“A condensed symbol of the country at large”: Anastasia Samoylova on the starkly divided state of Florida

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As the first selected photographer for MPB’s Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission in collaboration with 1854/BJP, the Russian-American artist is set to document the stark divisions of Florida’s “Forgotten Coast”

Florida. The sunshine state. The political swing-state. The swampland paradise. The refuge of excess. The tourist fantasy. The real-estate deception. The sub-tropical fever dream. The place where shiny public image and sobering reality collide. 

The Southeastern US region – starkly divided in landscape, culture, politics and class – is set to be the subject of new work from Russian-born artist Anastasia Samoylova, one of two photographers selected for MPB’s Shoot the Sequel: Then & Now America commission in collaboration with 1854 and British Journal of Photography. Over one month, Samoylova has been given an open brief to create a new project exploring enduring themes of American cultural identity, and how the nation’s polarised present speaks to its complex past.

© Anastasia Samoylova.

After living in the US for the past 12 years, and obtaining citizenship early in 2021, “I am an insider and yet still an outsider,” muses the artist. “I have the perspective of someone who is acutely aware of the country’s lingering shortfalls and injustices.” Samoylova studied environmental design in her home country of Russia, employing digital photography to record her 3D constructions before discovering the medium’s narrative potential as a magic in its own right. She later moved to Florida via the American Midwest, securing an MFA with a focus on lens-based media. Between observational photography, studio practice and installation, Samoylova’s approach to visual storytelling has never been prescriptive: “I respond to the environment around me,” she says, fully present in the “spontaneity of life.”

© Anastasia Samoylova.
© Anastasia Samoylova.

After settling in Miami Beach in 2016, Samoylova was struck by the dissonance of the area’s public image – the glossy real estate advertising and promise of luxury – against its reality. “As a tourist destination, it’s reliant upon very careful maintenance of this public image of paradise,” she explains. “But the state has among the largest discrepancies in the distribution of wealth [in the USA], and it’s a land on the brink of ecological catastrophe.” With this dichotomy of perception versus reality in mind, Samoylova’s artistic practice utilises tools and strategies pertaining to digital media and commercial photography to interrogate notions of environmentalism, consumerism and the picturesque. 

Landscape Sublime, which began in 2013, is a long-term project examining the ubiquitousness of idealised nature photography, whereby people “set out not to share their experience of a place,” Samoylova says, “but to make the most perfect, often conformist pictures of it; imaginary geographies that live in the memory, in parallel to reality.” She would search examples of various image types based on keywords – glaciers, deserts, forests, tropics, mountains – before printing the images, cutting them, folding them, and assembling them as three-dimensional sculptural tableaux, to be carefully lit and photographed. The intention was to shatter perspective in the manners of cubism and constructivism, each image contributing to the larger, imperfect whole.

“Ocean views are prized in the real-estate world, with little regard for building projects’ locations in high-risk flood zones”

Three years later, in the context of her move to Miami, Samoylova found the same issues manifest in a new and urgent light. “Ocean views are prized in the real-estate world, with little regard for building projects’ locations in high-risk flood zones,” she explains. Driven purely by idealised aesthetics, “investors seem to turn a blind eye to the reality that Miami is slipping underwater.” And so FloodZone – published as a photo book by Steidl in 2019 – was born, delicately documenting Miami’s complex relationship with rising sea levels. “It suits my working process to keep projects ongoing and developing in parallel to each other,” Samoylova says. “Each has its own approach, and yet they are clearly connected. Each begins slowly, carefully and unforced, allowing themes and ways of observing to emerge in their own time.” 

The artist’s newly commissioned project for MPB will be no exception. For the past four years, Samoylova has been travelling the state of Florida, making images in and out of its major cities and landmarks for her series Floridas. With empathy and, at times, irony, she embarks on wandering road trips, encountering varying American environments and artifacts by chance: architecture, cars, signs, advertising; places of leisure and labour; everyday people in the street. At some point, she came to realise that the state had also been photographed by Walker Evans on and off for forty years. 

“Evans’ photographs were attempting to define the place as he understood it in his own era, but also to see the state as a condensed symbol of the country at large. I feel much the same”

© Anastasia Samoylova.
© Anastasia Samoylova.

“I saw immediately the affinities and the differences between our work,” she says. “Evans’ photographs were attempting to define the place as he understood it in his own era, but also to see the state as a condensed symbol of the country at large. I feel much the same.” Having invited applicants to consider how narratives traversed by generations of storytellers can be reimagined in the context of contemporary voices and new cameras, “the Then & Now commission immediately struck me as something I was already doing,” says Samoylova.

As a major online platform for buying, selling and trading photo and video equipment, MPB’s Shoot the Sequel campaign is about realising the boundless world of creative potential that lies in every piece of used kit. The Then & Now America commission was conceived to bring this idea to life within a larger creative and cultural context. Recirculating more than 300,000 items of used kit every year, the MPB team includes trained camera experts and seasoned photographers. Crucially, every piece of kit is inspected carefully by product specialists, and comes with a six-month warranty.

As for how Samoylova will carry out the brief, her plan is to photograph in the Florida Panhandle (“The Forgotten Coast”), in and around Tallahassee (the state’s capital) and some other select locations. In doing so, she will produce a vividly layered portrait of the area, so unique in its history and yet so all-American: a poetic, sobering outlook not simply on Florida, but on modern American culture as a whole. Not pretentious, didactic, or sentimental, but an organic series of everyday observations. Unlike the excessively developed South and Central Florida, the northeast of the state – which borders Alabama and Georgia – contains “a multitude of layers of old and new atop each other, both literally and metaphorically,” she explains. “The quintessentially American genre of road trip photography should add a touch of authenticity to my detached outlook on life here.” 

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.