Ksenia Kuleshova: from Canon student to Canon Ambassador

Documentary photographer Ksenia Kuleshova discusses her career path and offers advice on how to get ahead in photojournalism.
A group of Abkhaz men sit around a table near the sea playing dominoes under a lamp.

Canon Ambassador Ksenia Kuleshova has been working on her Abkhazia project since she was a student. In this image, a group of Abkhaz men convene in Brehalowka, a popular hangout in the city of Sukhumi. They talk politics and religion, drink lots of black coffee and play chess, backgammon and dominoes, often staying until late into the night. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO640. © Ksenia Kuleshova

Russian-born freelance photojournalist Ksenia Kuleshova has a curiosity for stories that has led to a flourishing career. She began her professional life in public relations in Moscow before changing direction in 2011. "Photography was never my dream," she says. "It wasn't love at first sight. I studied and worked in public relations but felt trapped, so I thought, 'What can I do?' I decided to move to Europe and chose Germany." Upon enrolling on the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography course at Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Ksenia set out to learn not one but two new languages – German and photography.

The 32-year-old Canon Ambassador, who also took part in the 2017 Canon Student Development Programme, has since been published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and is now working towards a Master's degree in photography at Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Her career trajectory, even as a student, has been shaped by unique personal documentary projects that have resulted in awards such as the 2020 W. Eugene Smith Grant for student photographers. Here, Ksenia discusses her career path to date, and shares her insights on how to succeed in the field of photojournalism.

Beneath a cloudy sky, tourists sit on a pebble beach in Abkhazia, while children play in the waves.

Almost all beaches in Abkhazia, a popular tourist destination, are pebble. In recent years, the number of visitors has decreased because tours to nearby Turkey have become cheaper. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Ksenia Kuleshova

How did you discover photography and why did it appeal to you?

"My father was into photography and, when scanning old films of his, I discovered he had photographed my entire childhood. When I decided to move to Germany, I started researching what to study. At the time, I didn't speak German, so I knew I couldn't study law or medicine, but I had always been interested in art. I found a university I liked and the photojournalism and documentary photography programme sounded really interesting. I liked that it wasn't just photography, but that the main idea was to tell stories."

What did you do as a student to further your career?

"I had already changed my mindset from student to professional while I was in Moscow. After moving, I realised it was time to invest in myself and my future stories, so I spent the first four years while at university in Hannover discovering who I was. It was important for me to develop myself as a person in order to make interesting and truthful work. I travelled a lot and visited many events and exhibitions. I was selected for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung German scholarship programme. The work the foundation does focuses on the core ideas and values of social democracy. It also works to support students. Other students were from fields such as law, politics and medicine. The scholarship gave me the opportunity to regularly attend seminars with the other recipients. We discussed diverse topics about Eastern Europe or what was happening in Syria or Israel, for example, and different guests and speakers were invited. All of this enriched my learning experience."

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A young village girl in a short pink dress stands behind a rusty metal gate. She is fascinated by something in the distance.

In this image taken in the alpine village of Pskhu in Abkhazia, the attention of a young girl is piqued by something just outside the frame. The majority of inhabitants in Pskhu are Russian. "The village is hard to reach and some Abkhazians have never been there," says Ksenia. "I travelled for two days by car with my Abkhaz friends. It is also accessible by a small plane, although there are no regular flights." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100. © Ksenia Kuleshova

What advice would you give to students who want to invest in themselves and their careers?

"You need time to discover yourself and find out what you want from photography. For me, attending political-focused seminars was helpful. I got inspiration from students who had different aims in life. I travelled a lot and sometimes didn't even have a camera with me. Nowadays, everybody is rushing to find a project, but take time to figure out the story you really want to tell. It's important to work with your fears and hesitations. If you are afraid of something – to start a new project or to work on a particular assignment, for example – there is your point of growth. When you overcome your fear, you'll grow personally and professionally. If I hesitate, if I'm afraid, I know I have to try it out. From a kit point of view, I would recommend buying your favourite lens, which for me is a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM). I also like using the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM for assignments."

