Read the full interview
Jess Ainlay: Thanks for agreeing to this interview Sasha! I’m so excited to dig deeper into how you came to America, and what’s it’s like to make it as a photographer in New York City. How long ago did you move to the United States?
Sasha Smolina: I came in 2013 from Russia. I won the Green Card Lottery.
Jess Ainlay: So happy. I knew I wanted to move to America, and so I moved here right away . It was the second time I had applied. When I first came to New York, I lived in Chinatown, with a Chinese family for like $500 a month. My room was basically like living in an elevator, so it wasn’t glamorous, but it wasn’t Brighton Beach.
Jess Ainlay: Do you mean the Russian area of New York City, near Coney island?
Sasha Smolina: Exactly. I knew it was typically Russian so I went my first week in New York, but this is a totally different culture to what I identify with. The people there emigrated decades ago and stay in their enclave out there. I knew I needed to live in Manhattan, and quickly made friends with a different set of Russians - entrepreneurs who know what they want, they built their success in Moscow and moved to the US after.
Jess Ainlay: Was that your first time in America?
Sasha Smolina: No, no! I had been here several times before that. The first time I came to America I was 19. I came for three months, totally alone. My flight was to New York, but I was supposed to go to Memphis, where my parents friends were. I took an actual Greyhound there from New York and stayed for 2.5 months. It was a strange experience. I worked in the gift shop of an exclusive hotel, I even met Heidi Klum and Seal when they stayed there, but the people in Memphis felt so different to me, and also to the America I thought I knew. After Memphis I spent two more months in LA, and this felt more my speed. But New York is really where I knew I wanted to be.
Jess Ainlay: Did you know anyone here when you arrived in 2013?
Sasha Smolina: My best friend actually lives in Westchester, but she is married and this felt like a totally different world. I actually used Instagram to meet people, seeing the cool coffee shops that people worked out of, I would start hanging there too, and after a while, people start talking to you. I definitely feel like this is my city now.
Jess Ainlay: What did you do in Moscow before you arrived?
Sasha Smolina: : I built up my work in Moscow as a fashion photographer. It was slow, but after seven years, I had a really strong career. It felt like it forever, but also all of a sudden. Then I started traveling for jobs in London, Bangkok, Barcelona, and Southeast Asia. As soon as I moved to New York, I started to email everyone I ever worked with anywhere in the world, and tried to pick up small gigs at first.
Jess Ainlay: Did that work to help you build an NYC network?
Sasha Smolina: Exactly. At first I got a few referrals for jobs as a second shooter, then I got a couple of weddings, and then, eventually, I started booking weddings all the time. As the families grew, I became not only their wedding photographer but their family photographer too. So families and weddings are now my bread and butter.
Jess Ainlay: Sounds different to high fashion shoots in Moscow!
Sasha Smolina: When you want to start a new life in a new country, you have to go ten steps back and work harder than anyone else to make it. I don’t mind the hard work. I shoot weddings every week, have other shoots during the week and edit every day. It’s exhausting, but I do it because I know that this is all going according to plan.
Jess Ainlay: How are you so sure of that? How do you trust in the unknown?
Sasha Smolina: I don’t understand completely how a plane flies, but I know that I’m going to get on, it’s going to take off and land. I trust it. Why don’t giant boats sink when they’re packed down with all these goods?
Life is the same way. If you’re ever actually going to be successful, then you have to believe it will work out. If you don’t believe it will, then it definitely won’t.