Respecting the dedication of the athletes and telling their story is what drives photographer Ilanna Barkusky. The Canadian-born artist, now living in LA, talks to Glorious about her work
Photography by Ilana Barkusky
Growing up in Vancouver, Ilanna Barkusky was naturally drawn to outdoor sports as it plays such a big part of the culture. Skiing was her first love, and that interest is still with her today. During her university years, she moved to Whistler on and off, so she could spend as much time as possible on the mountains. In fact it was while she was still at school that a project on a skier first ignited a passion for photography, and for documenting the lives of athletes. She has been very focused and driven on her path to becoming a photographer and it’s her respect for the athletes, for their dedication to their sport, that she aims to capture in her images. Ilanna has travelled extensively for work and she now holds several awards for her sports projects. Now living in Los Angeles, Ilanna talks about early inspiration, what comes next career wise, and how she likes to spend her down time.
Glorious: How did your interest in sport develop?
Ilanna Barkusky: Being from Vancouver, I was on skis at age two, and was able to spend my childhood trying a variety of different team and individual sports. I had phases where I was in love with each: figure skating, soccer, climbing, dance, the list goes on. My passion for freestyle skiing burned brighter than the rest, so I moved to Whistler on-and-off during my university years. After a handful of incredible years travelling the world as a ski photographer working for various brands and magazines in the action sports industry, I applied for a work visa to move to Los Angeles and take the next step forward in my creative career. Once in California, the creative world of opportunities really opened up for me. I have been here now a little over two years.
Glorious: When did your interest in photography begin? Did you always envisage becoming a professional photographer?
Ilanna Barkusky: In the beginning, my interest in photography really coincided with my love for skiing. I envisioned it as my eventual career from one particular day in 11th grade where I did a presentation for my photography class on a ski photographer. That day forward, I realised it was a viable career path. From there, I set out my goals at the time in the industry. I wanted to photograph X Games and Dew Tour (the major competitions), and work with the ski film production companies as a still photographer. In my early twenties, I was able to achieve those ambitions, which is when I turned my attention to what was coming up next.
Glorious: You specialise in capturing sports-related visual storytelling. Tell us about this process and what you try to achieve through your images?
Ilanna Barkusky: I like to say that I capture the spark within sport, and there are two different sides that I like to start every project from and show through my work. The first is the artfulness of movement and craft, which is ever present when capturing athletes that have dedicated their lives to what they do. The other aspect is a deep respect and eagerness to celebrate individual stories. Any athlete who has risen to the top of their sport didn’t get there by accident, and each of their stories speak to incredible perseverance and determination.
Glorious: What sports are you passionate about and how do you like to portray them through your work? Are you still playing any sports now?
Ilanna Barkusky: I am passionate about any and all sports, it is so difficult for me to truly narrow it down. I try to transcend the sport itself and approach it more with a deep respect for the athlete and their craft. We are capturing talent in their element – they have dedicated and invested their life into what we are documenting and creating, so I like to begin my artistic concepts from that lens. It is my intention to craft stills or motion that showcase their skill and dedication as an art form. I cycled between many different sports growing up, and mostly stick to individual pursuits now. I don’t find as much time as I’d like to ski, surf and climb, but those are interests of mine, as well as I am hoping to get further into freediving and more ocean activities.
Glorious: You have merged two separate projects – the Water and Colour series – both of which explore the intersection of sport and art through shape, shadows and movement. How long did it take to produce this series and which images are you most proud of and why?
Ilanna Barkusky: This series started around 2020, when I had captured a few aerial images and decided to make it into a longer-term self-assigned project during the pandemic. It was easier to get permits and permissions at the time due to closures, and flying a drone was super safe in terms of the distance of the camera, flying overhead. I have continued to add onto it, and now add the Water images, which were all shot in 2022. I am probably most proud of the earlier images (basketball and track), as I was just beginning with the project itself. Those specific shoots lead to so much more down the road.
Glorious: The series features some Olympic athletes, including diver Katrina Young, swimmer Caroline Burckle and sprinter Jerome Blake. Why did you choose these athletes in particular?
