creative and inspiring photography from around the globe

Mike Sakas: Telling Stories in Tajikistan


Mike Sakas is an American photographer currently living and working in Hong Kong. Initially inspired by the National Geographic magazines he read, Mike is a talented photographer who likes to think outside the box. He is passionate about telling stories and making connections with people, places, and moments and that passion clearly comes through his photography.  The magnificent images featured in today’s post were taken by Mike while he was teaching a photography/story-telling workshop in Gorno Badakhshan region of Tajikistan.  This week Mike speaks to atlas about how he got started in photography and how he stays in the present while photographing. (Editor’s Note: We are revisiting one of our favorite features this week, including this one from the talented Mike Sakas. Enjoy!)

How did you first get interested in photography? How long have you been shooting?

Mike Sakas: I am sure I got into photography the way that nearly everybody else in the planet has for the last hundred years: by looking at the magazine with the yellow box on the cover.  Boy, I want to shoot for those guys.  When I was little, my grandmother bought me a set of twelve hardcover books put out by that magazine and I am sure to this day that those were the first books I ever read cover to cover.  Ever since then I have taken in images wherever I can find them and my life has always been about discovering things and seeing/experiencing new things.  I also blame that yellow box for that.

Are you self-taught or do you have a formal education in photography?

I have been photographing for about ten years now.  I have the standard informal education of many of the greatest photographers: I was an assistant.  It is funny actually now that I say that because I almost said I was self taught but to say that would be to completely deny all of the wonderful people who have played a HUGE role in my photography education.  To this day, I have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for the guy who first took me in and set me on the path: Todd Langley from Denver. When I finally decided I was going to own up to the dream of being a photographer, I mentioned it to a friend of mine who was a friend of Todd’s.  We chatted for a couple of minutes and he invited me over to his place the following week for a test shoot.  That day, he taught me how to load medium and large format cameras and sent me down a path I never imagined I could be on.  I went on to volunteer for a local photography workshop/non-profit for a while and I learned from a ton of people there.  Then, one day I applied for the course assistant position at the Santa Fe Workshops. That summer was probably the single most intense period of learning in my life. The funniest part of all was that I did not shoot a single frame after the first week of the summer.  We were so busy every day.  But when I got home, I took a picture of my one year old niece and when I looked at the first frame I had shot in eight weeks, I was stunned.  I did not even recognize my own photography anymore; it had transcended. Since that time, I have been learning by assisting and talking with my peers. So I can say I am “self-taught.”


You capture images across different genres (people, street, landscape, documentary). What do you personally enjoy shooting the most and why?

I love photographing (and by proxy having) experiences.  I think this world and this life is pretty amazing especially the stuff that is full of emotion or that has an incorporeal charge to it.  To pin it down, I guess you could say that human interaction or just plain humanity is where I start and that comprises the bulk of my subject matter. Even an image of a landscape devoid of any people is still about human interaction because there was somebody there, seeing it, experiencing it — me.

I think I use photography in two main ways. First, I use it as a tool to investigate my subject matter in much the same way a scientist would use a microscope to examine a tiny part of a huge organism.  It is a vehicle for looking at or experiencing a thing in a different but very intentional way.  Second, photography is a mode of reflection or contemplation of a subject similar to a written journal.  In a way it is a method for interfacing with an experience from a kind of detachment — in certain ways —  that is paradoxically hyper focused and engaged in other ways.


Are there any photographers who inspire you? If so, who?

My list of personal favorites and influences are changing nearly every day.  If you browse 500px, Imgur, or Google images, you will see so many images that are truly breathtaking.  World Press photo awards, Communication Arts, Sony World Photography awards, FOAM, ICP, or PDN 30 will be chock full of amazing new inspired photographs from all over the world by people you have never heard of.  A little intimidating sometimes but also invigorating.

For me, I have always had an interest in classic photography, fashion, and portraiture but my tastes are not that narrow. I will look at just about anything for inspiration or beauty.  I could list for you the typical influences or artists whose work I appreciate or love.   Nowadays I go on an internet binge (like I referenced above) and will create a folder of bookmark links to images that I find instructional or inspirational to me now and I will look at them for a few weeks or months and then I will scrap those images and look for more.

