Its not a novelty nowadays to see a model turning into an actress. However a film director who had turned into a fashion photographer is still a rare case. Nikka Lorak came to fashion photography through cultural and professional challenges of filmmaking world.
Nikka's background is in writing and directing drama and that is probably why her vision is certainly cinematographic with a great deal of storytelling to it. Looking at her images one would be curious to find out more about the subject rather then giving a glimpse to an outfit or a fashion accessory.
"When I have shot Guess Jeans campaign, the concept was 'sensual but not sexual'. I have casted genuine couple whose passion, tenderness, and attraction shine through the final images"-recalls Lorak who could easily be a model herself. We are having an afternoon tea at her studio at London's Old street. Floor to ceiling windows, lots of natural light, designer furniture, traditional masks from Thailand, Egyptian papirus, Moroccan carpets and creative chaos: polaroids of models on the walls, light reflector, high make up chair for test shoots, coffee table books on photography and local grey squirrels who pop to Nikka's terrace for handful of nuts- a perfect contrast to her colourful images.
Russian Roulette: Nikka, how did you become a fashion photographer?
Nikka Lorak: My journey to fashion photography was not straight forward. Lots of my inspiration I gather from my childhood...
RR: Then lets start from the childhood.
NL: My Mother is Russian, father is a Belgian, I've grown up in Egypt. That is why I'm puzzled answering a question where am I from. When I was 6 months old my father, a Belgian diplomate was sent to work in Cairo. My mother, Russian painter and I followed him to the country of Ra. We have settled in a small town El Gouna at the shore of Red Sea. Long walks at the beach, conversations about art, father's sections on social harmony and politics formed my ideal colonial childhood. It was a carefree time until I have noticed that while speaking 5 languages and living in a comfortable mansion was a norm for us,some locals could barely read and lived a completely different life. I gradually learned that uncle Ahmed and uncle Mohammed, the gardener and the owner of a local grocery shop who endlessly spoiled us kids with candies and toys, are in fact terrifyingly poor. Then along with other expats kids I have started few charity projects organising art workshops for local kids and volunteering at El Gouna hospital. Along with speaking Arabic to locals this had helped me to integrate into Egyptian society so growing up I didnt feel myself as an expat.
RR: However you did not become an Egyptian woman either. Is there any hijab hidden in your photography gear?
NL: I prefer evening gowns (laughs)
Thats true, i didn't become an Egyptian lady, however discovery of Western lifestyle was a cultural shock for me. Ive discovered British humour, German efficiency, French elegance and Russian craziness. A whole new world.
RR: Did it happen in Egypt?
NL: Yes. I have graduated from American University's Bachelor program with major in Business Administration and as a summer job I have accepted internship in Club Med, an international chain of hotels. I quickly progressed from an intern position to a G.O. (genteel organisateur, fr) and after 5 years of experience I have become Art director and Area manager with over 200 people under my command. Work in Club Med opened me a door to an exciting new world. Professional challenges, high pressure, creative assignments along with stage performance made me feel myself a real star. However came a day when Ive realised that Ive grown over this lifestyle: sleepless nights,intense days and lack of personal life are only suitable for a very young hippy-minded person.Additionally this career could not offer me further professional growth. I was ready for a new challenge.
RR: Is it how you've moved to London and started the film directing page of your life? Was it more challenging then Entertainment business? What project you recall the most?
NL: Yes,With my acquired set of skill, a move to film industry was only natural. I have enrolled and graduated from Westminster University,London with Master degree in Film directing but i’ve quickly realised that in independent film making one can’t afford a luxury of only directing. To take a movie off the ground one needs to produce,write script, operate camera, mentor actors, arrange catering, the list goes on. I could have never imagined that Film director's seemingly glamorous job would also include such a wide range of responsibilities from investing own money to bringing coffee to star-striked gaffer.
Most people know about the film industry from movies about Hollywood studio productions that we well organised, well financed and well executed. They also have a high budget. In Europe, film making is as far from this idealistic picture as it could be. Even a short film script writing or adaptation may take between a year or two. Add finance, filming itself, editing, sound design, voice overs, score composing, distribution. A short film may take easily take 3 years. 3 years of one’s life that will not be enumerated. I often heard stories about filmmakers who sold car, equipment and even parents house to chase their dream. To me it seems like an addiction. Scary.
On the other hand filmmaking is an ultimate school of life. The project that I would never forget is a short film Ive shot in Morocco with a group of enthusiasts, without any commercial production company. That was the challenge i dreamt about! Set in Morocco, The Outsider is
a story of unexpected friendship of a travelling British photographer who is rejected by anti-foreign locals and a local deaf-mute boy who is being rejected by kids due to his disability. ‘You don’t need to be a foreigner to be an outsider’ is the tagline of ‘The Outsider’. The production was fully independent: we casted, scouted locations, arranged the catering and transportation all by ourselves that became increasingly difficult because 7 of our actors were local kids age 5-12. No chaperons, no parents. Again, I was a part of a vagabond family and a touring circus but this time I was not backed up by a well structured production company. I had a limited budget and shooting day costed me a fortune, but I was surrounded my the most generous, courageous, incredible crew who completely trusted me. I simply had no right for failure.
The Outsider short film had been produced, took two awards including Cannes short film corner and had been sold in two territories. The invested capital was returned, which is unheard of for a short film. I would say this is the achievement Im proud the most of.
RR: What established photographers are you looking up to? What photographer's skills in your opinion are essential on set?
NL: Speaking about visual styles Im very versatile: i admire raw documentary-like images of early Nick Knight as much as I adore the sophistication of Patrick Demarchelier’s composition. Paul Newman’s expressive nudes,Richard Avedon’s images full of air, mystery of Paolo Roversi’s vision, the list goes on and on.
As a fashion photographer with film directing background Im always aim for storytelling in my images. Working on a project I create characters and a world they are living in. Props, lighting, emotional interactions and locations are selected as if I would be working on a film. Photography crews are smaller and the projects are shorter but still I believe that collaboration is the key and Im extremely excited to work with talented creatives: designers, make up and hair artists, wardrobe stylists.
Models for me are actors, not just a pretty face. in fact Im much more drawn to editorial, unconventional faces and that is why I collaborate with Elite model management, the world’s most established model agency that signs the most incredible new face in. Model is the key to the success of the project. or a key to its failure. Preparation of photographer skills mean nothing if the model can’t or would not connect with the camera. I work with models as I had worked with actors: creating safe environment, bringing them into a character. Its a very intimate and delicate process where trust is essential.
RR: What are you currently working on?
Im getting ready for my personal photography exhibition. KENYA: BACK TO ROOTS is a project that brings together traditional Kenyan costume and contemporary fashion. Shot in collaboration with 5 fashion and 3 accessories designers, it reflects cultural pride, strong bond with local traditions and future aspirations of Kenyan fashion elite.
Breathtaking sunsets, colourful jungle and endless ocean set an exotic background for strong female characters, that according to Kenyans, are modern power shifters. One of the photographs is called 'Shifted Power’ and depicts that modern Amazon, who, despite of wearing traditionally inspired outfit, steps forward leaving two Masai warriors, a symbol of traditional Kenyan military power, way behind.
Another popular motif in BACK TO ROOTS project is fusion of traditional and modern wear that symbolises Kenyan past and future. ‘No tree can be fruitful without roots’ say Kenyans. True indeed. Kenyan fashion designers create modern wear and accessories drawing inspiration in splendid local nature and colourful national costume, that also include traditional wear of Masai warriors.
The exhibition will be held in The Library members club, London 7-14 July 2016.
Interviewed by Kristina Moskalenko for Russian Roulette