Introducing 1854’s Fast Track winners: Otto Masters, Marisol Mendez and Irina Shkoda

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1854’s career accelerator for unsigned talent is back! Apply to 1854 Fast Track Vol. 2 to get in front of global brand directors, advertising agencies and industry figures at LE BOOK Europe this September.

A new “career accelerator” for unsigned artists, 1854’s FastTrack open call promotes fresh talent in the commercial sphere. Here, we meet three of this year’s 18 winners: from South Wales to South America, they talk culture, convention-breaking and connecting with people from behind the lens

Ukraine-born visual artist Irina Shkoda grew up in the family of a Catholic priest. “It was strict, and I spent most of my time in the female monastery where my dad served,” she remembers. After a brief stint working as an actress after college, she gravitated towards photography, and quickly realised its potential as a creative form of self-therapy. Soon after, her project Miserere emerged. “I wanted to tell the story of my childhood and my subsequent rebellion against religious dogma,” she says. “I grew up in extreme piety, and I experienced sexual harassment by the age of 10, which came from, among others, the clerics themselves.” At the centre of Shkoda’s work is the concept of sin, which became, for her, a “salvation, and a kind of spiritual path.” 

Shkoda is a winner of 1854’s inaugural FastTrack initiative. Having launched as an open-call earlier this year, 18 unsigned artists – deemed to represent some of the most exciting new talent on the scene today – were chosen to have their work championed amongst talent representatives, advertising agencies and brands at LE BOOK Connections Europe and throughout 1854’s global network.

'Ps 51:5' from the series Miserere by Irina Shkoda’

The images in Shkoda’s Miserere are characterised by a clash between deep shadow and heavy flash, and a macabre atmosphere. Some pictures show us nuns and crucifixes; others are focused on bodies — nude, contorted and pulled. Some of the people we see are professional models while others are close friends, and four are self-portraits. “One way or another, my deepest inspiration comes from classical Catholic culture,” she says. “All these Madonnas and martyrs pierced by arrows are my background.” There are 19 images in the project, and each of them is named after a line from the Psalm ‘Miserere’ — the part of the Bible Shkoda always read as a child.

Shkoda is now working on a continuation of Miserere, which expands her conception of sin and discusses sex trafficking. Spectres from her past still haunt her images, she says, but that’s OK, because where once she believed it was all about trauma, she now realises it’s really about love. “Through the process of photography, I took my story, my background, and my love for the Christian aesthetics that used to hurt me, and accepted it all as part of my identity.”

'Ps 51:6' from the series Miserere by Irina Shkoda’
'Ps 51:7' from the series Miserere by Irina Shkoda’

Marisol Mendez is another of this year’s FastTrack winners, and a rising talent to watch. Having left her home country of Bolivia to study in Buenos Aires and then London, MADRE is Mendez’s first personal project since returning — and, like Shkoda, she had Catholicism in her sights when creating it. “I found that little had changed in Bolivia regarding the representation of women in the media, which remained whitewashed and phallocentric,” she says. “And to this day, Catholicism and class struggles permeate our understanding of womanhood.” Catholic dogmas reinforce beliefs that misrepresent indigenous and mestizo women, she says, and MADRE was conceived as a way to reclaim their image.

“My practice has always been about seeking closeness and making connections.”

-Marisol Mendez

The resulting portraits are powerful and eclectic photographs imbuing both softness and strength, while re-appropriating religious symbolism. “I wanted to photograph women as reinterpretations of the traditional archetypes of virgins, mothers and whores to add nuance and defy a singular vision of what femininity is,” she says. “I come from a continent of ‘mestizaje’ where reality is often interlaced with fantasy, religion is twinned with myth, and old and new cohabit. As a result, my images are often situated between documentary and fiction and oscillate between naturalistic and surreal.” The people in her pictures are both old friends and new ones. “They’re people I met and connected with instinctively… at dance lessons, coffee shops, on strolls around the city, and even at protests,” she explains. “My practice has always been about seeking closeness and making connections.”

Mendez is attracted to photography’s immediacy, and to the challenge of creating whole narratives within single frames. Through MADRE, she was able to explore wider cultural circumstances and look inwards too. In the end, she says, “it became a way of reconciling with my Bolivian identity, and by (re)tracing my female lineage, I was able to (re)connect to my ancestry and, through it, (re)imagine our collective history.” She’s now working towards publishing MADRE in book form later this year. 

'Soft' Marisol Mendez
'Matriarca' Marisol Mendez

Joining Shkoda and Mendez, 27-year-old Otto Masters is another hotly-tipped name on this year’s FastTrack roster. With a German and South African father, and a childhood spent moving between Spain, America, Wales and London, Masters was “never in one place for long,” and hence “always being exposed to different cultures and places.” All this learning to assimilate is something that’s helped him build a sensitive and connected way of photographing people, and it’s made him naturally curious too.

Between still lifes and fashion work, a similar sort of atmosphere courses through all of Masters’ work: an aesthetic he describes as “dark and romantic.” “It is often alluding to something else that isn’t so obvious in the image. This can be joy and playfulness in the imagery, but also a sense of alternate reality,” he says. “It can vary widely, but also has a sense of muted calm.”

Fashion photography is, for Masters, a playground of discovery. “It allows me to create any world I wish. It’s a creative genre of photography which allows you to bring other genres together to create really beautiful and thought-provoking imagery.” Having shot for the likes of Burberry and Schön Magazine already, he’s got his sights set on big things. A stand-out shoot for him this year was a series for a black-owned fashion platform. “We created still life dioramas using waste from the fashion and food industry,” he explains, “and turned these into Rembrandt inspired scenes.”

Otto Masters

Masters is currently working on a number of personal projects that explore humanity’s relationship with the planet, and is always searching for new subjects outside of the norm. What most makes him want to photograph a person is if they have a story to tell, he says. “I’m always looking for extra layers to somebody, and a sense of otherness and vulnerability. I love that moment caught in-between. That energy of a film still, and that pause in the frame where the world stands still just before or after an activity of frenzy or motion.” 

Find out more about 1854’s FastTrack open call here.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London