Olga Sinenko talks to Thomas Leitch about picking up a camera, escaping the Russian winter and joining Bali’s surf photography inner circle.
For the majority of us, the past plots our future, a calculable extrapolation across the years echoing through our lives.
It comes as little surprise that, from childhoods at the beach, salt spray constantly filling your lungs, the sand never one hundred per cent out of your hair and the ebb and flow of tides and swells a continual influence on daily life, a more creative type might pick up a camera and venture into the surf.
But, for a young Russian girl, confined to a photography studio because of the snow drifts and sub-zero temperatures that lay outside in her land-locked home town, a career shooting surf in tropical waters would be a leap of faith in anyone’s trajectory.
Olga Sinenko has always been a photographer at heart. She grew up in the Ukraine before moving to St Petersburg, where her father bought her her first camera. Still only in her early teens, the addiction of capturing lost and spontaneous moments consumed her.
“I would walk along the streets and take pictures of everything – animals, birds, trees, people, empty streets, shadows on walls, reflections in puddles,” she enthusiastically recalls. “At the very beginning it was reportage – I enjoyed freezing the moments of life, emotions, beautiful light or interesting scenes.
“The female side of my family has always been creative and talented,” she says of childhood inspiration. “Though my mum studied Maths and Physics, she also played the guitar and piano and had a very beautiful voice. I guess I inherited some of her creative talents.”
There was no questioning her passion, her career path destined even from that early age when most kids are wondering if ‘pop star’ or ‘pro sportsperson’ is a viable option. Her early exploits were in analogue, the tangibility of film and print increasing her fervour. But leaving home and craving a temperate shift, a vacation to Goa in 2009 demanded a more convenient means of capturing images and Olga stepped into the digital realm.
“I experimented with the settings and tried to teach myself how all of the camera modes worked, but I still had a lack of knowledge, so I signed into photography school across the street [when I got back home]. It was in the middle of winter in Russia, so all the studies were in a professional studio. After four lessons I quit my job and start working in there.”
Discovering kitesurfing in the summer months of Russia, she headed to Mui Ne in Vietnam when her studies concluded. Warm ocean combined with smaller waves and consistent trade winds kept her there for the season, but when home still felt like the place she had left behind and the world was at her feet, Bali called to her.
She ended up in Canggu, one of Bali’s few true longboarding destinations, and it was here that her photography would find a whole new chapter. With her camera locked safely into a newly-bought water housing, she paddled out at Batu Bolong – a long-peeling, mellow beach break – and, as the sun slowly set leaving her in near-darkness, she discovered her true calling, the culmination of her passions, where aperture met water.
“I swam out at Batu Bolong for a sunset session and stayed until dark, until I couldn’t see a thing,” she recalls of the pivotal moment. “I messed up with the settings and had only one good shot, but it was worth it.”
Olga had found the best of both worlds – a place where she could feed her passion for photography while immersing herself in the energy of the ocean. In Russia, she had had no idea that surf photography even existed but, she admits, when she purchased her first water housing and paddled out, her desire for photography expanded exponentially.
Her love of surfing is abundant, but it is photography that truly motivates her. While continuing work of terra firma, she has taken her earlier inspirations out into the lineup, bringing a more candid, reportage style with her to create images that break the stereotype. Private moments between the sets, the joy of simply being in the ocean and the experiences around the riding of waves feature in her work as strongly as surfing itself. Shooting in the studio, as she had in her earlier days, is formulaic, predictable. Even land-based photography has a significant amount of control, but in the ocean you are at the mercy of the elements:
“I love that water photography is not always predictable and sometimes you can get a very interesting and artistic result by chance,” she admits. “I love being in the water, it makes me feel connected to the ocean and nature. And when I catch a wave with my camera I have as strong emotions as when I catch it while surfing.”
Olga prefers a freelance lifestyle, not bound by timeframes, commitments or contracts – “I like to be the master of my time,” she explains. But her work has featured online around the world. Working closely with the creative team at Deus ex Machina’s Temple of Enthusiasm in Canggu – where she lived for the last two years before recently moving to the Bukit peninsula – has brought her images to a global audience. Her work has been regularly featured in the annual SurfJam photo exhibition and surf festival in Bali, and even in landlocked Russia, her work has been gaining significant appreciation, featuring in the country’s edition of National Geographic.
But it is the laid back calm of Canggu and the Bali lifestyle that inspires her, helping her thrive as a photographer and keeping her continually inspired:
“I’ve always loved its atmosphere [in Canggu]; cosy little warungs with good food and cheap prices, friendly, long waves at my home spot, perfect for beginners like me, tiny roads through the rice fields… Even though I moved to the Bukit a couple of months ago, I still visit Canggu to take my best shots of longboarders that I can only find there.
“I admire local surfers here. Deus riders are my true inspiration for both surfing and photography. Andre Cricket (Deus’ in-house videographer) has surfed only for couple of years but already has shown a huge progress that I could only dream about. [Canggu local] Ayok has the most grace and style – I always enjoy watching him surf. Seems like he’s dancing on his board and that’s what I’m trying to capture – all the passion and beauty of local surfers.”
Sumbawa, the Philippines and the Maldives are all penciled into her passport for the near future, but a trip back home, to family and the cold of Russia is long overdue. “I miss my family, and the cold,” she admits, “and I always try to visit a few photography classes to learn something new when I’m back home.”
Australia is also on her wish list and, having worked with the likes of Matt Cuddihy, Harrison Roach and Zye Norris, she’s keen to visit their home town of Noosa Heads.
“I have a huge desire to reach Australia next year. I want surf and shoot that endless wave in Noosa I always see pictures of!”
From the alleyways and derelict buildings of St Petersberg to the shores of Bali, it has been quite a transition for Olga Sinenko. But it is perhaps that expanse of transition that brings such an indescribable quality to her work, one rarely captured by someone who has grown up with the ocean their whole life.