Assistant Professor Nadia Sablin is a 2018 winner of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, one of the highest honors available to scholars, scientists and creative artists in the United States.
Sablin, who teaches photography in the School of Fine & Performing Arts at SUNY New Paltz, was one of 173 Guggenheim Fellows selected from an applicant pool of nearly 3,000.
She has photographed at locations all over the world, but has dedicated significant time and attention – including more than a decade’s worth of summer visits – to Alekhovshchina, a small, rural village in Russia where members of her family have lived for generations.
“The village is kind of like a place out of time,” Sablin said. “It’s very preserved in the way they were holding onto traditions that were no longer used in the rest of the world.”
Sablin visited her aunts in Alekhovshchina for seven summers, and the photographs from those trips were published by Duke University Press in the 2015 collection, “Aunties: Seven Summers of Alevina and Ludmila.”
Even after the book came out, Sablin continued returning to the region – in part to continue photographing, and in part out of a nostalgic attachment to the place.
“I couldn’t photograph my aunts 24/7,” she said. “They would at times get tired of me and my camera, so I started just walking around the village, remembering the time I spent there as a child.
“I started photographing the people I met along the way, and as I returned year after year, I would photograph the same families over and over again. Now, the work is almost ten years old; I have portraits of kids growing up, elderly people aging, landscapes changing, industries dying and growing. The village became a window onto the rest of Russia, how the country was functioning.”
As a Guggenheim Fellow, Sablin will be able to deepen her focus on this project during a year-long sabbatical, which will afford new opportunities for her photography to portray seasonal scenes and a fuller sense of the rhythm of the village.
“I wouldn’t call it pure documentary work, because I’m more interested in lyrical interpretation of what I see,” Sablin said. “I question the ability of photography to be objective in any case. We all bring our baggage to how we see the world. I can’t possibly be objective when I’m there, because I grew up there and I’m in love with the landscape. It’s tinged with nostalgia and romanticism for me.”
Ideas about documentation, objectivity and the photographer’s role in representation are key to Sablin’s work with New Paltz students, as well.
“I teach a class on the document, where we talk about what documentary work actually means, what representing the truth means, what working with a community and gaining access mean, how you act ethically when representing others, and ways in which subjectivity seeps into that realm,” she said.
Sablin works with students at all levels of the photography curriculum, and upon her return to campus will help steward the College’s new MFA program in photography.
“Our undergrads are wonderful, really intelligent and hardworking, with a great deal of skill,” Sablin said. “But I’m excited to work with people who are at a different point in their careers. I’m also hopeful that there will be an interesting dialogue between the grads and the undergrads, that they will be able to learn from each other and influence each other.”