Yana Binaev is an enigma. An effervescent, colourful, resolute character, if ever asked “who are you?”, it must be almost impossible to answer. Her cultural background is hard to categorise, having assimilated to so many different cultures during her time spent living in an amplitude of different countries. Yet for her, nowhere has felt more like home than London.
It should be of little surprise then that someone as creatively-driven as Yana – who summarises herself a photographer, dancer, and poet – should find herself so thoroughly inspired by a city as culturally diverse as London. Her own personal diversity is reflected in her surroundings, the very surroundings that have inspired her lifelong project “My Eyes See Diversity”.
A documentary photographer in its purest form, Yana’s artistic motivation comes from spontaneous moments of inspiration; that is, those who also embody and channel an uncategorisable cultural identity that so makes up the spirit of London. By taking portraits of people, she comes across while out exploring the city, her bold compositions really bring to life a city so empowered by the eccentric.
I kind of feel that there is a bit of me in each one of them.
In such a turbulent socio-political climate, Yana’s photography captures contemporary portraits of a society that makes up the very core of the diversity of London, a society that is now most at risk of being lost. A representative herself of what it means to be a modern Londoner, Yana is an artist so deeply connected and involved with everything that London is celebrated for, a city from which she draws every inspiration. Her works have contributed to the local artistic social conscious, with many hailing her as an inspiration herself through her work documenting the very heart of this great city.
You’re known as a Diversity Photographer and have been described as a Diversity Enthusiast in a recent article, what does this powerful word mean to you, and how do you define it?
I don’t really think I have a straight definition for it, but I think without even having a definition I started the project “My Eyes See Diversity” as a form of expressing myself in my surroundings, and all I wanted was to also express how different everybody is and how much I love seeing it. Through meeting so many culturally different people I kind of feel that there is a bit of me in each one of them. This is why I document radical and eccentric looking people, I just love it. So I think that only after my project was approached by a gallery to exhibit that I started understanding how much of a big deal diversity is and I really wanted to express how beautiful I think all these people are.
London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, so you clearly have your choice of subject matter, but do you find that you look at yourself and your own diverse background, are you reflecting and projecting a little bit of you within every photo?
Yes, I feel like I express myself through those people, so maybe every person that I photograph I see a little bit of myself in, and in the way that I edit and present the colours, it’s a reflection of me. So I think that for many years I was looking for a way to express my own identity, and now eventually that I’ve been focussed on documentary photography and portraits I’ve realised that’s my way to do so. I found that I would stare at people all the time, I still do it! I always stare at people and I never understood why, but now I understand that I was just finding my inspiration before finding my outlet. After I complete a photo shoot with somebody, I feel fulfilled because it feels like that’s my way of expressing all these feelings I have inside that I can’t explain otherwise. I’ve needed to translate the way that I see that person through my images.
What attracts you to someone and how do you approach them?
To be honest I can see someone across the road and feel compelled to run to them and yell “oh my God can I take a picture of you?” And mostly they’re just really happy and start posing as most of the people I photograph stand out, so they obviously come out of the house and know that they stand out. So normally I do approach really colourful people, and they are happy to be documented. There is already a little superstar living there inside of them and I help let it out. The percentage of people saying no is quite low, so I know how to pick them! I also used to work in sales so I’m just a straight-forward person so all I need to do is approach them and ask!
Oh my God can I take a picture of you?
And do you explain what you’re doing and what the project is about?
I explain and then often find the conversation goes in many ways, and I’ve actually made a lot of friends through that. Most of the people that I photograph I either know them, or find out that they have followed my page or have been to the exhibition. Many are supporters, and many of them become supporters after they find out about the project, but I try to keep my interactions with them genuine.
There must be pockets in London where you find more diverse, eccentric-looking people…
Yeah for a long while I was just exploring all over but at heart I’m a Shoreditch girl, I’ve just embraced it and most of my people are lovers of East London.
What do you think about Camden now? That used to be a central hub for self-expression.
I don’t venture much into Camden, I just feel at home in east London… Hackney is just a different energy and culture for me. It feels like home. From all the places in the world, Hackney just feels like home. I was studying in this posh University in Moscow and then I find myself falling in love with Hackney.
How would you describe Hackney in 3 words?
“Everything is possible.” I think now though it is very nice, I mean obviously 10-15 years ago it was very dangerous, but I find that I can just breathe here.
Hackney has nothing on that I guess! What are your favourite places in Hackney?
Obviously, Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, that’s my home, and really all over Shoreditch, I love walking round the streets. Columbia Road Market, Broadway Market on Saturdays…I feel like this area just completely shapes and reflects me. Everything that Hackney is, is me. I feel like the area is a mirror of me.
Everything is possible.
And being a dancer and a poet, does this play a role in how you approach your subject and photography?
Yeah I think the characteristics of Hackney and all the social issues that it carries within itself are a lot of the subjects that I aim to be documenting in my photography. Obviously, I am very connected to that, and many of the subjects of my poetry are as well around those life situations or just day-to-day experiences. And the dancing, well I’ve been dancing since I was 14 but now that I’ve combined Afrobeats with the Belly Dance… I have always felt very strongly connected to the culture of Africa.
Where in London would you go to hear some Afrobeats?
I have a long list actually. My friends run an amazing line of events on a regular basis, it’s called Afrobeat Karaoke. This is also my home. There are a load of great Afrobeats nights in London actually. There’s Sounds d’Afrique, they run nice events, a lot of my friends also do mix nights of hip hop, RnB, Afrobeats… Lots in Shoreditch, all over really.
It sounds like you are kept very busy with your project, as it is ongoing.
Oh yeah it’s my baby. I will continue it eternally, it gives me life, I love it.
Have you seen your style change as the project has gone on?
Definitely. Evolving I would say is the right word for it, and self-discovery obviously. You self-define more as it grows. From the first pictures to what it is right now is different. You evolve as an artist and as a person.
Seeing and meeting all these incredible people, has it changed how you see yourself?
I used to do a lot of things naturally without any awareness, and while doing it naturally I came to understand things and myself more. I definitely embrace my own diversity in a new way.
Has it brought some things out of you that you didn’t know before?
Yeah, through your own work you also learn how people see you and then you see how you are perceived, it’s interesting. And then you understand. I’m quite a wondrous person, I think there are a lot of inexplicable things happening inside me culturally. Some things for me are natural, but from the outside they may not be that obvious.
I definitely embrace my own diversity in a new way
When you’re capturing someone for their external look, which is quite diverse, how do you bring out their personality through a static image?
I think when I look at them I see a certain amount of colours that I want to highlight, whether it’s their clothing or their hairstyle, so somebody in my exhibition said that I make my people look beautiful. And this is a statement that I don’t really get as they are beautiful, I don’t make them like that… That’s really an amazing example of how me and my work is perceived on the outside and how I see it – what do you mean, you know, these people are already beautiful!
All the portraits are taken on my phone; I didn’t actually have a camera up until recently. And only after my second exhibition I started to understand and appreciate that what I was, was a photographer. I started just one day with my phone and posted a picture to Instagram, and slowly just kept it growing and updating it. And then I had an exhibition and a second one and it just started to grow. I didn’t have any theoretical or practical experience with a camera, but I was known as that person who does this project… For many years I was still looking for a way to express myself and I really struggled with that. I studied law and languages and I was doing a million things, and I always knew that I wanted to be working with diversity and equality, and I thought ok I speak 6 languages and I studied law so I should probably work with the UN or Red Cross… but then I started unravelling my creativity.
Only lately clarity has come to my life, so it’s good. Basically I am a documentary photographer raising awareness of diversity and equality through my work.