In 2021, fashion photographer and activist Emmie America was arrested and fined by Russian authorities, after staging a politically charged photoshoot in Moscow, where 25 attendees dressed in police uniforms circled the word “Freedom ” written in the snow.
The Russian-born photographer, who has worked with brands including Vogue, Urban Outfitters, Guess and Calvin Klein, has been charged by police with “organizing a protest”.
Since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, America has used its voice and a huge amount of social media to express solidarity with the Ukrainian people and raise awareness of ways to help the ongoing war effort of the country.
Euronews Culture spoke with Emmie America to learn more about her experiences working with Vogue, promoting LGBTQ+ rights and the changes in her life since the Russian invasion.
How would you describe your work?
“I work primarily in fashion imagery, but over time my work has become inherently more political. My work is very narrative. I’m always inspired by characters and stories. I feel like I’m trying to propose certain universes, where I put small details with hidden meanings of Easter eggs.”
“I want my photos to look like stills from a movie, rather than orchestrated fashion shots. I try to light things the same way, where I light the scene and not the person. “
How did you come to photography?
“I started doing photography when I was very young. It was kind of this impulsive thing, which I’m really grateful for because I really didn’t care if my work was good. I was a teenager so I just did it because I liked it.”
“When I was 13 I bought a camera for Christmas and that was the time when DSLRs were just becoming a big thing. And originally photography kind of became that medium. where I could create fashion without physically doing things. I’m not a crafty person – I hate doing things with my hands.”
“And then I went to art school and started reading photo theory – that’s when I really dug in and realized that photography is so unique. It has this incredible ability to make us believe in things and to place ourselves in worlds that are not real.”
Which photography project are you most proud of?
“I would say probably my Vogue Russia cover. First of all, it was my childhood dream – I remember being a kid and collecting Vogues. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t worry. not if you can never shoot for them’, that’s fine. You can still be a good photographer and not go to Vogue’. So to have that cover when I was 24 was surreal.”
“But the biggest thing was the fact that it was the first cover with the new editor and she really wanted to change the direction of the magazine. It was political coverage about the silenced protests in Russia and the people having no voice, the title of this one was called “Listen to us”.
What is your relationship with your homeland, Russia?
“It’s like a very toxic family. I love Russia. I love so many people there and it shaped me so much in so many ways. But it hurts so much to see what’s going on.”
“I was one of those people who really believed that we could change things – but since the war in Ukraine was started by Russia, that doesn’t really seem like an option anymore.”
“It’s really emotional and scary to no longer be able to be a part of that big part of you. You have to distance yourself, you have to distance yourself, and you have to figure out how to reinvent yourself.”
“It’s really hard to realize that something that’s so intrinsically a part of you is so toxic.”
“Over the last few years I’ve done a lot of different kinds of activist work in Russia on freedom in a lot of different ways. So now to feel like it’s all been for nothing, because nothing that I I will never make up for the amount of loss and suffering that has now been inflicted by this country…it’s a really hard thing to go through.”
Have you received any negativity or hate since Russia invaded Ukraine?
“A bit but I would say less than I expected so far. I mean I’m very strong in my position on current events. And I feel like in general, that’s enough to make people trust you, especially when you’ve consistently spoken your mind even before the invasion.”
A common theme present in your photography is the idea of ’home’. You are currently based in New York, but where is your home?
“I mean I struggled with this question even before the war. I was sent to England to study when I was 10 and then moved to America when I was 15 and I I lived here until I was 20, before moving back to Russia. So I feel like in general this idea of home was always very complicated.”
“I always feel like Moscow is my home and I love it so much. But it’s a bubble inside Moscow that I love. And now it’s bursting very fast. Now I don’t have no longer really feels like there’s a safe space in Moscow.”
What was it like being detained and fined for your “Freedom” photo shoot?
“It’s so funny because when it happened it seemed so dramatic and then a year later things like this are happening every day. When I was arrested everyone was freaking out. There was discussions on Telegram with all the Russian media saying: “Who has lawyers? Who can get her out? It was crazy. Compared to now, almost everyone I know has been arrested. So it’s just a really weird glimpse of Russian reality.”
“It was a very surreal experience. It was quite funny to watch it from the inside and see how dysfunctional and unnecessary everything was. I felt incredibly guilty for everyone I dragged into it, but I think it caused a resonance. It was worth it in the end.”
Much of your work focuses on the experiences of queer communities and the promotion of LGBTQ+ equality. What does gay pride mean to you?
“It just means being comfortable with who you are and not being afraid. And I think that’s just not having to think about it honestly. Just enjoying life and the way you want to live it. ”
“I grew up with a lesbian mother in Russia and she was very scared. And I wish no one ever had to go through what she went through.”
Do you feel responsible for representing the LGBTQ+ community in your work?
“Of course. I mean that I feel responsible for representing all those who are not represented enough. But also my work is often derived from very personal things. So most of the time it presents illusions for real people in my life and real situations that I’ve been through. So of course a lot of different weird things come up often and I always try to stay aware of that.
Your activism is more relevant than ever as the Russian parliament recently decided to tighten restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights. What can people do to support LGBTQ+ equality and rights?
“Honestly, make some noise. Don’t be afraid. More people need to find the inspiration, the courage to speak out, because when the riot gets too loud, no matter how hard whoever tries, it’s not you can’t calm it down. When the fire is too big, you can’t get enough water to put it out.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.