An Interview with Emmie America: Defiant Russian Photographer and LGBTQ+ Activist

In 2021, photographer and fashion activist Emmie America was arrested and fined by Russian authorities after she staged a politically charged photo shoot in Moscow where 25 participants dressed in police uniforms surrounded the word ‘Freedom’ written in snow.

The Russian-born photographer, who has worked with brands such as Vogue, Urban Outfitters, Guess and Calvin Klein, was charged by police with “organizing a protest”.

Since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, America has used its voice and sizable social media following to express its solidarity with the people of Ukraine and raise awareness of ways to aid the country’s ongoing war effort.

Euronews Culture spoke to Emmie America to find out more about her experiences working with Vogue, promoting LGBTQ+ rights and the changes in her life since the Russian occupation.

How would you describe your job?

“I mainly work in fashion images, but over time my work has become inherently more political. My work is very narrative-oriented. I’m always inspired by characters and stories. I feel like I try to create certain universes, where I place small details with hidden meanings of Easter eggs.”

“I want my photos to look like they’re stills from a movie, rather than orchestrated fashion shots. I try to light things the same way, where I light the scene and not the person.”

How did you get into photography?

“I started taking pictures when I was really young. It was kind of an impulsive thing, which I’m really grateful for now because I didn’t care if my work was good. I was a teenager so I just did it because I liked it.”

“When I was 13, I got a camera for Christmas and that was the era where DSLRs were just becoming a big thing. And initially, photography just kind of became this medium through which I could create within fashion without making things physically. not a crafty person – I hate doing things with my hands.”

“And then I went to art school and started reading photography theory – that’s where I really dug in and realized that photography is so unique. It has this incredible ability to make us believe in things and place us in worlds that are not true.”

Which photography project are you most proud of?

“I would probably say my Vogue Russia cover. First of all, it was my childhood dream – I remember being a kid and collecting Vogues. I remember saying to myself: ‘Don’t worry if you don’t get to shoot for them. , This is good. You can still be a good photographer and not make it to Vogue’. So to get this cover when I was 24 felt surreal.”

“But somewhat more important was the fact that it was the first cover with the new editor and she really wanted to change the direction of the magazine. It was a political cover about the protests in Russia being silenced and people not having a voice. Its title it was called “Hear Us”.

What is your relationship with your homeland, Russia?

“It’s like a very toxic family. I love Russia. I love so many people there and it’s been so formative for me in so many ways. But it hurts so much to see what’s happening.”

“I was one of those people who really believed that we could change things – but since the war in Ukraine was started by Russia, that just doesn’t seem like an option anymore.”

“It feels really emotional and scary that you can’t be a part of this big part of you anymore. You have to distance yourself, you have to leave, and you have to figure out how to reinvent yourself.”

“It’s a really hard thing to realize that something that’s a natural part of you is so toxic.”

“Over the last few years I’ve done a lot of different kinds of activist work in Russia for freedom in a lot of different ways. So now you feel like it was all kind of pointless, because nothing I’m going to do is going to make up for the amount of loss. and the pain that is now caused by that place… it’s a really hard thing to go through.”

Have you received any negativity or hate since the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

“A little, but I’d say less than I’ve ever expected. I mean, I’m very vocal in my stance on current events. And generally, I think that’s enough for people to believe you, especially when you have constantly expressed opinion even before the invasion”.

A common theme present in your photography is the idea of ​​’home’. You currently live in New York, but where is your home?

“I mean I struggled with this question even before the war. I was sent to England to study when I was 10, and then I moved to America when I was 15 and lived here until I was 20 before I came back in Russia. So I think in general this idea of ​​home has always been a very complicated idea.”

“I still feel like Moscow is home and I love it very much. But it’s a bubble inside Moscow that I love. And now it’s just bursting really fast. Now I don’t feel like there’s a safe space in Moscow anymore. .”

What was it like to get banned and fined for your ‘Freedom’ photo shoot?

“It’s so funny because when it happened it seemed so dramatic and then a year later things like this are happening every day. When I got arrested everyone was crazy. There were conversations on Telegram with all the Russian media people saying, ‘Who do you have a lawyer? Who can get him out?’

“It was a very surreal experience. It was very funny to watch it from the inside and see how dysfunctional and pointless everything was. I felt incredibly guilty for all the people I dragged into it, but I think it resonated. it was worth it in the end”.

Much of your work focuses on the experiences of queer communities and promoting LGBTQ+ equality. What does gay pride mean to you?

“It’s just being comfortable with who you are and not being afraid. And I think you just don’t have to think about it honestly. Just enjoying life and how you want to live it.”

“I grew up with a lesbian mother in Russia, and she was very afraid. And I don’t want anyone to go through what she went through.”

Do you feel a responsibility to represent the LGBTQ+ community in your work?

“Of course. I mean I feel a responsibility to represent all those who are underrepresented. But also my work often stems from very personal things. So a lot of times it’s illusions about real people in my life and real situations. that I’ve been through. So there’s definitely a lot of different weird stuff that pops up often and I always try to stay aware of that.”

Your activism is more important than ever as the Russian parliament has recently moved to tighten restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights. What can people do to support LGBTQ+ equality and rights?

“Honestly, just be loud. Don’t be afraid. More people need to find the inspiration, the courage to speak up, because when the turmoil gets too strong, no matter how hard you try, you can’t calm it down. When Fire it’s too big, you can’t have enough water to put it out.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Watch the video above to hear the full interview with Emmie America

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