Joel Koczwarski

Canadian professional photographer who has lived in Moscow for three years. During this time he has staged exhibitions and developed an impressive portfolio. Moscow expat Life’s editor John Harrison caught up with him:

You are a real expat in that you have been travelling around with your parents all over the world since you were born. How does that make you feel about the world?

That’s a huge question. More than anything I’d say that the world is a very small place. Once you are forced out of your comfort zones more than a couple of times you begin to feel confortable anywhere. I was very fortunate, I had great schooling, which is one of the few advantages of being an expat, and I have seen many continents. I have continued living in the way that my parents brought me up in. They were international schoolteachers who travelled the world all their working lives. They started in Korea, and we lived in Saudi, in Germany, in Kenya, and I left them there and went to university in Canada. They continued to travel to South Africa, to Mali, to Abu Dhabi, and then to Canada. Their parents were through and through Canadians who lived in Vancouver all their lives.

I grew up to see many friends live in a bubble and watch the world go by as if it were a television programme, something to casually observe while they wait to go back to real life, which was wherever home may be. And I think that is such a waste because there is so much to learn and experience out there. I was fortunate because my class in Kenya was dominated by ‘locals’. My class was a majority of permanent ‘foreign born localized humans’, rather than temporary ‘expats’, so I got to see a lot of Kenya that other expats didn’t behind the doors of their SUVs.

What are the good and bad things about Moscow?

I love the vastness of this city and that things are happening everyday, all the time. I love the fact that I can’t wrap my brain around what is going on out there. I have lived in a lot of smaller cities; in Barcelona, in Ottawa in Canada, and after a year or two you kind of understand, you get to know what is happening in the bars, the nightlife, in the arts scene. But in Moscow; that is impossible. Who knows what is happening a block away? There could be a world-class exhibition of one thing or another going on, and without going out there to check, I would have no idea.

On the bad side, it can be overwhelming.

As a photographer, what do you like about Moscow?

I love a lot of things about Moscow from an artistic perspective. There is such a rich cultural history that is just waiting to be explored through photography. I try to focus on exploring how Muscovites see their own history, how Russians understand Westerners, and I try to explore the intersections between historical, cultural, political and social life. I try to capture them in a way that might capture somebody’s imagination.

The metro, which is an incredibly beautiful system of underground palaces, is an example. What struck me is that there are millions and millions of people who travel on it everyday and they don’t even look up. A lot of what hangs over people as they go to work are symbols of a regime bygone. I started to wonder to what effect does the architecture around us affect our lives? And to what extent is architecture a reflection of us? So with my series on the Moscow underground, I wanted to explore the idea that the Soviet symbols have stood the test of time, what other aspects of society might still remain from that time?

How do you locate these intersections?

I suppose through exploring the city, and through studying the history of Moscow and the Soviet Union. Sometimes it is a simple as seeing something strange happen on the street. Another one of my recent series is also based in the metro: ‘Moscow Escalators are for Lovers.’ As you may well know, young lovers in Moscow love to make out on escalators. This may not be unique for Moscow, but I certainly haven’t seen this as much as in other parts of the world. As the world’s media has turned against Russia and started to focus on the negative aspects of Russian society, as many as there may be, this series was intended to show that it is not just doom and gloom here. It’s not the evil empire, there are people here who are in love and they don’t care about anything else.

Would you say that Russians are more interested in being in the here and now than people are in many other countries?

For many reasons I think that may be true. I know from anecdotal evidence, that young Russians don’t save as much, relative to say young Brits or Americans. I have Russian friends who blow their pay checks every two weeks, and have no qualms about that. It wasn’t so long ago here that people’s life savings were completely destroyed, and you can see how that would influence one’s mentality if you don’t trust the institutions that are there to help you plan for the future.

Do you think Art can help people rise above their own particular cultural short-sightedness?

Yes, I think that is a goal for any artist. To open viewers’ minds to ideas that they hadn’t previously thought of, to bring new perspectives to the table, to point out issues that they might not previously have discussed, to explore issues in society that people might not readily talk about.

What inspires you most?

Interaction between people; my art mostly focuses on society, on culture, and how it changes in a world where everything is becoming more localized and globalised.

So the world is becoming more localized and globalized at the same time?

Social networking these days is so incredibly engaging and powerful that we can be connected to anybody around the world at any moment, and feel more connected than we do with the person sitting two booths behind us. And in that sense you are in a local community that you can build regardless of geography. I have been on 5 or 6 international trips in the past year and I have a favourite spot to go to in every town that I have been to, so I have my ‘local’ in Montreal and in London, whilst I live in Moscow. The world at the same time has become more globalised in the sense that businesses can connect to people all around the world, through this modern marvel of communication and international trade.

Anything you would like to say to people who are moving here?

I would say that Moscow is a fantastic city, it’s worth exploring every day, and you’ll have good days and bad days. I was talking to my parents a few weeks ago, and they were telling me about their experience of moving to a big city in a foreign country several times in their lives. They told me that after about three months in a new country, they regretted moving because of the stress and work involved in adapting to a new environment. This happened every time they moved. But they said that once they stuck it out to about 6 months, that things started to normalize, stress levels would come down, and they would start to see the fruits of their labour, their lives would sort themselves out somehow. And then they were happy to be where they were. They found that friends of theirs experienced the exact same time frame as they moved around the world. So I would say to expats coming here to Moscow that it is going to be tough for the first while, but it’s a great place to be and you’ll soon realise that, I hope.