30 January 2017

Kazakhstan’s Isolated Modelling Industry

Although the ninth largest country in the world with a population of over 17 million people, the modelling industry in Kazakhstan is distinctly minute. It’s alleged that just one model, Alyona Subbotina, is the only native to cross borders and forge an international career in New York. Because of this, she’s a role model for thousands of Kazakh girls looking to follow in her footsteps and uncover the utopian qualities of life beyond the border. Seduced by promises of a life amongst the fashion world, the girls go all in for a career where the odds have proved to be against them. Instead, it’s the Russian government that acts as a barrier between aspiring models and the visa that can turn their dreams into reality in a heartbeat.

Australian photographer, Daniel King visited Kazakhstan in order to find out more about the country’s modelling industry. While there, he spent time with models and their families, shooting them and learning about their aspirations, as well as a sense of the circumstances that mean, for most girls, such dreams are just that. But, given the challenges faced by nationals attempting to travel around Europe, let alone the US due to their ties to Russia, King tells me that he still found that there was a sense of optimism.

what drew you to Kazakhstan?
I’m always looking for interesting places, untold stories and the general unknown to explore. One thing that really came up was the people of Central Asia; it’s a mix of Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, Persian – just a fascinating part of the world in terms of people. Kazakhstan is a big country but still has a small culture in terms of modelling.

how do the girls feel about the modeling industry in the country?
There is a real optimism and it’s definitely achievable but a lot of Western modelling agencies simply won’t take the girls on. They have real issues travelling anywhere in Europe and especially the US because of the ties to the Russian government and its influence on how easy it is to get visas. That made it quite difficult to grasp the real personal hopes and about their aspirations for the future.

It’s meant that a lot of their realistic ambitions are geared towards China and the eastern world. And if you think, they’re quite special when they go to Asia because they don’t have (epicanthal) folds in their eyes and do have this Russian influence/white mixture which is super exotic over there.

can you tell us about the cultural awareness of the girls?
It’s extremely old-world, for example, the music they were listening to on the radio was the music I listened to ten years ago when I was the same age as the kids I was shooting. It got to the point where if I heard one more Linkin Park song – it was unbelievable, a bit of a trip.

how did you find the kids signed to these local agencies, did you go directly to the agency?
I was based in Almaty, not the capital but one of the largest cities so we approached a few of the agencies but mainly it was social media and street casting. The main focus for me with photography is that I spend a lot of time with people before I shoot them. I know a lot of my stuff is street cast but I never shoot straight off the bat – it’s a process where we meet them a few times, really get to know them and help them feel comfortable.

how active are the kids on social media, do they use it as a method to help themselves get noticed?
In terms of the youth culture, it’s more about having friends and being cool, it’s not so much career-driven in the whole social media world. They mainly rely on the Russian Facebook and the Russian Spotify – which is all free – so all through the old Soviet countries, even in Ukraine, they all rely on that.

can you tell us any interesting stories about the people that you met and the people involved in the series?
Because I shoot youth, I like showing the beauty and freedom of youth because it’s an interesting time in someone’s life when they’re becoming an adult. Obviously Dazed is so fond of that and it’s a fascinating subject but the majority of people there are married under the age of 19. Most people I shot were married and if you got to the age of 25 and weren’t married with kids then it was like something was wrong with you.

My friend Alyona (Subbotina) is one model I’ve worked with for years and she is actually the only international model who works in New York from Kazakhstan. I shoot her for Bergdorf Goodman campaigns and stuff like that but in Kazakhstan she’s a celebrity on the street. I was with her and got dragged onto the Kazakhstan equivalent of MTV! I got told that the people from the culture department wanted to meet me and I got dragged into the TV studio, mic’d up and lights, camera, action. It was all translated and was completely ridiculous.

how did you find family dynamics and the parents’ response to you photographing their children?
My interactions with family members were very accepting because not many foreigners actually take the time to study the youth and culture  there. There’s this beautiful family life that exists – living with the children, the mother, the father, the grandmas; that was their culture. It doesn’t matter how much money they have or how many of them can afford a house, they all still live under the same roof which means that they have a lot of respect for the elderly as a part of the community.

do you have your eyes set on your next country for a future project?
I do actually. I’m working on a new book project, which is a cultural study between two seasonal coastal towns in different parts of the world. One is in New Jersey and one is in Australia so it’s Atlantic City and the Gold Coast and it’s about the locals and people that stay there. They’re both really rough places with a lot of crime  and a lot of problems but it’s a focus on the beauty of the people that stay in their hometown and try to make things better.