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The Artist Who Listens

By Jessica Zimmer | Photos by Kristina Varaksina

Photographer Kristina Varaksina uses portraits to tell the stories of extraordinary women as they make their way through life. Her current project, “The Essence of Beauty,” is dedicated to women who have inspiring stories.

“For a year and a half, I’ve been welcoming immigrants, people with disabilities, and individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds into my studio. I’m sharing how these women find their inner strength, love themselves for who they are, and inspire other people,” says Varaksina.

Reaching her goal of 30 portraits has been difficult to achieve during lockdown. It requires carefully casting her subjects. “I am more of a listener than a talker,” she says, “I’ve made progress by giving my subjects space.” A recipient of many awards, including the Portrait of Britain Winner 2020 and the Association of Photographers Open Award 2020, Varaksina holds herself to high standards. She has photographed for many magazines and commercial clients, from Harper’s Bazaar and the BBC to BonobosⓇand Ugg.

Born in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Varaksina earned her bachelor of arts in interior and graphic design there. She remembers the area as industrial, tough, and full of criminal activity. Throughout her youth, in the 1990s, criminally minded “businessmen” fought to privatize former state-owned operations. “As a teenager, you would see cars blowing up on the street,” she says. “I watched people get injured, windows get shattered, even people get shot,”

One way she escaped was with her first camera, a Zenit. Another escape was with English literature, and she read a great deal, from Mary Poppins to from Sherlock Holmes. Later, as she practiced drawing and photography, she became fascinated by English clothing designs and architectural styles.

Varaksina said that coming to San Francisco in 2020 was an important step for her; it’s where she earned her Master of Fine Arts from the Academy of Art University. When she arrived, she made a decision to dedicate herself to photography. She also met many people who felt free of stereotypes and the pressures of gender roles. “This broadened my perspective. Northern California is where I started to understand what I could discuss,” she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given her time to reflect. “Since it began, I’ve started having more time for personal work in addition to commercial and fashion work,” she says. With some portraits, she is as minimalistic as possible. She tries to avoid influencing the viewer’s impression of the subject. In other pieces, she likes juxtaposing warm and cold colors. She also enjoys grouping analogous colors, such as blue, green, and aqua, alongside one complementary color. “I use lipstick or a prop, something that puts in an accent,” she explains. “This creates a focus point. Yet it keeps the color palette in control,”

Her background in graphic design and fashion photography helps her to think conceptually. Playing with visual metaphors adds layers of meaning to a subject. Teaching other artists how to express themselves also helps her clarify her message (she previously taught at the New York Film Academy). She is currently teaching her third private online bootcamp to students from around the world. “It’s fun to find out what you have in common and how you think differently,” she says.

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