Ilanna Barkusky: These are all athletes and friends of mine that I had the pleasure of working with on personal projects before. I think they probably come to expect it from me as I am always looking to create in some way or another. Katrina, Caroline and Jerome are all world-class athletes, as well as being really collaborative and bringing their own points of view each time we shoot, so it is such a joy to team up with them.
Glorious: Your images have a bold and unique perspective. Do they reflect your personality?
I have had to become more bold since I moved to a new country and changed my way of life from my days in Canada. Also I didn’t know many people in the beginning. So, I would say yes! It is interesting to see my photography evolve and change, reflecting how my world view has grown and evolved in the last few years.
Glorious: What is the one sporting story that you would like to tell through your work and why?
Ilanna Barkusky: There are still so many different stories I want to tell across different sports and mediums, but I think it all comes down to creating work that inspires. In that way, I want to create more storytelling-driven pieces that showcase perseverance and the incredible journeys of the people I cross paths with.
Glorious: You have shot for several global brands including Red Bull, Roxy and LA Clippers. What are the challenges/highlights for these shoots?
Ilanna Barkusky: For the Clippers, I got to shoot in the middle of the court at Staples Center (now Crypto.com Arena), earlier in the day before a game while the broadcast teams were setting up around us. That was an awesome experience! Client work is undeniably a different process than shooting my personal work. You have to work with a larger team and work within certain lines, which is a great challenge in its own way.
Glorious: You recently collaborated on a fully underwater dance film. Tell us about this.
Ilanna Barkusky: Under The Surface is a special form of a personal project that came together with American Olympian and artistic swimmer Anita Alvarez and an all-female camera crew including Jacqueline Lehr and Cynthia Hatfield. I went into the project wanting to capture four key emotions underwater (joy, sadness, fear, and trust).
We all experience such a roller-coaster of these feelings throughout our experience, and I wanted to home in on that in a different kind of setting in the pool. I was also incredibly inspired by Anita’s story, and how much added adversity she had faced in the previous year at the World Championships when she had a scary incident in competition in which she lost consciousness in the pool.
Artistic swimming is such a captivating expression of creativity and movement on its own, and I wanted to experiment with the sport as a medium to convey these feelings that we all have. We shot the four emotions in a specific order that turned out to have lined up with Anita’s experience. Joy during competition and the routine had turned to sadness in the aftermath of the incident and the associated fears; but she had to trust herself as well as the process to return to competition, which circles back to the beginning. It had us as a collective reflecting on the emotional states we move through and how they all work in harmony. Overall, this was a very fulfilling project to direct, and I hope to explore more of these themes in future work.
Glorious: Who are the photographers that inspire you most and why?
Ilanna Barkusky: I am inspired by the visual storytelling of Campbell Addy, Dana Scruggs and Joshua Kissi right now. Their images are immaculately lit, but have so much feeling and passion behind them. I have also been inspired by Carlos Serrao’s work across stills and motion for some time now. The way he portrays his sports work and movement with such grace and artistry is incredible.
Glorious: When you’re not working on projects, what are your other interests – how do you relax?
Ilanna Barkusky: I love running and walking along the trails near my house. I’ve seen dolphins from the cliff and even a few sharks. I also love just jumping in the ocean whenever I can. Even if I don’t have much time, I always feel better afterwards. I grew up beside the ocean, but you weren’t really able to swim much of the year, so this is now a luxury for me. Other than that, spending time with friends and family, which often includes travelling, is a huge priority for me.
Glorious: As a photographer, you must spend a lot of time travelling. Which are your favourite places or countries to shoot and why?
Ilanna Barkusky: Shooting in Austria (2016) and Sweden (2018) back in my ski days was really memorable. Any time you get to experience a country for the first time and learn about a new culture is special. These days though, I would say Canada, because it is home and where it all started, as well as the US. I love spending time in New York for work-related opportunities, I find myself meeting amazing new people every trip. You can lose yourself in the culture there; go to galleries, museums and different events and soak up so much different inspiration.
Glorious: What are you working on next?
Ilanna Barkusky: I have a couple projects that I am currently developing in order to shoot in the future. I have been having the greatest time pushing the limits of what we want to create with my collaborators in front of and behind the camera, so I’m excited to keep that going.