Yulia Denisyuk: Photographer Interview

by Jeremy Bassetti

Yulia Denisyuk is a freelance travel photographer. She joins us today to answer some questions about her work philosophy. She also gives some practical tips on breaking into the world of travel photography. Yulia’s work has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, BBC Travel, AFAR, and CONDE NAST Traveller to name a few. She also runs Travel Media Lab, a platform and community helping women creators publish their travel stories. To learn more about Yulia Denisyuk and her work, visit her website and her Instagram.

Yulia Denisyuk

How did you first discover photography and what made you realize you wanted to make a career of it?

My dad gave me a Kodak film camera (one of those point and shoots) as a present for my 10th birthday and I was hooked. I took pictures of my friends of course, and of my dog — but also of the streets of my hometown, Tartu, Estonia. I understood the power of photography to capture moments in time from that age on and some sort of a camera was always by my side going forward. 

How did you get your first break as a travel photographer?

I quit my corporate job in 2016 with the goal of becoming a travel photographer and writer. My plan was to go on a slow travel trip for the next six months, staying in places and doing things I’ve always dreamt about, like renting a flat in Istanbul and living in the local, out-of-the-way neighborhoods in Bangkok. I thought I would figure out a way to start building my career in those six months… but that didn’t happen. I didn’t have any connections in the industry and didn’t know how the industry worked, so in hindsight, this was to be expected.

What did happen on that trip is that I took a lot of photos. I also started posting them on Instagram, sharing my journey and process along the way. When I returned to the US, I was approached by AFAR magazine for an interview (at the time, they were doing a series of spotlights on photographers on Instagram). That’s how I was first connected with anyone in the travel media industry and got my first break and a travel assignment. 

What is your approach to photographic storytelling? 

To me, photography, first and foremost, is about telling stories that stir emotions in the viewers of my work. That’s the magic of photography. Light comes second. Other elements (composition, editing style, technique) come third.

I love travel photography in particular because for me, it’s rooted in the idea of telling stories of people and places. I love that it blends the genres of documentary, street, photojournalism, and art and, at its best, tells a story of a place through its people, food, streets, architecture, and culture.

What is your approach to capturing a sense of place in photography? 

I think about the sense of place all the time! Over the years, I’ve developed a rubric of sorts where I look for images in these categories to ensure that I capture a sense of place: people, architecture, food, iconic spots, landscapes, interiors, unexpected detail, movement, moments. If I have images in most of these categories, I can convey a sense of place. I also love to show a quintessential element of a place, something that, if it went missing, would alter the fabric of a destination. For example, the seagulls of Istanbul, the traffic of Cairo, the lottery ticket sellers of Hanoi, etc.

How have your international background and experiences (like being in the US Navy) impacted your worldview and your approach to photography?

My background and experiences have impacted it greatly. I like to say that we bring our whole selves to the scene. What we see, what we choose to photograph, and how we capture it, is informed by our own experiences, character, beliefs, etc. For one, I became a travel photographer and writer because I believe in the power of travel to make us better human beings and in the power of stories to impact us. I’ve been traveling ever since I was a little girl, and I have always believed in the goodness of this world. I have trust in the world and I love the world — and often, it loves me back by allowing me to meet incredible people — like my now friends in the Bedouin community in the South of Jordan — and tell their stories.

What is the biggest challenge of being a professional travel photographer, and how do you overcome it? 

Trusting myself and my vision and believing that I have what it takes has been a journey for me. Impostor syndrome can run unchecked in a creative profession where there are no diplomas to show that would say we’re eligible to do this work. If I were half as confident when I was starting out six years ago as I am now, I would have reached out to more magazines and brands, taken more risks, and perhaps had an easier time getting established. 

This is the biggest piece of advice I can give: believe in yourself, in your voice, and in the fact that what you have to say matters. Then, go ahead and reach out to people. If you don’t act, nothing will happen on its own (and getting “discovered” is a myth that we shouldn’t waste our time on).

What does your kit look like?

I believe that the best camera is the one you have at the moment. I always try to travel light, both because my back doesn’t appreciate me carrying heavy gear anymore and because I’d like to not be intimidating when I’m in the field working with people. 

My setup is very simple: one camera body, two lenses. In rare circumstances, when I know I’m going to a challenging assignment — like shooting in -40C weather in Mongolia — I will bring a second body as back up and have two camera set-ups on me at all times.

I use a Sony A7R III and my two lenses are:

– Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8. This is the lens I do most of my work with. For the type of photography I do, which includes a lot of street, people, landscape work, this lens is versatile and can accomplish a lot. 

– Zeiss 55mm f/1.8. I sometimes bring this lens for special portraits, but really, the 24-70 is the workhorse I use most of the time! 

On my wishlist currently is the Sony GM Series 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. I love the compression it provides, bringing the viewer into the scene.

Which photographers influence your own work and practice?

I love the work of Sweden-based Lola Akindmade Akerstrom (she was a guest on our podcast) and her approach to storytelling with a keen focus on people. This resonates with me a lot. 

I’ve been known to spend time going over the light, airy, and soft images of people and places around the world by Annapurna Mellon

Khadija Farah is another photojournalist whose documentary style informs my work.

You offer an online course where you teach aspiring photographers how to get published. What is the top question you hear the most and how do you respond?

The number one question I get is “How do I get published in National Geographic?” Everyone wants to know that! The answer to that is simple: start building your portfolio by reaching out to smaller, niche publications. Learn what you love and don’t love, develop your voice, know what kinds of stories you’d like to tell, and then — after you have some experience and a better sense of who you are as a storyteller — reach out to Nat Geo! The most important thing is that you have to start acting on your desires. Don’t just sit there and wonder what it would be like to start working with travel pubs and brands. Start reaching out to people.

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