Featured Photographer ~ Anna Fishkin: A Photographer for Our Time

There is a sequence in the 1999 film “What Dreams May Come” starring Robin Williams in which Chris, his character, has died and finds himself in a heaven more beautiful and amazing than anything he could have imagined. It is a “Summerland” of rolling green hills, lush grass, and flowers of blinding brilliance. The film won an Academy Award for art direction, and its color had not been matched—not until a young American photographer named Anna Fishkin went behind a camera and started photographing sunsets in Tulum, Mexico. Gorgeous, breathtaking, magnificent, splendid, and stunning are inadequate descriptions of her famed sunset series. All you can do is look at them and say, “These cannot be real”. They are. Fishkin captures color in a way that reveals the true natural beauty of the sunset phenomenon and quite literally blows you away.

The Woman Behind the Camera

To look at Anna Fishkin, you would expect to find her in front of a camera, not behind it. She has the exquisite features and classic good looks of a high fashion model or a ballerina. And, indeed, she spent some time early on as a performing artist in Minsk, Belarus where she was born. She attended dancing school in Minsk, and as a young performer danced both on stage and on the streets of the city during important Soviet holidays. Stage life, dance and music were an important part of her childhood.

The Fishkin family left the Soviet Union in the 1980s as part of a wave of Soviet Jewish immigration. The refugee experience had a profound impact on Anna’s psychological development. She lived for a while in Vienna and then in Rome, which she came to love—so much that when her parents migrated to the United States and settled in Chicago she says she “cried for a year”. She simply did not know where she belonged or what she was destined to do.

She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Columbia College. After graduation, she worked for ten years as a graphic designer in Chicago. Her career as a photographer began only a few years ago. Her then-husband had started his own film and video production company, producing commercial and corporate films. Anna started showing up with her camera on locations where he was shooting and documented what was going on behind the scenes. As she captured images of the starring chefs, musicians, performers, and athletes she became fascinated with both the people and the process. Her images were used to promote the films, and the feedback was immediate and positive. The neophyte photographer never looked back.

An Interview with Anna Fishkin

Q. Why did you decide to leave graphic design and make photography your career?

A. Funny, but I didn’t really decide this. Life just kept giving me opportunities to shoot and I took them. Until two years ago I didn’t even think of photography as work, much less a career. I studied black and white film photography in university, then for years shooting and editing remained a hobby. It came as a surprise when people started buying my prints, and I realized that perhaps I could turn my hobby into a career.

I’ve found that I’m much better suited for photography than graphic design. Photography is intuitive and visceral, while design is a more rational and intellectual process. Photography involves risk, movement and interaction. As a designer I was mostly sedentary and solitary. Photography is immediate and highly subjective; design more remote and elegant. I appreciate how both disciplines are able to express such different aspects of beauty, but photography gives me the license to go to places and witness events I could not otherwise experience. And for me that trumps everything! I love the rush, the unpredictability, and the relationship I develop with everything I photograph. Photography keeps me connected to the kid inside; it allows me to continue playing in the streets.

Q. How does your background in design influence your photography work?

A. The influence is huge and extremely important. Being a designer puts you in the role of a conscious creator. A good designer must question assumptions, must understand previously established rules, and often must break them in order to evolve and provide better solutions. In the design process every decision you make, every detail and pixel has to have purpose and reason. Admittedly, I wasn’t the best designer in the world, but I was lucky to have worked with and learned from some of the best people in the business for which I am grateful. They helped me think like a designer, and this thinking goes into every image I make. I apply the questioning of the design process to the observable world in my lens. No matter what my subject is – landscape, people or interior space, I’m always asking why does my subject exist exactly the way it does at this particular moment? Why does it make me feel the way it does?

There’s a lot of psychoanalysis involved in both design and photography. Approaching my work analytically allows me to go deeply into my subjects, and satisfies my probing nature. As a web designer, and later as a creative director, I gained an understanding about the commercial and marketing aspects of photography. Today’s photographer much also understand the role of the internet in the rapidly-changing industry landscape. All in all I feel like my design career did so much to prepare me for what I do now.

Q. With all of the photographic possibilities in Chicago, how was it you ended up shooting in Mexico—especially in Tulum, which is not exactly a well-known tourist destination?

A. My entire life I lived in big cities. After I left Chicago, I spent some time in Toronto and then New York. I began to feel as though all these cities were blending into one endless megalopolis. I was going through a very rough time in my personal life and was craving a good dose of silence. One of my dearest and oldest friends had introduced me to Tulum back when it was nothing but a tiny Caribbean fishing village, and for many years I kept returning when I felt burnt-out from the corporate life and needed to disconnect from civilization.

Vacation time was never enough, and I harbored a dream of one day getting off the grid and living near the ocean. Two years ago, when I lost everything and had nothing to hold on to, I knew it was time to live out my dream. With the encouragement and support of my amazing family and friends, I arrived in Tulum without a return ticket. I had no thoughts of pursuing a career in photography there. I just arrived and started shooting nature as a way to redirect my attention from personal pain. The first Tulum Sunsets series was the result.

