Vitaly Poluaetov is a 50ish photographer, member of the Lviv Artist's Association. His works have been displayed in 35 international exhibitions over the last decade. He is a local celebrity for his seemingly careless and naive approach to his work, which has been very influential on the Lviv scene.
I was struck by his photos at a local exhibition, so I enquired about him. It turns out he is a real outsider. Vitaly is almost completely self-taught and exhibits only through a close friend. The same person sends his works to international exhibitions. He is reclusive, but was excited to meet with me.
He stopped at my apartment on his way home from work at the market, massive duffel bag of glasses in tow (his business). Then he playfully exposed me for the contrived sun of a bitch that I am by showing how remote my academic interests are from reality.
Jon: your photos are full of suffering, dispossessed people, a blind street musician, an elderly market worker, a beggar. Does this represent a post-Soviet condition, with the collapse of social services, or a general human condition?
Vitaly: I do not know Soviet, post-Soviet. These are just the people from the market who work with me. I do not know why I shoot them, maybe it is because they are all I see.
Jon: I was thinking of the work of Boris Mikhailov, for example, who says that, "at least there was not homelessness in the Soviet Union." He chronicles the people who have lost their place in society...
Vitaly: The only photographers I know of are from Lviv and they like to shoot naked young girls. Now my work is winning awards in international competitions so they want to shoot people in the market but they (the market people) do not let them. The market is my place and the people there do not let outsiders in.
Jon: How about a change in attitude over the years in Lviv... the recent history has been tumultuous. In '91 with independence and then in '04 with the Orange revolution. How have these changes effected the art scene?
Vitaly: People do not really know what is going on... they go about their business trying to earn a living and support their families. Most of my colleagues cannot afford to pay the 20 Euro application fee for an exhibition. To send this money away from their family would be like robbery. Ukraine is a very difficult place to survive. But they keep working on their craft because they dream of someday finding fortune and fame.
Jon: So photography offers an escape for you and your peers? A way to forget about the daily grind?
Vitaly: For me I began taking photos when I quit drinking. I was hospitalized because I drank so much. The doctor told me I would die if I continued drinking. I had so much free time and some extra money so I took photography up as a hobby. I do not know why I do it. I do not even really enjoy it. I just feel compelled to.
Jon: You use a compact point and shoot camera and not an SLR. Is this so you can sneak up on your subjects? To capture decisive moments?
Vitaly: yes, but also because my bag that I carry to work is so heavy that I cannot carry anything larger.
Vitaly and I continued talking casually for two hours about photography and politics and Ukrainian and American Culture. He was very open and unassuming and an all around enjoyably nutty dude. I do not buy his act completely but he is definitely surfing the very outer edges.
I asked him for an email address in case someone would like to contact him but his response was typical of his social ethos: "I gave my son some money to create an email address for me but it took too much time... too much work..."