Sasha Leahovcenco is a photographer originally from the Republic of Moldova, but who moved to Fresno, Calif., about three years ago. Inspired by Help-Portrait, he traveled to Chukotka, Russia, for a unique opportunity to share the gift of photography with people who live at the literal ends of the earth. Traveling into the very deep Tundra where small tribal groups of reindeer herders live, he stayed photographed them in their everyday life. He calls it “a life-changing experience,” citing his experience at a hospital for children with tuberculosis as “the most memorable.” We talked with Sasha about his experience, his motivation and how everyone can give back with whatever they have in their hands.
How did you get into photography?
It’s interesting, but I never thought I would be a photographer. The only reason I started is because I couldn’t find a job on the campus of the university where I was studying, and the only available position was photographer for the university scrapbook. So I took several pictures send it to my brother-in-law Ross, he edited them and sent me back, and with those pictures I showed up on the interview and presented my portfolio. Next thing I remember, I was sitting reading “DSLR Camera for Dummies.”
What’s your favorite type of work?
I really enjoy photo-journalistic work. For the most time I photograph weddings, and being a wedding photographer allows me to capture a unique story of very important day in life of different couples.
Also, I like editorial work, and this trip allowed me to push myself more in this direction.
How did you learn about Help-Portrait?
I believe first time I heard about Help-Portrait was from my brother-in-law Ross, founder of Flosites, when he started building a new site for H-P.
Sasha with the kids from the hospital (sashaleahovcenco.com)
What about it inspired you to do a similar project?
The whole idea of making someone’s life better even with a such small thing as a photograph was enough for me to step up and try to make a difference.
What brought you to Chukotka, Russia?
Two years ago I became friend with a man who was a missionary in Pevek, Chukotka (northest city in Russia), and he invited me to come and just photograph life of people who live there. And since than I always wanted to come, but never had time and possibility. And last summer I went to Moldova to visit my family, and my friend was also in Moldova at the time. Both of us had busy schedules, yet we still met for about 20 minutes, and once again he invited me to come to Chukotka. I knew next year will be very busy for me, so I decided to come during the winter break. There were a lot of challenges due to my work schedule, financial problems, my car broke down just before the trip, yet I got on the plane and went to Chukotka.
Sasha with reindeer herders inside the yaranga (sashaleahovcenco.com)
How did you choose the places where you would photograph?
I visited 2 cities, 2 villages, and the Tundra (where I photographed reindeer herders). In total I hosted about 10 different Help-Portrait events.
Prior to the trip I planned some of them ahead with the local people I knew, and some just came right there on the spot, such as event I did in a hospital for kids with tuberculosis.
How long were you there?
I was there for a month.
Were you alone? What did you bring with you?
No, I came with another five people who were organizing different events and social projects for kids, teenagers and youth.
I could bring only limited amount of stuff due to weight limits of Russian airports. I had warm clothes, as the temperature there were getting down to -45F. And my photo equipment – couple of camera bodies, couple of lenses, flashes, stands, umbrellas, portables printer and lots of photo paper.
Tell us about some of the people you met. Had they been photographed before?
I met a lot of different people; those who’ve been photographed before, those who haven’t been photographed, and those who barely knew anything about photos.
Assistants in the Tundra (sashaleahovcenco.com)
What do you think what you did meant to them?
If I would choose one word to say, it would be “memory.” More than that – “good memories.” And let me explain why. Eight months during the year – it’s winter there. More than that half of this time, people don’t see sun, because its just don’t raise up. People are just depressed.
Sights that you would think would never happen is part of the daily life everyday and everywhere in Chukotka. And when I was photographing them, that was the moment when they actually could smile and forget all their troubles and problems in life and feel happy for a minute, and I would capture that on a photo, which they will cherish, I believe for the rest their life.
What did it mean to you?
Maybe some people would look at the photos, and say that it’s not that big of a deal. But for me, as a photographer, that’s how I can give back and serve people. And as someone said: “We have not lived today if we hadn’t made even something for those who will never be able to pay us back.”
On your site you say I believe this life is not about what we can get, but what we can give. In what ways can photography give back?
I don’t think photography in general can give back. But it’s life as photographers that we live, which can give back. I believe every person on this planet is talented in one way or another, and this talent is not just for us, but also that’s how we can serve and give back to the people around us. And each of us need to ask what you’ve got in your hands. I’ve got a camera, and with that camera I can give back and serve others.
For more photos from the trip, visit sashaleahovcenco.com.