – photographs remain. Owing to them, we may see faces of people who lived and worked here in the past century – this is now history. Notably, reporter’s photos never tell lies unlike historians, they capture the moments just as they were in reality. 

I: I can feel that you love your job very much.

AU: I do. I am sure that the main occupation in the world is that of photojournalist. We all capture the history of our country, and, moreover, the history of humanity. One more typical feature of journalism is that the shooting is always conducted in unprepared conditions (there’s no specially arranged light), and you have just one try for making a shot you want (you can’t ask Presidents at a press conference to shake hands once again just because this photo’s not good, and also it’s impossible to ask a sportsman to cross the finishing line encore). That is, all the time you must be bright eyed and bushy tailed, mobilized and attentive to every little thing like at hunting – gusto, adrenaline, and iron self-control at the same time, so that you could press the shutter button at just the right time.

I: So, is this real men’s business?

AU: Yes, it’s really men’s profession. To work as photojournalist one must have strong health and be physically fit. Firstly, the equipment you should constantly carry yourself is rather heavy (I’ve got camera lens weighing 8 kg). Secondly, while waiting for some good shot, you often have to work in the most complicated and severe weather conditions both at sea, on land, and in the sky. Annually, I have to confirm my physical fitness qualifications. It’s not a secret that sometimes your survival depends on the degree of your fitness. I experienced freeze burns in ascends with our climbers, got injuries of various degrees of severity while shooting. As for reporters participating in war conflicts, they often get killed at the scene. Nature shooting is not as harmless as it may seem. You have to knock about hard-to-reach places in heat and cold, in rain and in sandstorm; you may possibly bump into wild animals that are unaware of your wish to simply photograph them for good memory. 

My love for sports in youth helped me very much. While studying at the institute I went in for freestyle wrestling, sambo, then climbing. Just this later allowed me to become a photojournalist for our climbing teams. And I am proud of the fact of my personal acquaintance with our great climber Anatoly Bukreev. Together with him I was in Himalayas at the foot of Everest, Khumbu glacier. He who’s never been at such altitude will never understand what oxygen deficiency is, when it’s hard for you to make even 4 quick steps to go round the tent. 

I: You like to keep constantly fit, and you don’t like quiet, serene and steady life, do you?

AU: We have only one life, and we should live it in an interesting way. Provided you have excellent physical and professional qualifications you can find yourself in the most wonderful parts of our planet. I was invited to climb the Vinson peak in Antarctica, McKinley in US, to the Northern Pole, to climb all the 7,000 m peaks of the world. I took part in several high-mountain expeditions. As for the 6,000 m summit of Kilimanjaro – the highest point in Africa – I climbed it the fourth of our first Kazakhstani group. It was there where my hand was frostbitten. Everyone laughs at me when I say that I got my hand frostbitten in Africa. After that I made shooting with three fingers almost for a whole year, because the rest two fingers didn’t work. 

I remember once, in pursuit of a good shot at the open pit Bogatyr, in a glow of passion, 60 m high, in November, I walked 20 m on the frozen H-beam over the quarry in order to beautifully show the shock work of Komsomol members. 30 workers among them were cons. Having made my shot and cooled down, I looked around, saw a precipice under my feet and realized that I couldn’t make a single move, frozen with fear. Then I sat down, threw my legs and arms around the icy beam and started crawling back, thinking: what the hell have I got into this! And there were many such risky moments in my life.

I: Were there any men of gravitas and professional experience that inspired you in your work? 

AU: My very first favourite social journalist was Vassily Peskov. I admired his essays and his photos, it was just he who influenced seriously my choice of occupation. I wrote my paper about him, when entering the faculty of journalism, the topic was “My favourite writer” – and I passed. Also, I got serious help in mastering my profession from Sergey Kuznetsov and Joseph Budnevich in Almaty.   In our professional environment we still quote Budnevich’s words to each other: “You won’t explain to everyone who buys a paper why you got your shot bad. Show your photo to people in such a way that they will be interested in it”. He was an expert in directing shots in an unobtrusive and inconspicuous manner.

