Well, I didn’t quite have coffee with Dina Belenko. She’s in Russia now. I’m in London. So it was more of a virtual coffee. I sat down in my bed, snuggled in blankets, laptop resting on my knees, pen and paper on my left and a hot cup of steaming black coffee perched against the wall on my right. We’re Facebooking each other. Entertaining, nonetheless.
Words: Denisa Rosca, Subeditor: Toni Hart, Photos: Dina Belenko
She likes her coffee sweet. “Usually with milk and sugar” Dina tells me. “I’m always ready to try fancy stuff with multiple layers, syrup, foam and marshmallows. I’m not sure it counts as real coffee. But I like it.”
I like it too.
So, how was your day?
“So, I woke up, checked my plan, found that today I don’t have any commission work to do and no planned meetings, so I was going to take a photo of “Pirate Lemonade“ and write a tutorial about it (I still have a lot of time until the deadline, but I like to prepare things like that in advance). Realized that I don’t have lemons and mint for this image, went to a city centre and since I had to leave home anyway, I popped in at the glass cutter and bought a couple of mirrors I needed for an idea that failed so many times before; but it must work now. Bought props, returned home, had lunch, found and washed an aquarium, arranged everything for the shooting, took the picture (that sounds like I did it very quickly, but no, it took a few hours), cleaned the after-shot mess and went on to answer this question. And here I am. (*smiley face*)
After that I’m going to post-process my lemonade image, write text for it and watch an episode of Gravity Falls then go to sleep. Ta-da!”
By now you probably managed to figure out what Dina does for a living. Dina Belenko is a talented still-life photographer from Khabarovsk, Russia. She enjoys RPG games like Arcanum, writing down her thoughts and creating mind maps, and she’s got a sweet tooth for all kinds of pastry and muffins. And cookies, of course.
Her love for photography begun as sudden as a summer day storm. She acquired a taste right after graduating from high school. Back then, it was still a hobby. She’d capture everything on camera, from the candid faces of her friends to flowers, landscapes and bugs. “There wasn’t a photography genre that I didn’t try. Maybe I just liked the sound of the shutter” Dina says.
“Over the course of time I started taking photography more seriously. I started to think about what I wanted my pictures to say, I planned shootings, drew sketches and paid more attention to details.
Call me a control freak but I fell in love with it. I found out that what interests me lies not in tracing events or retelling stories, but in creating tales of my own. And the easiest way to do this is by having control over all the objects in your shot. And I realised that still life photography is something I could become good at. At least, theoretically. So I decided to make it my profession.”
Each and every one of Dina’s images tells a different story. They transport the viewer into a different dimension. She can make still life photography seem dynamic, adventurous and full of life. And she has a way of playing with coffee cups that makes coffee seem ridiculously cool. As for inspiration, Dina believes in the inspiration that finds us during our work.
“I don’t really believe in abstract inspiration. So, I just sit down with my sketchbook, felt pens and a cup of tea and I start to think about what the next picture could be.”
She begins by choosing a topic. Something abstract like the sea. Or perhaps space travelling. Then she chooses the most appropriate objects to tell the story. Otherwise, she begins by selecting an object then crafting a story around it. It all takes place within the witty corners of her mind.
“Every object around us retains our emotions, our expectations, our feelings” Dina explains.
Every single thing grows old and breaks down just like we do. Things can tell what they saw, who held them, who accidentally broke them and who lovingly gathered their pieces and put them back together. I think it’s really fascinating; all these connections between things, their small transformations, their secret lives.”
Speaking of secrets, tell me something very few people know about you.
“That’s a tall order. I don’t have a lot of secrets to tell. Well, I’m a big fan of good old RPG like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura or Planescape: Torment. And I remember half of Virgil’s lines by heart. Does that count?”
I guess it does.
I noticed that you tend to tell stories through your images. What’s the story behind The Cookies for Asterion and Coffee for Dreamers, Coffee for Travelers?
The Cookies for Asterion.
“Do you know the story “The House of Asterion” (original Spanish title: “La casa de Asterion”) by Jorge Luis Borges? He’s one of my favourite writers. It’s a story about Theseus and Maze, told from a point of view of a Minotaur. We learn that the Minotaur was just a kid who was lost in a giant maze. Yes, he has a monstrous appearance, but he’s still just a child. A child like any other, who should have a normal life, who should have milk and cookies for breakfast. So, I guess, these images are a sort of tribute.”
Coffee for Dreamers, Coffee for Travellers.
