We chatted to Mon Levchenkova about her final major project at LCC and why she based it around her hometown of Hampstead, London.
So, Mon, Tell us a little about this project. What is it about and how did it start?
I was coming up with ideas for my final year project in university and I looked back at the photos I took in and around Hampstead. I realised very quickly there were no people in my photos. I wondered why. It was very simple, very obvious; I didn’t know anyone here any longer. All of our family friends had moved away and I was a stranger in my own neighbourhood. It felt odd to love a place so much and not be in touch with its community. That realisation was key to the project. In many ways the project is about the mood of the place and what contributes to Hampstead’s allure. Is it the people? Is it the history? The architecture? Can I say it’s all of it? I still find myself quite perplexed by it.
What drew you to Hampstead and the environment and people inhabiting it?
I put this question forward to many people in our community. There are a lot of answers, all of which tend to point to a similar description of the atmosphere. Time slows here; it brings opportunities for reflection and the enjoyment of the natural. Summers here are especially wonderful. You can spend your weekends in the Heath, watching rabbits hop by, carving names into the trees and watching -much to your dismay- the mosquitoes bite at your legs. It’s very romantic – a place that bred many poets and artists. I think you see that in the people here when you start talking to them. Even outside of this project – some of the people that I hold dearest to my heart have lived in Hampstead and they have been the most interesting people I have ever met. They would disagree or laugh at that I am sure – but it seems like no one ever gets that across to them and that feels like such an injustice to me. Whether it’s the people or the place, I know that both hold your attention, pique your curiosity and as far as I’m concerned, feel like home.
Do you feel like having an outside perspective of the area made it easier to form an idea for a project?
I was certainly no stranger to the area but was most definitely an outsider to its community before I begun the project. Conducting interviews definitely wasn’t as hard for me as it would have been for someone who didn’t know the area well as well as the people. So in that respect, it helped me ease into the project very quickly.
How did you begin to meet these people in your photographs?
One eve, I began designing and printing flyers to post around Hampstead. Reaching people here doesn’t really work well if you’re putting this out on the internet, so I had to do a lot of late night walking, pinning flyers to trees. That in itself was, on some days, quite a rollercoaster. One eve just before midnight, I had someone calling me out of my “pretentious” flyers that did not mention that cleaners and bin men could contact me to be interviewed and photographed for the project. We had an hour long conversation about this and it was totally pointless – I was being psychoanalysed by a contrarian.
You’ve mentioned previously that your meeting with Léonie was quite surreal. Would you explain?
Now, the thing about Léonie and I meeting is bizarre – well to me anyway. A summer before I started the project, a friend and I were shooting in some of the ponds in Hampstead. It was around 5 in the morning and I walked into the lake, wearing a long powder pink dress. I was floating there for a while before a concerned woman walked over with her dog to check if I wasn’t “doing a Sylvia Plath”. She later introduces herself as Léonie – owner of the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. I never saw her after that – until she was the first person to call me about the project. I then began going to their open mic nights every Sunday and it is where I met her partner, Godfrey. He was someone I really warmed to.
Your subjects must have had a lot of trust in you to let you shoot them for this project. How did you go about gaining this?
Building a rapport with people was something that I was incredibly aware of and had been very sensitive to. I had a notebook that tracked how many times I met everyone and when would be the best point in our friendship to shoot. It can be read as incredibly clinical but it really helped me a lot. I also found being very upfront and honest about my intentions – as well as introducing some humour to the conversations – very helpful.
The captions alongside your photos describe a little about each image. How did these images all link up to create a full project as such?
When I first began editing and sequencing I was very overwhelmed with the body of work before me. I don’t think I have ever worked on a project that had this much work to edit and sequence. I was toying around with the idea of having two books – one dedicated to the area I know and love so much and the other dedicated to the people that had made this place so interesting. I met with Donald Weber whilst in university and I showed him all of the stuff I had, including some photographs of the bizarre skies I’ve shot in Hampstead. I told him I had the intention of doing two books and he replied, “Why two? Its got to be three”. We thought that having the skies as book one kind of set up the scene and added to the mystery and charm of Hampstead. In the end, each book had a different story and a different aesthetic. Together, they pulled the viewer into Hampstead and really placed them there.
I’m particularly interested in the photographs surrounding Richard. There are 3 images out of the series that include him in someway, this is more than anyone else. Any reasons why?
Richard is a wild character who still perplexes and interests me to this day. A retired sexologist in his 80s – doesn’t that grab your attention in some way now? Well it did mine. During my visits to his house he’d point out interesting looking objects (which are kept everywhere around his house) and they’d all have a story – like the gravestone he keeps in his living room by the fireplace. It’s all the way from America and it has travelled between England and the US quite a few times. Then we go down to his office and he mentions Yoko Ono. Tells me he was in one of her films – or rather his behind. Now I’m standing there, trying to take all of the seemingly endless information in and he quite humorously asks “Now tell me, just who the hell are you?” in wanting to find out more about me. I suppose it’s fair – we had spent three or four sessions of me asking him questions – now it was my time to be at the receiving end of that.
Is this project you could see carrying on in the future?
It is impossible to say. Though my peers tell me I should carry on, at the moment I feel like I don’t want to. The lack of light in winter and serotonin doesn’t bode well for a photographer.
Who of us can say if we intend to carry on a project? Well, probably many people but not me. You can leave it in the archives for years and before you know it you’ve blinked and it has been five… ten years. You either think you’re totally done with it or you want to carry it on for whatever reason. Right now, my intention is to move out of London which puts the project on hold. As much as I was attached to Hampstead and the city it is in, I am realising that this city is no longer for me. I plan on moving to Manchester and then going to Siberia for a month for a photo documentary project – but that is only at its middle research stage at the moment.
However, if and when I choose to revisit the project, I hope to photograph the people that helped me make it what it was. They may not be in Hampstead anymore but they still hold the qualities that everyone in the project does in some way or another. This may also be my somewhat cryptic and very indirect way of asking them. Being overt has never been one of my strongest qualities.