Sasha Leahovcenco Travels to the End of the Earth
According to the bio on Sasha Leahovcenco’s website, he’s a “Soviet man” who was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova. Today, Sasha resides in the relatively warm climate of Sacramento, California but recently ventured to the far corner of Siberia to photograph a local community who had never had their photo taken as part of the Help-Portrait project.. We were intrigued by the story and tracked Sasha down to find out more about the experience and just what it is like to work in some of the coldest conditions on the planet.
As quoted by Sasha, “We visited people who have never had visitors in their life, stopping by every village and tribe on the way, giving them warm clothes, shoes, gifts, and simply showing them grace and love. The very exciting part of the trip was taking pictures of the natives, printing them on the spot, and handing them to the villagers. This was the very first time that these people had ever had their photo taken. As we travel, our video crew will be documenting the lives of the locals who live in the harmony with nature. We wanted to hear about their lives, struggles, resilience and where they see themselves in this rapidly changing world.”
1. What were the challenges of working in such extreme cold?
Extreme cold was THE challenge, and everything which came with it. It’s very uncomfortable to shoot when you have 8 layers of clothing, and heavy gloves, which barely allow you to press the shutter. Heavy wind makes it impossible to set up any softbox or umbrella. Cold weather kills your LCD display, your battery and doesn’t allow you to breathe, unless you don’t need your viewfinder. And the light – which is horrible. You have no sun at all.
2. Did everything work or did the cold impact performance?
I got lucky with the weather the day we arrived to the reindeer herders; it was about -25F to -35F, which wasn’t that bad compared to the weather I experienced before the trip. Luckily all the gear worked.
3. How did your PocketWizard radios work in the cold?
PocketWizards worked great. Even in extreme cold weather and sometimes long distances never had misfired flashes (I used Canon 580ex II).
4. How much photo gear did you bring?
Every time I go outside the country I try to bring as little gear as possible. Especially when I know I will be traveling a lot. And this trip was the hardest. We had an 11hr+ trip on the snowmobiles in -40 to -60F weather, and we had limited space in the sled, so I brought only one bag (ThinkTank Airport International) to carry all my gear. I had a Canon 5D Mark II and a 7D for back-up. Lenses included a 35mm 1.4, 50 1.4 and 85 1.8. Flashes were three Canon 580EX II flashes
5. What should photo companies know about working in extreme conditions like this?
They need to know that they did a great job. All the gear worked till -35F temperature; that’s when my camera stopped recognizing the lens on the camera body, and flash would stop turning on. But I think there are a couple of things photographers need to know when it comes to working in extreme cold weather. One of the most important is – don’t forget about condensation. When you take your camera and gear from outside (-25 to -35F in this case) to inside (60 to 70F) you’re gonna have to deal with all the condensation inside the camera. And sometimes it would take a couple of hours for the camera to dry out.
Another thing is you probably won’t be able to use LCD display. The crystals freeze and they just don’t work, so you really need to know how to nail your exposure without looking at the screen.
And lastly – don’t breathe! Unless you want your viewfinder look like this…
6. Lighting looked like it played a big part in your portraits, can you talk about how you lit things and why you did it the way you did.
In Chukotka (part of Russia located above arctic circle), during the winter, the sun doesn’t go above the horizon. So on a good day you have 3-4 hours of barely any light and then the next 20 hours is pitch black. You can imagine what kind of lighting I had to deal with. That’s why I used off camera flash to get some time. And the reason why I used one light and not two or three is very simple. It’s hard to set up lights in -35F. I used umbrella just because it was my back up lighting modifier; my soft boxes broke due to the heavy wind.
7. What’s your next big project?
I’m planning to go to Philippines this December to photograph people who never had a picture taken or lost all their photos due to this unbelievable disaster.
8. What piece of gear came in handy that you didn’t plan on?
Heating pads. I would wrap camera body with them in order to keep it warm and working.
9. What else would another photographer headed to the arctic want to know that you learned on this trip?
You can’t be prepared for it, but make sure to prepare the best you can. 1) Clothing – most important. It will save your life and fingers. 2) Don’t underestimate cold. It can kill you or damage you pretty badly. That’s where I made my mistake and took my gloves off for 20 min which resulted in frostbitten fingers for 6 month. 3) Take only the most necessary gear. You won’t be able to use everything anyways.
All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and © Sasha Leahovcenco, all rights reserved; story is © PocketWizard. Please respect and support photographer’s rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.