You have been working on your Abkhazia project since you were an undergraduate. How did your approach to photography develop while making this work?

"Abkhazia means 'country of the soul' and the idea was to find and show the soul of this region. After the Georgian-Abkhazian war in the early 1990s, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia, but this is recognised by only a few countries. During my studies, I worked on small projects but didn't feel they were in my photographic language – I didn't see myself in the pictures. But with the Abkhazia work, I felt inspired by the pictures I was making, and knew I was using the right visual approach. When I first arrived in Abkhazia and saw the variety of stories to tell, the beauty and events I could photograph, I thought, 'Wow, I feel connected to this place and I want to discover the region, and perhaps make a long-term project about it.' I started shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and then borrowed a Canon EOS 5D Mark III for the next trip before buying a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. I love the speed of the EOS 5D Mark IV. When something is happening, I push the button and can make many shots while not losing the moment."

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An Abkhaz woman wearing an orange scarf around her head picks ripe tomatoes in a large greenhouse.

In Kindgi village, Abkhazia, tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in large greenhouses (known as 'teplici') for the local market. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO400. © Ksenia Kuleshova

How did the Canon Student Development Programme help further your career?

"The Canon Student Development Programme was an important experience for me. I had lots of meetings and conversations with photojournalism professionals, and, alongside the general feedback, I made new friends and built long-term relationships. It was also an opportunity to show my ongoing Abkhazia project to a big audience, including James Estrin from The New York Times' Lens blog, who subsequently published it. After the programme, the project was chosen to be screened at the Visa pour l'Image international festival of photojournalism. It was great visibility, that led to further collaborations."

What is your opinion on portfolio reviews and finding a mentor?

"Portfolio reviews are very important. Listen to every piece of advice you receive, but don't take anything personally because it's your story and perhaps not all people understand it. And that's okay. Sometimes during a discussion with a reviewer, you will have ideas of how you want to develop a story or stories. It's not about another professional telling you what to do; it's about reflecting on the story and how you can go further. I have a few people who I really trust to whom I can show my work. People tend not to have many close friends and it's the same with reviewers – you can only trust a few people.

Three women in bikinis enjoy the natural hot springs in Kyndyg, Abkhazia.

The village of Kyndyg in Abkhazia is renowned for its famous 'healing' hot springs. In this delightful image, three women enjoy a natural hydro-massage. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © Ksenia Kuleshova

How did you achieve your first paid assignment?

"My first paid assignment was for The Wall Street Journal. Lead photo editor Margaret Keady sent me an email saying she had been following my work for some time and that she had a two-day assignment for me. At the time I didn't think it was possible to get an assignment via email when I hadn't yet introduced myself. The story was about Second World War bomb removal procedures in Lower Saxony, northwest Germany. I wrote back saying it was my first professional assignment, and Margaret was so kind and encouraging. I was very nervous and felt a responsibility to be a real professional when working for such a media outlet, but everything went well."

How did you become a Canon Ambassador?

"After my work was screened at Visa pour l'Image, I was invited, as an alumni of the Canon Student Development Programme, to participate in the session again. I continued doing stories that I thought were right, and probably gained more visibility because of my participation in awards and because of the assignments I was doing. One day I got a call from Canon saying they had been following my work and were thinking of me as a Canon Ambassador candidate. I was very grateful to receive that call. I have always used Canon equipment and it is great to be able to represent the brand that I truly trust and rely on. It's very important that a company such as Canon has initiatives in place to help those throughout the industry, supporting not just professionals but also students in their career development."

Lorna Dockerill

• Applications for the 2021 Canon Professional Development Week are open to students from across EMEA. Eligible applicants must be 18 as of 9 June 2021 and be enrolled in an educational institution or have completed an education program in the 2020-2021 academic year, or be introduced by agencies/magazines or engaged in internships in the same period. To apply, submit a portfolio with one or two stories, each consisting of up to 20 fully captioned images, with an accompanying description or synopsis, along with details of your school, institute or university, a short photographer's bio and, if available, a supporting letter of presentation from a professor or editor, before 9 June 2021. For more information, visit Future Focus.

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