“Coffee cups are probably my favorite subject to shoot. I love all their different shapes and forms and I love the light reflecting on the surface of tea or coffee. There’s something so dreamy in these round reflections. So, why not use them to tell a small, cosy story? I tried deciding what story should I tell and who is going to be my hero, so I made a list of possible characters: a wizard, a traveler, a clockmaker, an archaeologist, a writer, a reader, an adventurer, a chess player and so on. I chose the traveller and the reader.
My absolutely favourite way to travel is by airplane (frankly, I share the excitement of Arthur from Cabin Pressure: “It’s just always exciting! That amazing moment when twelve tons of metal leave the earth – and no-one knows why!“) so my traveller got the reflection of an airplane in his cup. And the reader got the dragon. There might be a princess in the tower, but dragons are more fun, don’t you think?”
I couldn’t agree more. Princesses are for wimps. Dragons can fly, they shoot fire through their nostrils… Plus there’s that tangible villain factor… They’re so cool. OK. Back to you.
What role does food play in your artistic process?
“Coffee cups, doughnuts, cookies – these things so often play a lead role in my photos because they are so common and simple. You can shoot a rare object and get a lovely picture — but only one picture. If you work with something mundane you can create a variety of stories for it. Also, when you use simple things everyone can understand the story. And I love the ease and beauty of it.”
Alright. Now tell me, what’s your absolute favourite food?
“I’m in love with all sorts of pastry and sweets. From fresh-baked bread to meringues, cookies, muffins and marshmallows. And here’s a really big secret: I’m a terrible cook! But muffins are one thing I can do properly!”
I’d love to be able to bake my own muffins! Maybe you could teach me one day.
“I would love to, but I’m afraid. Apparently, cooking and the metric system aren’t my best friends. But I know someone who has all the best recipes- Linda Lomelino. She is the best pastry chef I know (and also one of the best food photographers I know). If you want perfect muffins, just go to her blog. I think, she is an enchantress of sweets.”
That sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing!
What would you say is the biggest challenge when shooting food?
“The biggest challenge when shooting food is that you can’t store it like other props. When life gives you a lemon cake you can take a photo right away or say “Oh, heck, let’s just eat it“. You can’t put it in a cardboard box and come back to it at the end of the week. But that’s a problem only people who can’t cook (like me), understand. I wish I could bake lemon cakes myself.”
Alright, enough with the food. My mouth’s so humid right now. (*drooling here*)
Name 3 things you couldn’t live without.
“I guess the practical answer would be air, water and food. But aside from that…
Sunlight. Some people work on sun batteries and I’m one of them. And pen and paper. Nothing helps you think like writing down your thoughts. Sketches, to-do lists and mind maps. I wouldn’t do anything if I had to solve every single problem in my head. So I won’t even count them separately. Second place for paper and third place for pens, pencils and markers.”
“And, yes, I’m not going to say “My photo camera“. If for some improbable reason I won’t be able to take photographs, I hope I’ll still be able to make sketches and arrange compositions. That way I could let somebody else release the shutter.”
I love that. I love the idea of creating a composition before the shutter is released. So many young photographers shoot images out of reflex, without thinking, or even feeling. They press that shutter like there’s no tomorrow. Garbage, that’s what they make. But not you. Your images have meaning.
Tell me more about your background, your hometown, the school you went to.
How did it influence your creative process?
“When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a book publisher. I received a humanitarian education in publishing and editing. Oddly enough, this education proved useful to me as a photographer; both in the technical department (the basics of image processing and prepress) and in the creative part (inspirational courses, literature, aesthetics and cultural studies). I think it’s my dream to do book illustrations. It’s a kind of desire to combine these two specialties.”
That’s kind of funny actually, how you have never envisioned yourself as a photographer. I remember when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I’d grow up and I’d say, proud as a peacock, “I wanna be an astronaut!” Would I have succeeded? Probably not. But I still dream of falling stars every night.
What about you? What did you tell people when they’d ask what you wanted to be when you grew up?
“Every time someone would ask me that question I’d have a different answer. I suppose most children react this way. There are so many interesting things and you want to try them all! The last idea I had was “a book publisher“ so I went to university with a dream of becoming one. But even before that I wanted to be someone from a film crew — a cameraman or a property master. That’s funny, how these two dreams combined into a still life photographer.”
So what is your biggest dream right now?
“Honestly? Hmm… My biggest dream is to become the best in my field. I know it’s a long, tough way and I’m not even standing in the middle and I have lots to learn. But everyone has to start from something. This dream may never come true, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a dreaming, right?”
Right. We’re never too young, or too old to dream.
Here is Dina’s Bread and Breakfast Series: