The psyche is part of the inmost mystery of life, and it has its own peculiar structure and form like every other organism.Carl Jung
We look onto the outside world from the inside. It is a perspective we come to accept as direct experience, yet it is more complex than that. The mind interprets the senses and constructs an idea of the outside world. One which, over time, we find to be more or less consistent and sustained. But it remains a mental construct, one shaped in part by something that did not originate outside but comes from within. For the religious, it is the spirit, something that exists beyond our material selves. For the evolutionary psychologist, it is the hardwiring of survival strategies that were re-adapted, reinterpreted to new circumstances as humans became more self-consciously aware and civilisations began to accrete. For the analytical psychologist Carl Jung, it is the mysterious psyche that blends that which is unique to the individual with that which is shared in common. There is a personal unconscious based on things we have experienced and then forgotten or suppressed. And there is a collective unconscious, which exists within us but did not originate in the senses and yet is shared with others. “And this”, he wrote, “is the mother, the matrix – the form into which all experience is poured.”
For the Ukrainian artist Evgeniy Zaets, it is the relationship between what is inside and what is outside that drives his creative exploration. Working intuitively, his process dances between what he perceives and what he feels. Between empathic attunement and his own interior sensibility. He is trying, as far as is possible, to bring forth a uniquely personal art that nonetheless resonates with others, not because it follows the styles and traditions of art but through something deeper. Something primal that connects us even as we are each distinct and separate within ourselves.
And much of this has been achieved while his homeland is at war. Powerless to change the tumult outside, he has been guided by a determination to remain true to his inner, personal self. As Carl Jung argued, the purpose of life is to discover and fulfill our unique, innate potential. For Evgeniy Zaets, this has been far from easy and yet, for him, there was quite simply no other way. What he cannot change he must endure in order to discover that innate potential. To be authentically himself. For this has been a time of self-realisation that is, in his own words, an overture to strength.
What drew you to photography as your chosen medium of expression?
More often than not, I don’t make decisions by thinking it through, I just surrender to intuition. That was what happened with photography. When I was fourteen years old, I had a simple digital camera and, walking in Kyiv, I photographed the bridge. I liked that photo so much that I told my friends that I was going to be a photographer, even though I knew nothing about photography at all at the time. After that, I didn’t notice how I became one.
When did you begin?
I have lived this idea of being a photographer for ten years, but I did not shoot much. What I did shoot was not like what other photographers shot. My family did not like it. They found it strange and judged me. This created a turbulence in me; I did not want to reveal myself, to be judged. So, for seven years, I was just interested in photography. I looked a lot, read a lot, and occasionally took pictures…
What do you photograph?
I am very interested in the inner world of people. I am empathic by nature, I feel other people, their emotions, states, intentions… Initially, I knew nothing about empathy, and I found it difficult to live with. I found that I was adopting the emotional states of other people and really did not know what was happening to me. It was when I was overwhelmed by these sensations that I started making photographs. At such moments, something directly inside me demanded that I give this energy an outlet. Creativity is what allows me to express these feelings, releasing that energy.
I don’t think about how I am going to take a photo. I just start with something and surrender to wherever it leads me. Sometimes I know what my photography is about, sometimes this insight only comes later. For me, creativity is a dialogue between my subconscious and other people, which is happening through the image.
[Left] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘I Hear’ 2021
[Right] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Air Raid’ 2022
How, as an artist, have you adapted to the violent events in Ukraine?
I accept everything as it is. I am not happy with what’s happening, but it’s happening, and there’s no point in wishing otherwise. Meanwhile, I continue to do what I can, when I can. We seem to live under the oppression of endless difficulties for our country. Such a situation does not bring freedom in life or in creativity. For example, in wartime you do not walk freely with a camera, you do not take photographs outdoors. To do so makes you appear suspicious. The military have detained me to check what I was doing, all because I had photographed an owl.
We are a bright people capable of creating beauty. Instead, we must constantly fight against darkness because the darkness does not want us to shine. But the darkness won’t succeed.
Tell me about ‘Ordered Chaos’.
I noticed that many people live as though they are following certain algorithms, like biorobots. Living among stereotypes may suit some people, but it bores me. I want uniqueness, unpredictability, adventure, but what kind of adventure is it where you repeat the same thing day after day? What kind of adventure can there be if you always follow someone else’s rules? Repeating what has already been established, what has already been accepted… If we do that, we simply become comfortable, obedient cogs in the system.
Everyone thinks they know what is beautiful, what is ugly, what is good, and what is bad. I prefer not to know anything, and to look for what is supposedly disharmonious. Repetition is exhausting. People even produce algorithms for creativity, indulging in whatever is fashionable, but you can sense when a person does not really care about the thing they are exploring. Algorithmic people have no courage, no challenge, they just conform to what is already there. I came to realise that, through this series, I wanted to bring chaos to the order of algorithms.
Much of your work looks inwards. What it is you seek and how you have gone about visualising this in your work?
Once upon a time, I was struck by the phrase [from Goethe]: “What is inside, is outside”. It became the entry point into the inner world. Getting to know yourself is a lifelong process. Many people avoid knowing themselves. They run away from themselves, dissolving into work, into alcohol, into other people. They constantly hide behind the things that are outside, behind material possessions. They only know themselves through what others say about them, they are vulnerable to judgment. Alone with themselves, they feel an emptiness that they must fill with anything, just to feel less empty.
