Colour Pop Bonanza
“Humour is the ultimate defence reaction” says photographer and director Aleksandra Kingo in conversation with Glorious
Photography by Aleksandra Kingo
Hailing from Lithuania, Aleksandra Kingo is a photographer and director who is known for vibrant colours, surreal compositions and idiosyncratic wit. Humour is at the heart of her work, where, in her words, she “walks the razor’s edge between discomfort and sexiness,” curating scenes that beguile, amuse and disgust – all at once. Aleksandra has worked with Virgin Atlantic, Kenzo, Honda and Haagen Dazs. As a nominee for the prestigious Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and a big meme fan, her work unpeels the glitz of pop culture to unveil dark, sinister depths. And it’s impossible to look away. Here’s her story:
Glorious (G): When did you realise you had such a talent for photography? Aleksandra Kingo (AK): First of all, thank you so much! Talent is such a strong word and my photographic journey definitely started earlier than I thought! In fact, I had a bit of impostor syndrome up until several years ago. My journey started with passion and a little bit of wishing to elevate the reality I was living in: a small suburban town next to Vilnius, Lithuania. I was 14 at the time and creating dreamy surreal scenarios featuring my friends was a beautiful way to escape. My work was very different at the time – think Ryan McGinley or Michel Gondry rather than the colour pop bonanza I am making now.
G: Where do you look to find inspiration at the moment? What is currently inspiring your work? AK: In the last few years I have expanded my practice towards directing as well, which has resulted in being represented in the US for TV commercials. I find the world of filmmaking absolutely fascinating as there’s so much more scope to tell stories in different ways! It makes me approach my photographic work with more excitement too. One affects another beautifully. Speaking of themes, I started therapy last summer (thank you lockdown for making me do that!) and been digging into the depths of my own head, trying to unpin my own fears and insecurities. So a lot of things I am working on are based on that – being a little bit afraid of growing up (as I am approaching 30), creative struggles and motherhood. I like working with serious – perhaps even slightly dark – topics and then bringing them to a point of absurdity, sprinkling bright colours and memes all over them. For example, the latest thing I have been working on is a short film about a woman struggling to make a short film. She is dreaming about the idea of going viral and what acknowledgement her work will get.
G: Your work is hyper real but also has a really surreal and often playful side. For editorial work, what is the creative process you go through from start to finish? AK: For me, it always starts with a written idea. I make notes of those all the time – on pieces of paper, on my phone, on the back of my hands. With time those notes naturally shape themselves into a bigger, well rounded concept. I then create moodboards and little sketches to make the visual element clear for both me and my team, Most of the time pretty much recreate what I drew on the shoot. On a practical level, very often a personal project starts with a simple ‘hmmm, I haven’t shot anything for a while’ and calling up my set designer or stylist asking about their free dates and committing to them. Setting up those deadlines to myself is the biggest lifehack on how to make things happen for me.
G: What do you use to shoot your work and how much editing happens? AK: Let’s put it that way: everything you see in my work exists in real life. The colours are real, the things that float in the air are (likely) wired with a fishing rope and every quirky prop has been made or customised. But if we get technical, there’s still a bit of cleanup to do. I take out those finish wires, make sure nothing is dusty or scratched. The ice in the drink has to be just the way we want it. I also like everything sharp in the shot, front and back, so I shoot separate frames focusing on each element if needed, then stitch these together after.
G: Do you always work with an all female team on set as you did with ‘LA PISCINE’ including stylist Billy Tempest-Radford? AK: It’s often mostly female, at least across key creative team players. However, I can’t say it was a conscious choice, it just happens that way based on the artists with whom I click with or share the same aesthetic!
G: You feature models in your work for ‘LA PISCINE.’ How different is shooting models to still life? Do you prefer it or find it more challenging? AK: I definitely much prefer having a human element in each of the shots, both stills and moving, whether it’s a full talent or just a hand. It gives more scope for storytelling and relatability. Having said that, when thinking of shots and their composition, I always treat people as part of the composition – just like in still life. This is why I love working with actors or those with acting experience as they are very often less worried about their looks or best angles, and able to give real emotion and the right performance even in very staged situations.
G: Do you think your work reflects your personality? You seem to shoot a lot of humorous, mega bright images. For instance, would you describe yourself as a particularly colourful person? AK: It’s a two way process really. My work has gradually affected the way I look over the years. I sort of look as if I stepped out of my own images! I like all things preppy and ‘70s; I love bright colours, bold jewellery and big glasses. I think my work reflects who I am personality-wise too. Bright, giggly and meme-loving on the outside, but with a touch of darkness if you dig deeper.
G: Your work is easily identifiable – I reckon we could pick it out in a line up fairly easily! It’s alway bold, bright, surreal and often humorous. When did you discover your ‘style’ in terms of photography? Was this a conscious decision and do you ever see yourself moving away from it as you evolve? AK: I landed on my aesthetic through a series of errors and experiments, really. At one point after finishing my studies, I realised I had to stop and consciously think about what I liked doing and where I’d like to end up with my work. Being critical, focused and, most importantly, self-reflective. Sometimes it meant saying ‘no’ to projects that didn’t fit my style, even if they paid well.
And eventually it all came into the right place. My work is very true to me and very personal. My humour is a mix of my home country’s dark humour, layered over with British sarcasm and puns. I am very self-ironic and always able to laugh at myself. A lot of early projects were informed by it. For example: I did a shoot about people being clumsy where I was noting my own clumsy moments and ended up using them in the project. My work has been slowly evolving over time, gradually becoming more textural, with more depth and layers. However, in photography I am not ready to step too far from the universe I have created. At the same time, since I have started to do a lot more directorial work, I feel very comfortable stepping out of the studio in this field of work. It’s still quite easy to make the films look ‘mine’ through use of colour, composition, performance and edit.
