Surreal, mystical and mysterious – this is the best way to describe Alisa Martynova’s Sleeping Pill project. Her imaginary diary visualises dreams she had during the coronavirus lockdown, giving outer expression to emotional, inner worlds. In this interview, the photographer speaks about the cinema inside her head, the elusive abilities of the mind, and the fine line between introspection and openness towards the environment.
At what point in your life did you start with photography?
I started doing photography 5 years ago when I finished my Philology degree back in Russia. I was looking for something that would let me express myself, and relate to different people, so I chose photography. At an early stage, I was mesmerised by the darkroom process: with all its rituals and solutions it seemed like magic to me.
How would you describe the essence of your project, Sleeping Pill, in a few sentences?
While researching for the project, I bumped into a phrase from the first Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton from 1924, that perfectly expresses the idea of the project. I’d like to cite it here:
The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent… Fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you should die, are you not certain of re-awaking among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless.
How did this project come about? Was there an initial event, thought, etc?
Every morning at breakfast my sweetheart and I would say to each other, “You know that strange thing that I dreamt about last night?” Almost everybody around me noticed that their dreams became much more elaborate. For me, it was like going to the cinema each time I placed my head on the pillow. I would dream about people I hadn’t seen for years; some critical situation with no way out; wild animals. My sweetheart was keeping a journal of our days in lockdown, so at some point, I decided to bring the things together and make an imagery sleeping journal.
Your images are surreal, dreamy and somehow calming. What is the main thing you want to express?
It’s been quite remarkable noting how powerful our minds are. The moment we couldn’t go out physically, our minds began to create a whole, parallel, get-away universe, trying to elaborate on the situation we found ourselves in. Sleeping Pill came up as a way of staying present and keeping track of the endless space. Now when the situation is calming down, I feel that it was an opportunity to look inward and to reconnect with ourselves, our past and present – dreams being a representation of the infinite resource of our minds.
What camera did you use and how did it feel to work with it?
I used a Leica SL with 50mm and 35mm lenses. It felt stunning to work with it! It’s a little heavy, but the colours and texture of the photographs are incredible, and it responded perfectly to anything I needed to do.
What roles do artificial light and post-processing play in your photography?
I love the magic of creating light physically on location. It gives me a unique chance to be present on the photograph, to change the atmosphere completely and make a sort of a parallel dimension in reality. Apart from using a flash, I like being guided by natural light, by its slowness and the way you have to wait for it; and also by the opportunity to interfere with it, to use all sorts of things that may reflect, colour or shade it in a clever way. As for post-processing, I hardly ever use it – only to highlight certain things in the image that are already there.
You allow the viewer a deeper look into your mind, and I suppose it’s not that simple to visually combine what you see and what you feel. What would you recommend to people who want to go on such a photographic journey themselves?
It takes a great deal to process the events and pictures inside your head. I usually get inspired by something outside, and then I try to find a metaphor that may represent it photographically. It’s a tricky combination of being open to the world and being introspective. You have to analyse yourself and reality, looking at things through a special lens inside you. It isn’t easy, but it’s a very special feeling when you are able to see in front of you the images that would otherwise only live in your head. It was a lot of fun making Sleeping Pill, for example. One of my friends told me, she was chased by a swarm of bees in her dream, so I kept this in my head for a couple of weeks and then suddenly found an empty beehive in my garden. For another photograph, I had to learn how to make a tornado in a jar. Sometimes, in order to express something you have to reinvent it.
What comes first for you – the idea of expressing something of your inner self, or an interesting scenery/motif?
I guess the idea comes first; or, better said, an input that makes me curious about something. So far I always found myself driven by something that moves me, or something that I don’t understand clearly and to which I want to find an answer. The next thing that I usually do is to research the matter – scientifically and/or by asking other people about it. The scenarios in Sleeping Pill came mostly from the dreams of people around me, but also from things that inspired me in reality.
Do you have any plans or wishes for future projects?
Absolutely! At the moment I’m working on a new project about white émigrés, mostly aristocratic Russian families who fled the Empire after the Revolution of 1917 and settled beyond its borders. Right now I’m working with families in Italy, but I’m looking forward to expanding the project to the rest of Europe.
Alisa Martynova was born in Orenburg, Russia, in 1994. After finishing studies in Foreign Philology in her home country, she graduated in 2019 from a Professional Photography, three-year program at the Fondazione Studio Marangoni in Florence, Italy. During her studies she was an assistant for the Riverboom photography collective. In 2018 she presented her work at the Leica Store Florence. In 2019 she was the winner of the Photography category of Premio Combat Prize, and won second place in the Premio Canon Young Photographers. In the autumn of 2019, Martynova’s work was projected on the opening night of Les Rencontres d’Arles. At the same time she was on the finalist shortlist for the Photolux Award 2019, and the PH Museum Women Photographers Grant. At the beginning of 2020, she was selected to participate in Giovane Fotografia Italiana, a part of the Festival Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, and became the winner of the Zine Tonic Book Award. Martynova currently lives and works in Florence, Italy. Find out more about her work on her Instagram page and website.