As travelers and photographers sit at home, many are looking back through their archives, re-editing old photos or stumbling across memories they’ve come to appreciate more with time. Some are taking to the rooftops to capture the new normal, while others take portraits over FaceTime or try to get as creative as possible with the mirror selfie. But Russian photographer Kira Gyngazova saw no reason why lockdown should mean that we have to stop exploring the world, so long as we’re content doing what we already do so often — appreciate it on a screen. Random explorations on Google Street View confirmed to her that the world basically exists virtually, which led to a logical next step for this artistic soul: virtual photography.
When you had the idea, did you think this would work? Usually when I think of street view, I think of images that are kind of low-quality, very busy, and lacking dynamics. These are quite the opposite!
Actually, the idea came to me through pure accident. As I surfed the internet during quarantine downtime, I occasionally decided to go to Google Street View and blindly drop myself in a random city. Soon I found myself literally going down every street and making screenshots of what I saw, already totally submerged into this unusual process and fascinated by the uncanny beauty I could find in these virtual cities. I never thought in the beginning it would work as a project, but then I recognized virtual photography’s artistic capacity. I was attracted to the low-quality and unperfected aesthetic of the raw images, and the idea that I was possibly and probably the first person seeing these actual moments, breaking the boundaries of time and space.
Did you have any places in mind to photograph, or were your destinations completely random?
Mostly I preferred to go faraway small towns or countries where I’ve never been, and thought I would never go — but who knows? Mongolia, for example, was never my 1st choice as a destination; but after being there virtually and gazing out at the infinite deserted landscapes, I am very excited to visit it soon. I just kept landing in random towns and villages in Chile, Uzbekistan and Georgia and then wandering around street by street, searching for the right moment.
How do you create these images with your own style, while using someone else’s (namely Google’s) resources?
The most exciting challenge of this project is working at the intersection of indifferent, robotic Google Street View and human vision that has been shaped by cultural education and always interprets or gives meaning to created scenes. Personally, I tend to look for a composition that features interesting colors and geometry, weird events or human behaviors, maybe unexpected objects — and search for that one perfect moment when all these things come together.
Where was the first place you explored? Where did you explore the longest?
My first ‘destination’ was Dakar, Senegal, and it was probably my longest ‘trip’ too, because there was so much happening in the street. I didn’t want to miss anything. I also spent a lot of time in Africa and Asia as life and nature there is novel compared to what I’m used to from Russia or living in France.
What do you want people looking at these photos to take away from the viewing? Is there a message?
The fact that the whole world is present on the internet is insane, but the way it’s represented is even more bizarre — everything is frozen like a museum exhibition, and with this project I wanted to see Google Street View as a virtual exhibition of life, where life is a performance and people with blurred faces are the archetypes. Google Street View was created for functional reasons: it is a neutral, observational machine and a tool for practical human needs, but also a comprehensive surveillance mechanism that might bring with it the slight discomfort that we are all being watched.
To deal with that, I think artists can use it as a palette of sorts, giving it a second life just by framing certain scenes into conceptual compositions. I found that I could turn this catalogue of “normality” on its head by capturing small absurdities, and end up truly depicting the atmosphere of mystery our lives often possess. I caught many unsuspecting subjects — empty streets, picturesque landscapes, occasional interactions between people, ghost towns, abandoned houses in the middle of nowhere, animals looking disoriented, broken-down cars, fires, and spectacular intersections of events that leave a lot of unanswered questions: what happened here? Who are these people?
Has this project inspired any future travel ideas for you? Perhaps a new ‘bucket list’ destination?
I am very grateful to have made this project because I discovered so many exciting travel destinations for the future: Mongolia, Albania, Senegal, Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Alaska and many many others.
How are you staying creative in lockdown? Is it hard to feel inspired?
Normally I enjoy being home, so staying inside is not something outstanding for me. Obviously, I have never spent so much time locked down, so it is still quite a new experience as for everyone, but honestly I quite enjoy it. It is hard to be bored nowadays, as we have amazing access to intellectual infinity. I am doing a lot of research for future projects, working on a short movie script, and learning video editing as I plan to immerse myself more in video. My routine is reading, watching lectures and movies, practicing ballet and meditation, workout training, and catching up with friends virtually. I try to fill the days with all the colors and shades, like a child who is curious and interested in everything. Making or watching art, writing and reading — these always bring me back to calm serenity. I’m always looking for something that stimulates my imagination. I also like to plan and dream about where I will be, what I will do, and who I will hug in the post quarantine future.
See more from Kira’s street view/virtual photography series on her Instagram. This interview was conducted by Passion Passport editorial manager Joseph Ozment.