G: How important is storytelling in your work? Even if the composition of the shot is frankly bizarre, it alway seems to tell a story. Do you have a set story you want the viewer to understand, or is it open to interpretation? AK: Very important. I try to approach each shot like a still from a film, thinking of what may have happened before the scene I captured and what might happen after. Having said that, I really enjoy people relating to my work and interpreting things in their own way, as each would have their own connotations to what they see, based on their life experiences.
G: We can imagine a huge amount of work and planning goes into your sets, props and styling, do you have a regular team and how much do you do yourself? AK: I am a bit spoiled in that department at this point, as a lot of people I work with have started small together with me and we grew up together, becoming friends and establishing a lovely work-and-play relationship with them. These days I have the privilege of thinking big without limitations, knowing that I will be able to make those big ideas happen. I have a go-to team who I know are there for me, as I am there for them for any of their creative adventures! At the same time, I have started shooting in my living room, doing all sets and food styling myself with A1 papers instead of the backgrounds. My course mates were my hand models, so I am still very hands on with everything and very involved in details – from the colour of the model’s lipstick to the flowers that will be used on set.
G: You’ve shot for some impressive clients, how different is the process when shooting for commercial vs yourself? AK: In a way, I find commercial work way easier these days, as the process is very clear with the things we are hoping to achieve laid out in front of me, clear deadlines and a decent budget to make all that happen. I have been lucky to work with brands and agencies that wanted me for being myself. Most of the time I have a lot of creative freedom and clients listen to me during the process. Personal projects are a lot more ambiguous in terms of the outcome and therefore occasionally harder to start. I guess a lot more is at stake. Those are the moments when the ‘true me’ must shine. It is important for me to make each of them special and different from anything I have done before. Having said that, they are great fun and crucial to keeping me going and to not lose touch with myself and the world as a creative person. It is essential for me to keep talking about the things that are important to me.
G: Do you see your images as empowering to women and do you feel any responsibility to produce imagery that can be seen as such? For instance, the hula hooping mother. On the surface it looks like a fun, ‘80s style, sarcastic shot. But when you consider it, this could be seen as a powerful image of a woman doing it all with a smile on her face. Do you ever feel this pressure? AK: I sincerely hope that they are empowering, but I rarely sit down and decide to do it on purpose – it all happens naturally by being true to myself! Most of the time I am the woman who I picture in my work and the themes I am bringing up are the ones that are important to me. The shoot you mentioned is very much informed by my own struggles as a mother and all the societal pressures young mothers endure. I have a five year old boy and in the last five years I have been learning to balance creative work and motherhood. My career rocketed at the same time that he was born, so I often find myself writing work emails from the corner of a playground and feeling like a shitty mother.
As for the hula hoop image, to me it highlights the pressures on women about getting back in shape months (if not days) after their child is born; a message that social media and celebrity culture feeds constantly. I myself went into cycles of being unhappy with my body, excessive dieting, and weight fluctuations since Leon was born. It all just starts to settle in. It becomes even weirder when, as a feminist and a body positive person, I am very much acceptive of other people’s bodies. But somehow, not my own, which makes it a lot harder to openly share.
G: Which photographers do you think you’re most influenced by? Has it changed over the years? AK: ToiletPaper and Guy Bourdin were probably my biggest initial photographic influences from the get-go. With ToiletPaper, I guess they helped me understand that you can create the craziest scenarios while staying commercially successful, which was very empowering at the time. With Guy Bourdin, it was all about subtle eroticism, the colours and the composition. These days I’d say I don’t quite look at photography for direct inspiration, unless I need to find a reference for the client or magazine. I often turn to films, music videos, everyday life stories and popular culture. Memes are another great source of inspiration as they always resonate with people, exposing something they are worried about. Humour is the ultimate defence reaction.
G: Your work reminds us a lot of ToiletPaper with the surreal juxtapositions and bright graphic style. They have obviously been super successful in terms of turning their work into household objects in collaboration with Seletti. They have created a brand as well as the magazine. Do you think you would ever do the same by putting your images on unexpected items? What’s next? AK: I have to say this question made me think! Let’s say I am definitely open.
G: How do you feel about the future of art? With everything becoming more and more digital, do you think you may change the way you work in the future? Do you think this will affect you? Would you ever make an NFT? AK: It’s very exciting! I have dipped my toes into NFT and the world of crypto and do have a couple on Foundation right now. It’s a strange but beautiful new world. I truly think that it’s just the beginning of something really big and it will only be more and more influential in the future. I can’t say I have figured it all out. At this stage the NFT market is very specific and I am not sure yet whether I should create something specifically or stick to what I know. But I am open to new things and what they bring.
G: Do you have any advice for budding young photographers who are looking to find their ‘style’? AK: Personal projects are key and the only thing that will bring you work. Get out there, write to people you admire. If they don’t reply, write again. Test, test, test and send your work out there. Persistence is key.
G: Do you have any interest in any sport? Do you follow or play any sports? AK: Like most, I became very sporty in lockdown, taking up jogging and yoga, hoping to walk out of the lockdown in a crop top. And then… the habits stayed. Currently, I am finding joy in movement whilst trying to separate that from achieving ‘body goals.’ And it’s slowly working as I have learned to do a handstand recently! As for watching, my five-year-old is an avid NBA fan, so I got sucked into it recently. It’s quite symbolic given that basketball is pretty much a second religion in my home country, Lithuania.