I don’t want to buy into being manipulated. I don’t waste my life on things I don’t need. I fill my emptiness with self-knowledge. And the wonderful thing is that when you know yourself, you know others. Then you can help those who are confused, those who have fallen under someone else’s influence. Life is the road home, and our home is inside of us. Concentrating on the inside, I am returning home.
[Left] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Wake Up’ 2022 from the series ‘Remembering Yourself’
[Right] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Are You All Good?’ 2022 from the series ‘Remembering Yourself’
You studied photography at the MYPH School of Conceptual and Art Photography in Mykolaiv. How did this influence the way you now work?
It was in 2019, and it was during my time in the school that my creativity completely changed. When I started, I was not in the best condition, but I knew that I wanted to find my place in art. One evening, a message came from the MYPH school that they were recruiting students. I took it as an omen.
When I began my studies, my creativity was timid. But during the lessons the teacher, Sergey Melnitchenko, showed the work of many other photographers and I came to a very important realisation: You need to be bolder! Create from what is within. Don’t worry about being judged, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. And so, thanks to the school, I slowly began to become what I had dreamed of, an artist.
How did your series ‘Insomnia’ begin?
It was at the end of 2019, when everything I relied on collapsed: relationships, work, my bank account was empty, and then I got sick… I had to sell my camera to pay for medical treatment. I didn’t know what to do. I lost my bearings. I was shattered. I could not sleep for worrying what would happen next. Everything that I relied on was lost. All I had was the room in which I lived.
Then I decided push on, creating work in my room. It did not matter whether I could make a living from my creativity. I would continue independently. Creativity has never made me money, but it is what I love. Art gives me the freedom to be myself, to express myself. It was creativity that helped me live through this period. I didn’t want to be the kind of person who gets a job I hate just because it’s there. I don’t need money if I’m unhappy with the way I’m living my life.
In this series I lived all of this. It was a reset of life. A re-prioritisation. Looking back at that time, I realise that I needed all those challenges. It was a kind of overture to strength. That point, when everything was so depressing, became a quantum leap into a better life.
[Left] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ 2020 from the series ‘Insomnia’
[Right] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Silence’ 2020 from the series ‘Insomnia’
Do you see these images as psychodramas?
Yes, there was a period when I fell into drama, but there was no intention to linger there. I think for me the staged psychodramas broke the vessel of drama. Of course, I had read the psychology. It’s a cool experience to dramatise oneself, now I know how to avoid sliding too far into it. So, then I started to work by combining images. I was bored with ordinary photos. I wanted to go further, create my own world by blending different images. This is a fascinating process. I often do not know which images I will combine. I just choose a frame, and then I go in search of another frame that will be friends with the first…
[Left] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Soluble’ 2022 from the series ‘Remembering Yourself’
[Right] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘I See Everything’ 2022 from the series ‘Remembering Yourself’
Tell me about ‘Remembering Yourself’.
From childhood I felt like an old man. I had a contrary opinion on almost everything. I didn’t like what the majority liked, but I remained silent about it. It seemed everything was arranged in the world and my disagreeing with it was simply because I was odd. As a child, when I talked about disagreeing with something, my father would say: “Who do you think you are? Do you think you are better than everyone else?” But I didn’t want to be better… or worse… I just wanted to be myself.
Because of the condemnation, I suppressed many things in myself and tried to behave in the ways people around me expected. I hid my thoughts, my opinions, so that others would not seek to persuade me to change them. In this way, I wanted to keep my individuality. I became withdrawn, selective about who I communicated with. But I hid everything so deeply that I began to lose myself. The images in this series express how I felt in this reality, and how, in time, I pulled myself back from the shadows. What helped me do this was being in nature, reading, creativity, music… As this series progressed, I changed a lot. I opened up and ceased being silent.
[Left] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Compliant’ 2022
[Right] © Evgeniy Zaets ‘Immensity’ 2022 from the series ‘Remembering Yourself’
You use strong colours in your work…
I love colour. I feel it carries a lot of life and emotion. They say there is a language of flowers; I want to speak the language of colour. I am particularly attracted to the colour in film photography. I do not find digital images so satisfying, the colour is not alive, it’s too mechanical. I started reading books about colour, but what I read was so confusing. I thought that understanding how to work with colour was something unattainable. But I persevered and came to find what it is that I like. Since then, I have been wanting to paint everything with colour.
How do you survive as an artist?
It’s financially difficult because I never think about money when I am creating work. Yet, despite the lack of money, everything is great. I do what I love and that fulfills me. I’m not going to give up, even if I don’t become ‘successful’. I’ll keep creating. I will live my life doing what I love so much, without regretting anything.
Evgeniy Zaets was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1991. He has been developing his art as a photographer since 2011, focusing his research mainly on the body and how the photographic medium can reflect one’s inner expression and life. He graduated from MYPH School of Conceptual and Art Photography in Mykolaiv in 2020. Since graduating he has presented his work in five exhibitions: the MYPH graduate exhibition (2020); Photo Kyiv Fair (2020); ‘Reflection of Reality’ at the Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv (2021); ‘MYPH’ at the Dymchuk Gallery, Kyiv (2022); and a special exhibition of Ukrainian art presented in Paris by ArtEast Gallery (2022). His work has featured in two books, ‘MYPH’ (Rodovid 2022) and ‘Emerging Art in Ukraine’ (CP Publishing 2022), and in a number of online publications including LensCulture (Netherlands). He lives and works in Kyiv.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.