Since my youth I’d also had an album into which I stuck interesting texts and photos by different authors that I liked. These impressions later helped me a lot in my work, I knew summits I had to reach – and I did. I remember an incident: a team of Moscow reporters visited Pavlodar, and we went together with them to the hydroelectric station of Ekibastuz. On our way there I told one of them about his photograph that I had once stuck into my album, where a wireman walks over high voltage wires, and far down, under his feet there is Angara River and taiga. Since that moment on we became friends; he was pleasantly surprised that here, in backwater, someone knew and remembered his shots. On his departure he asked me what he should send me from the capital. Back then we had shortage of a 16-mm film. And so he sent me the whole box of it. That’s it.

You should memorize good shots. You won’t copy them, but it develops your taste, sense of composition and harmony – it’s like golden section. You should avoid mundanity, search for something significant and interesting in every moment you want to capture. Each of us writes the modern history, as Lenin said – and he was absolutely right.  

I: In your opinion, what is the main professional trait of your job?

AU: The main thing in photojournalist’s job is his mobility and quick reaction for events that happen. You must always be aware of fresh news, informed about forthcoming events in order to find yourself in the right place and in the right mood. Then you have a chance to make good picture stories that are going to be required by leading periodicals. High-quality professional photos are wanted by both papers, magazines, and such a new mass medium as Internet. I should note that there appear more and more online media. And I think they need high-quality pictures still more, because readers often may look at zoomed photos. As for the readership of online media, it’s spreading out. 

I: Yes, but now almost everyone has an opportunity to make photos and upload them in social networking sites or his/her blogs…

AU: Nevertheless, the professionalism here remains a crucial point. One must know how to treat the light and how it is transformed into a picture. There are lots of tricks helping you in your common work. For instance, when making a portrait photo, you should make a person not to pose, but contemplate, and I know an easy and simple way to do it. You can find out much about a person from his countenance, eyes, complexion, and manner of speaking.  

But I’m not an amateur of studio stage shooting, photojournalism is more my cup of tea. In course of shooting one of my eyes is looking into the viewfinder of my camera, and the other eye is exploring surroundings in search of the most interesting. To develop your reaction, you should play ping-pong. I began doing this kind of sports when I was about 26. 

I: Actually, is a true photojournalist a high-educated person?  

AU: Sure, because you find out something new in different spheres all the time. You’d better get prepared for the event before you start shooting in order to understand what is necessary and most significant in this and not to waste your time and energy. When there was no Internet, we used to review newspapers of a region we visited, to take our bearings. But meeting people, you’d better conceal your awareness, but ask proper questions on the subject – doing this, you will know still more and make people like you. You must be ready for perceiving and accepting any information. It would be useful to tell a few words about yourself. Kazakhs have a tradition called uzun kulak (literally, the long ear). Sitting at dastarkhan (table), you must speak about yourself, your kith and kin. The knowledge of geography and history is absolutely necessary for a journalist. 

I: What are your favourite subjects to shoot?

AU: A reporter may have a mass of various subjects. I love the theme of national customs and traditions. Each region of Kazakhstan has a completely different design of national costume, yurt interior, and you want to show and preserve that, too. For instance, an ornament is kind of a passport, you can read much information about a person in it – his status, age, kin.

Even the tea ceremony in each aul has its peculiarities. First, according to etiquette, a guest must drink not less than 3 pialas of tea and even more. They never pour a full cup – it’s disrespect for your guest. And as for a signal that you are full, you should make it differently in different regions: to turn your cup upside down, put your hand over it, place a spoon upon it, etc. There are many such rituals among people, and they make all the tribes different. 