I had only planned to stay in Mexico for a couple of months, but opportunities came up, and I stayed on. I embarked on a journey of self-rediscovery and was finally able to overcome the identity crisis created by my Soviet-American-Jewish-Christian background. I was learning so much, both about myself and photography, I kept shooting and began sharing my work online. People started to notice. When a few prints actually sold, I was able to fund a three-month trip to explore Mexico’s Pacific coast – the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Baja California Sur, Nayarit, and Jalisco. Subsequently, I traveled to all the significant Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula including Merida, Valladolid, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Ek Balam, Calakmul, Kohunlich, Loltun, Campeche, Tulum, and Muyil. A couple of months later I was invited to join a group traveling to Central Mexico, so I visited Mexico City, Teotihuacan, Cholula, Puebla, Oaxaca and Monte Alban.

All these travel opportunities allowed me to remain in Mexico. Tulum became the base from which I could work, plan, and connect with people from all over the world. Before I knew it, two years had passed.

Q. How did your photography blog come about?

A. Well, as Mexico continued to reveal more and more of its mysteries and as my archive of images kept growing, I decided to build a blog-driven photography website where I could share all the incredible views and tell stories about what I was witnessing. It’s also impossible for me to separate my work from my life, so Everystring is not really a blog about my work, but about my life’s journey. Sharing what I create gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Things just keep getting strung together into one big creative process. Hence the name – Everystring.

Q. What keeps you in Mexico still?

A. I’m attracted to countries where the indigenous way of thinking contributes to the collective modern psychology of the people. For example, while Mexico is largely a Catholic country with a culture greatly influenced by the economy of the United States, the indigenous influences are very much alive as well. People in Mexico haven’t lost their connection to the earth: they still notice the changing colors in the sky; they understand wind and sounds of birds and animals. They have a different perception of time and they rely on instinct and feeling much more than left-brained Westerners. There are 56 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico and a multitude of Indian tribes still preserving their old way of life – the Mayans, the Lacandones, the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, the Tarahumaras and the Huicholes are just a few.

The values of indigenous people contain so much psychological depth, ingenuity and sophistication. If we really understood all the intricacies of their adaptations and meanings behind their rituals, we would be more dedicated to preserving and learning from them. This desire to learn to see the world from the indigenous perspective and to photograph it using this enhanced vision is what keeps me in Mexico. That’s really the philosophy behind the Everystring project.

Q. What led you to focus on landscapes and sunsets rather than people—your first subjects and seemingly your inspiration for becoming a photographer

A. Timing and circumstances. I was at a point in my life where I was so nature-deprived, it was overwhelming when I rediscovered it. Being away from urban noise allowed me to become aware of elements in my environment I had ignored for many years. I felt as though I was seeing nature for the first time. I wanted to capture the feeling of rebirth I was experiencing. Nature itself collaborated with me by showing me splendid sunset displays. Sometimes the particular color combinations I witnessed in the sky only lasted for three minutes, but being present in that exact location for those three minutes and being able to record the scene and to share it with the world was both a gift and a privilege. The more time I spent observing and noticing, the more I was able to see.

Lately, I’ve been venturing out to shoot many different subjects: kitesurfing, portraits, architecture. There’s so much I can focus my lens on, and everything is interesting! As far as I’m concerned, everything I photograph is nature – I don’t even try to separate the genres anymore, it’s all just light, shadow, colors in between and compositions created by movement.

Q. What commercial work do you do and what personal projects are you working on now?

A. You know it’s amazing how all the personal work I’ve been doing is what actually gets me commercial projects. I am so grateful to the people who get curious about what I’m doing, who get inspired by my blog and ask me to shoot their hotels, real estate properties, portraits, events, etc. Because of them I’m able to continue working on my personal projects. This fall I was in Europe for a month and started shooting a series of urban landscapes that focus primarily on light and illumination. I started doing this because I was curious about what effect the lighting of the place has on its inhabitants. After I record these different places, I like to look at them in sequence and compare the moods of cities across the globe. I like imagining what kind of person I would be had I grown up in that place, what kind of personality I would have.

Another series I’m doing is documenting women who, despite the psychological burdens of Western society, choose to live by their own individual values. In general, with most of my projects I’m always trying to satisfy some personal curiosity or asking a question about why things are the way they are. By taking pictures I keep hoping that some answer or insight will be revealed because I’m basically addicted to these Eureka moments in my life. Aside from photography, I’m also slowly working on a series of pretty crazy drawings and writing short stories.

Q. The first thing people notice about your work is the amazing color. Your colors are so brilliant, the images almost seem like oil paintings—fresh from an artist’s palette. How did you develop this keen color sense?

