Sasha Smolina is a fashion photographer who started from scratch
April 19, 2017
Read the highlights
  • Founder: Sasha Smolina
  • Company: Sasha Smolina Photography
  • From: Moscow, Russia
  • Lived abroad in: United States
  • Recommended reading: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Key takeway: Don’t build yourself too much of a safety net. You have to take big risks to have success. You always need to stay a little bit hungry.

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.

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Jess Ainlay: What comes after this hustle phase you’re in now?

Sasha Smolina: The truth is I actually really enjoy doing the weddings. The next step is to fill up every single weekend with weddings during wedding season, have such a dependable income from that and the family portraits and referrals that come of that, that there is room to think further.

The weddings are great for me as an expat, because I don’t have my family here and I spend almost every weekend with families. It’s great to have my days be surrounded by romance, and then to make them so happy when they see the photos that will still be out 20, 30 years from now about this special day.

Jess Ainlay: In five years from today, where do you want to be?

Sasha Smolina: Vogue Australia recently found me on Instagram to do a shoot. I do fashion every now and then, I also work with one of the top model agencies, Red, for the stability fashion photography can provide. But I don’t think that’s what I’m aiming for. I’d really like to be able to explore more artistic projects. I love taking pictures of people, portraits, in a way that captures their emotions. I’d like to shoot models, but in a creative way that tells a story. Doing only fashion feels a little shallow now.

Jess Ainlay: How is working in the US different to Russia?

Sasha Smolina: Well, life in the US is so different to life in Russia, first of all. Here, you talk to strangers, make small talk, expand your circle through serendipity. In Russia, you keep to yourself and the people you came with.

In Russia, when you work in fashion, even though you are not a model, you have to go to cocktail parties. You have to be a bit of a princess, dress the part, act the part, because there are other factors beyond the quality of your work that mandate your success. You have to play the game. And many people in the industry don’t even need to work, in Russia. They are doing it for fun.

In New York, you have to work hard. People come from everywhere here to make it. So you cut out all the fluffy stuff and hustle. I really appreciate that.

Jess Ainlay: What lessons have you learned, hustling to make it here in New York.

Sasha Smolina: Here’s a story to illustrate what I know. The other day, I went to pick up a bottle of wine. The girl at the counter saw I was a photographer and we started talking. She came here to become a photographer, but she was working in the liquor store because it is so expensive here, and she was scared to fail. She’s a good photographer, she gave me her website and I checked her out. The problem is that she doesn’t believe.

You have to believe that you have already succeeded. Next summer, I want to pack every weekend with a wedding right? Well, I already know I have achieved that next summer. I don’t know how, but that’s not important. I know I have it. You have to act as if you already have it. If you fail, you’re not going to die of starvation.

You also have to start telling people about your dream. Talk about what you have to offer as much as possible to anyone who will listen. You never know who might need what that ends up to be the connection you really needed to catapult you to your success.

Finally, if you have a crutch, a safety net, it won’t work the same as if you jump off the cliff and make it work.

Jess Ainlay: Is there a book you can recommend that has affected your worldview?

Sasha Smolina: Flowers for Algernon showed me how to stay true to myself. It helped me to fight to work as a photographer. I’m actually from a small town and have a teaching degree. My parents pressured me to become a teacher, and they only just recently seem to understand my choice to become a photographer.

Jess Ainlay: Wow, well thank you so much for sitting down for this interview.

Sasha Smolina: It was a pleasure.

You can connect with Sasha at sashasmolina.nyc and on Instagram @smolinasasha

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