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Elena Shumilova: Capturing Childhood’s Idyllic Memories

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How does one become a world-renowned photographer? For Russian photographer, Elena Shumilova, it was strictly an accidental byproduct of her natural passion for her family, her country, and of photography as an art form. She never dreamed of becoming such a success or being a professional photographer. But nevertheless, her personal family photos have recently received over 52 million impressions on the leading online photography website, 500px, where she has nearly a quarter of a million followers.

To achieve these huge numbers so quickly, you might suppose she shoots fantastic, thrilling images, probably of actors and celebrities. But that’s far from the case. The scenes in her photos are very humble and down-to-earth – they are images of her own small children as they experience their own childhood adventures on a picturesque rural farm in Russia.

In the SmugMug short film, Mom Captures Childhood of Her Sons, Elena describes herself as a “Photo Artist.” It’s an appropriate title, yet at the same time, it’s deceptively simple. She doesn’t have a bunch of family holiday snaps of her kids – she’s trying to describe, through nostalgic imagery, what a childhood is. As she explains, “My goal from the beginning was not to document my children specifically but create timeless images of childhood.”

The scenes invite the viewer to put themselves back into their own childhood to recall and relive the best parts of it. As a well-known international artist, she receives emails and messages from all over the world, “including people in their eighties and nineties who cried when they saw my photographs, saying they brought them back to their own childhood.”

Her photos can cause the viewer to vividly recall scenes they remember themselves as a small child. The perfect snowfall, running through a wide-open field of dandelions gone to seed, a small toddler hugging a patient dog that overwhelms the child in size. The pictures are mostly outdoors, frequently in natural settings, and are explorative in nature as they follow the small children discovering their new magical world.

The art captures a reverence for nature and the outdoors – after all, so many of our favorite childhood memories happened outside somewhere. Although by now, Elena seems almost destined for this, but her path to the farm and to photography was quite accidental. Several years ago, putting the family first, Elena and her husband left the big city behind, “We wanted to give our boys the opportunity to have a childhood in which they could be themselves – to run, climb, explore.” To escape the city’s noise and pollution, they moved out to the country, to a small farm on a lake near Andreapol, Russia. This, they felt, would give the two small boys “a childhood unspoiled by the world.”

However, their big move came with a cost – Elena gave up her previous career as an architect. Although raising two sons is plenty time-consuming, she says she absolutely craved some form of a creative outlet. And that’s all it took. That unfulfilled artistic desire to simply create. She just “picked up a camera and began photographing what was available to me – my children and this farm.” She uploaded some pictures just to see what would happen and was astounded at their popularity. It was way beyond anything she expected, and today, her photos have been featured in magazines like Digital SLR Photography, Practical Photography, and Digital Photo, to name only a few.

Elena spent her own childhood on a farm every summer, outside watching the sunsets, or the fast-moving cloud formations, or whatever captured her interest. After all, a child learns how the world works by interacting with nature. She believes nostalgia can be triggered by connecting with one’s own children, which leads to a reconnection of childhood adventures, remembering seeing the world through young eyes. Her pictures are a form of her own nostalgia, a look back on a beloved childhood long since passed.

Her compositions have this universal appeal because they really don’t seem to be about either of her children particularly. The scenes are imaginatively chosen from different outdoor experiences, and the children act much like props – actors for the viewer to imagine changing places with. At first, a typical photo shoot starts with a lot of control … careful choice of scenery, backgrounds, and lighting. But on purpose, the process crucially loses that initial control, letting the scene play out naturally as the kids begin to do what kids do. “We all need to see something real, and let the heroes act out on their own.”

Thankfully, SmugMug shows a number of these excellent shots in the video, so the viewer can feel some of the magic she evokes. The scenes are many and varied, featuring dogs and different farm animals, snowy landscapes, endless grassy trails and fields, forests and the lake. In a setting like this, the possibilities are endless. And every scene seems like a perfect place to let loose a small child to simply go exploring.

Her connection with nature and the outdoors is tangible, “For me, the most important thing is getting out there – getting outside.” The restless changes in the natural world can be a metaphor of what goes on inside of every person. Like a day or a season, childhood cannot last forever. As photographers know all too well, capturing a fleeting moment where the light was just so requires being in the right place at the right time, before everything changes again. Elena is speaking both of her family and of photography when she remarks, a bit wistfully, “If you waste an opportunity to capture it, I know it won’t come back.”

Elena’s 4 tips to get better photographs of your kids:

See more of Elena’s photos and buy prints:

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