A. It’s a matter of training yourself to notice color relationships in your environment. I’m an extremely visual person and color has always been my favorite part of life experience, that’s why I’ve had many years of practice noticing and experimenting with different color combinations. Way before photography and design, when I was very small, I drew, painted and collected postcards and little wallet-size Soviet propaganda calendars. I still have my calendar collection. It was the only thing I considered valuable enough to bring to the U.S. when we immigrated. Then there was the incredible Soviet animation I grew up on – beautiful short films made between 1950’s-80’s.

The move itself—from the grayness of Soviet Union to the splendid colors of Italy—was like flipping on a switch in my brain. I was so overwhelmed during that period from all the new colors I was seeing. I think to this day I’m still under the influence of that experience. Formal art education followed, then a career in graphic design, always accompanied by my love of fashion with all its colors, patterns, textures and prints. After spending so much time in Mexico, I have developed a whole new approach to color. I find myself going deeper into it, examining all possible sources of the scene’s natural illumination and observing how my own vantage point affects the experience. Light itself tends to be my subject. I also love watching the people from different regions in Mexico incorporating color from nature into their craftwork. I learn a lot from their process.

Q. Tell us a little about your publications featuring the land, landscape, and natural beauty of Mexico.

A. For many Americans, Mexico is synonymous with beachside resorts and package deals. On the flip side of the coin is the negative image proliferated by the media that portrays Mexico as the declining backyard of the United States

deviled by safety issues, drug trafficking or immigration problems. If you allow the media to shape your opinion of Mexico, you will glimpse only a fraction of a very complex larger picture. The truth is, when you step away from all the tourism advertising campaigns, media coverage, and politics, and when you start meeting and talking to the real people, you are humbled because you realize that you know absolutely nothing.

My first real understanding of this country was recognizing its vast diversity: the different terrains, climates and cultures; the high level of people’s self-awareness and understanding of the world; the large number of foreigners who live here; all the different languages spoken (sometimes by one individual!); the variety of indigenous Indian tribes and their art. Mexico is both ancient and cutting-edge modern at the same time. These days it’s reconnecting with its multi-layered international history and opening itself to the rest of the world both economically and culturally.

Because Mexico as a subject is so huge, I decided to focus on specific images I thought were psychologically fundamental to individual regions. So for Baja California, I chose the waves and the cactus; for Chihuahua—it was the peaks and the valleys of Copper Canyon; for Nayarit and Quintana Roo—I studied the sky and the sunsets. I wanted to use these images as a way to create new associations with Mexico.

Q. How can we obtain copies of your work?

A. People often just email me  if they want to buy custom prints or framed limited editions. Licensing for commercial use of any image can be purchased directly on my website. Also on the site you can order prints in different sizes and finishes or get downloads for personal use. Plus there’s a selection of beautiful photography books and a 2012 calendar agenda.

Q. Where do you see your career going in the future? Do you plan to stay in Mexico, or will you return to the United States?

A. I see myself traveling the entire world, continuing to explore new locations, while creating images and content for

Q. Will you ever return to your first loves: music, dancing, and performing?

A. To be honest I don’t think I ever left them because photography allows me to remain connected with these first loves. Music inspires and helps to identify various emotional states in my images. Editing and drawing to music transports me. Because of all the years I spent dancing, I gained a visual and emotional understanding of the body, which is so helpful when shooting people. Having performed under the direction of some amazing choreographers back in Russia, and having studied a little acting and spent so much time around the film and production community, I am able to direct and to communicate more empathetically with my subjects.

I generally try to not classify myself into any one creative category because there are just so many ways to express yourself, and so many tools that allow you to make and share images. Photography is just one of these tools. I want to remain open to whatever means of expression my creative process calls upon in the future.

Anna Fishkin is a photographer, visual artist and writer. She grew up in Minsk, Belarus, and was educated in the former Soviet Union and United States. Her university years at UW-Madison and Columbia College were followed by a decade-long graphic design career in Chicago. Next, modest exploration of acting and self-revealing creative writing courses at University of Chicago led to a graduation from commercial life and a subsequent move to Mexico.

Currently Anna is based in Riviera Maya, from where she travels and photographs various regions of Mexico, with a goal to gain a deeper understanding of how the country’s incredibly complex collective psychology, rooted in ancient pre-Columbian cultures, relates to modern human experience.

Join the conversation

2 Responses to “Featured Photographer ~ Anna Fishkin: A Photographer for Our Time”

  1. Kristie Kang on January 20th, 2012 11:59 am

    breathtaking photos, very inspiring artist!

  2. Anonymous on January 20th, 2012 1:44 pm

    Stunning work, talented photographer and very articulate!

About the Author

Shirley Baugher has been a resident of Old Town since 1978. She and her husband Norman lived for seven years in the North Park Condominiums. In 1985, they bought the historic row house on Crilly Court and have been there ever since. Shirley earned an M. A. and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and has written extensively in the area of American History.


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