Your Tajikistan images are spectacular both in composition and style. Truly stunning work. Can you tell us a bit more about this project? What motivated you to travel to Tajikistan? How did this project come about?

Thanks! The experience was so amazing and the landscape was truly overwhelming that I hoped I could capture one-tenth the splendor of my time there.  The trip actually happened because of a series of workshops I assist in teaching all over the world.  We go to developing nations (mostly) and teach high school aged students photography and storytelling. On our first trip to Tajikistan, I was able to get a close friend of mine, Tony Czech, to join the team and we decided that if we were going all the way to Tajikistan that we definitely had to take a few days to go off and explore the country.  Our first major goal was to find and ride a yak.  Aside from that, we were planning to do a reccy for the motorcycle trip we were both dreaming of.  So we spent a week after our workshop was finished, hired a truck and one of the students to be our translator, and off we went.  We were not huge guidebook people and were hoping to find some way off track so we just stopped and asked people along the way.  After our scout trip we decided that someday, somehow, we were going to come back here and ride motorcycles through this magnificent, ancient, and rugged landscape.  As fate would have it, our team was invited back to neighboring Khazakhstan only a few months later to do another workshop.  Tony wasn’t available to come along on this one as he was on assignment in BC shooting a mountain expedition, so I asked another buddy and amazing shooter Kevin Vu if he wanted a crack at it.  He said yes and that’s the astronaut looking guy in the photos. For us, the trip was about the adventure and the adventure was in the landscape, the logistics, roads/riding and the people.


What do you hope your viewers will get from your photography?

Maybe this is not the “right” thing to say, but I honestly do not think too much about what other people will get from my images.  When I am in a place and photographing, I am striving to accomplish two things. First, that I be present and aware of what I am looking at and to take in every visceral detail possible. Second, that I can capture as many of those details in a visual representation as possible — what something smells like or feels like or what it sounds like. When it is all done and I am home editing and sharing the images, I hope desperately that viewers will get a sense of that when they look at my images. However, like I said, when I am out shooting I just try to stay as keenly present as possible.


Are you working on any projects?

About a dozen.  A documentary short film, two guidebooks, an adventure trip, a new series of workshops, and a new baby daughter. Of course, she has already accounted for the single largest thematic body of work in my photographic career.  I do have an ongoing personal project called passion.and.flow which is my homage to the people who are dedicated to their “one thing” and the state of being one enters into when one is fully engaged in their passion.  You can find it on Instagram @passion.and.flow

You have traveled and photographed all over the world. What is your perfect adventure?

We used to do this thing every summer at a buddy’s family cabin outside of Buffalo.  A bunch of photographers, musicians, designers, dancers, models, and painters would come together for a week or two and we’d have “Art Camp.” We called it Thunderfest and it was essentially a group of people sleeping out in the fields and woods around the cabin making photographs, barbequing, swimming in the pond, building bonfires, exploring, and sharing stories. The work that came out of that week or two was always transformational for us and it was such a great time of creative adventure. My perfect adventure would probably be something like that but more grown up. Have six to eight of my favorite friends — all creative types — to go somewhere that is beautiful and exciting, and to spend a couple weeks living with vigor, creating work, and having adventures.  A week living in a cave?  Cool. Traveling by pickup or Tuk-Tuk through the jungle? Sweet.  An abandoned house on a deserted beach?  Great.  So long as we had space, freedom, adventure out the door, and maybe a little bit of whiskey.


Do you have any advice for an aspiring photographer?

I do not know about advice but I tell myself this a lot.  The only difference between you and the guys doing what you want to someday be doing is that they are doing it.  By that I mean, don’t focus on being the big magazine or agency star photographer photographing whatever they are photographing.  Go out and photograph what really gets you pumped.  Go make the work you dream about making regardless of whether or not someone is paying you for it.  Want to shoot adventures? Go on an adventure. Concerts? Go see some and find a way to shoot them.  Anything.  If you go out and photograph your brains out, eventually somebody will recognize your work and the money and success will follow — so long as you share.  In the worst case scenario, you do not make a ton of money as a photographer, you’ve still had a great time, and created images that are important to you.

Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Mike!

For more information about Mike, visit his website.  All images © Mike Sakas.

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