I love shooting national sports. For example, the traditional baiga (horse races) is usually done horseback, and in Atyrau oblast you can very rarely see baiga on camel’s back. Kokpar (sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to drag a goat carcass toward a goal) is very popular among the native population. Our goal is to keep it for descendants. Because the spirit of the nation and its primary mode of life are reflected in such traditions. All these sport competitions train habits of warriors, which used to be necessary for the survival in steppe. All this is extremely interesting for me.

I also have passion for archeological artefacts – these are good food for meditation on the history of mankind as well. Another large layer is culture and people creating it. I traveled half the world with our famous music ensembles and orchestras.

Another interest of mine is the development of our industry. Every Kazakhstani knows that it’s me who has the most detailed and broad photo archive on the development of our oil producer and not only this. I made the shooting of uranium minings and deposits, and other mineral extraction and processing enterprises. Many times I visited each of these oil deposits: such artificial islands as Tenghiz, Karachaganak, Mangyshlak, Zhanaozen, Zhetybai, Kashagan, and the oil refinery Karabotan. I have a photo chronicle of their construction starting from the first peg, first basin, up to first oil extracted – these unique facilities commissioning. 

At that, I was to such places where common people never have any access, and I took pictures from the most risky points – pipes, tower supports, beams, without either safety accessories or fences. At the drilling site that was in the process of building I was lifted on cables as high as the drill tower, for me to shoot the whole process.  

I am passionate about watching the changes that constantly take place in our country, how faces of cities, enterprises, and people working there change. My job allows me to communicate with totally different people of different nationalities, ages, and statuses – from President to a simple shepherd in aul (countryside). They are of different moods and tempers, and I have to try to get on with all of them in order to get an excellent shot. One pleasant fact is that the majority of our people love to appear on photos, but there are persons who you have to talk into it. 

I: Now a few words about the appreciation of your merits. What did you receive Altyn Zhuldyz award for?

AU: I received my first Altyn Zhuldyz for my report on Belukha mountain ascend. I took pictures and wrote the text. My humble merits were thus appreciated by all our society of journalists. Our group of climbers had an objective to test driving performance of a cross-country vehicle “March” on “Niva” basis. We had to drag this vehicle onto glaciers of Belukha. Before it had been dragged along tundra and other complicated landscapes. 

There was a tricky moment when we drove this car up to Rakhmanov wells. And environmental specialists told us that we could destroy the soil cover with our wheels and damage area conservancy. And the driver replied that this car is constructed in such a way that its wheels wouldn’t do any harm even to a human. His companion lies down on the road and “Niva” crosses over him, and after this he gets up safe and sound. I was astounded by it and wished to try it, too. So I take my wide-angle camera and lie down on the road. I feel the car crossing over my body, forewheels go well, and the right wheel got spinning on my right leg, and here I had adrenaline buzz. These were creepy-crawly feelings, but it worked out all right. There were representatives of Mir TV company there, and they were also shooting this moment. They heard me cursing severely, when I was commenting on my desperate behavior. Unfortunately, you realize the danger a little bit too late, when you only have to string yourself up and go all the way, hoping for God’s favour to your reckless actions for the sake of an interesting shot. All this I described and published in Continent magazine. The article was titled “The unknown star is shining”, and for this I got my first Altyn Zhuldyz.

I: And what about the second?

AU: The second Altyn Zhuldyz they awarded me not for my reckless bravery this time, but for my personal contribution into the national journalism. I am certainly happy for this and it’s of big importance for me. Could I dream of this, when I was a schoolboy and wrote my articles for a local newspaper? This award makes me much obliged. Don’t be proud of what you’ve already done; it’s still a long way ahead of you and you have to move on and on, not stopping for a single minute. You must learn new things all the time, not only from masters like Marietta Shaghinyan and Vitaly Peskov, but from young men, too. Even more from young people. They adapt quickly to all the new now, they have unclouded glance and non-hackneyed approach to the shooting. Each has his own perception and vision. I watch constantly the work of my debuting colleagues, but I never forget the lessons of my old teachers. 

Photos from Anatoly Ustinenko’s archive 

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