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.

Steven Gnam: Nature In All Its Gorgeous Beauty


Steven Gnam is a professional landscape, wildlife, and adventure photographer in the Pacific Northwest. Steven has a gift for capturing stunning and striking images which have been published all across the country. His works have been featured by a long list of commercial, editorial, and non-profit clients, including Patagonia, National Geographic, and Sierra Magazine. Steven is also the author of “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” a beautiful large-format photography book on the majestic Rocky Mountains. Steven talks to atlas about how he first got into photography and what goes into his creative process when he is making these breathtaking images. (Editor’s Note: We are showcasing one of our previous features from one of our favorite photographers, Steven Gnam. Enjoy!)

How did you first get started in photography?

Steven Gnam: I have some early memories of playing around with cameras when I was in middle school.  My earliest photo may have been of a rabbit in the woods. I continued to experiment with cameras all throughout high school and began to imagine doing it as a profession.  I would set up wildlife blinds (or hides) and sit in them for hours watching animals and photographing them.  During this time I was also painting and drawing but realized photography gave me the freedom to move around and be a participant in the scenes/situations I was photographing over those art forms.  I started selling photos to magazines in high school and continued to get work into college.  In college, I was mostly photographing (using slide film still) as I climbed in the mountains, rafted, and explored within a half days drive of Missoula, Montana.


You shoot across many genres of photography and you shoot well in all of them. How would you characterize your work? Do you have a favorite genre?

Thank you.  In today’s world it often seems best to specialize in one genre, but I really enjoy the different kinds of photography, learning about various issues and people, and using the best tools/skill sets to tell their stories.  I think it is possible to be very competent in many disciplines of photography without sacrificing quality –- it just takes time.  I have the privilege of doing this full time so I can devote time to learning new skills and experimenting.

I do shoot outdoor adventures but I don’t think of my self as an “outdoor adventure” photographer.  I make photographs of landscapes, people, architecture, underwater scenes, wildlife, etc. but I don’t identify with only one kind of subject matter or style of shooting.  I guess much of my creative process comes from being fluid and willing to be interested in new things and to be open to shoot new subjects.  I will always gravitate towards wildlife and nature stories but would like to work on some cultural stories too.

What do you look for in terms of composition? What is a typical day like for you on a shoot?

It really depends if I am on an assignment and have a story, an angle, or a subject to cover or if I am just out on a nature walk with no agenda.  Anytime I have an assignment I will do my best to read up on the subject, pour over maps, and assess what I need to do to make good images.  Often when I work outside, I have to deal with whatever the conditions are like and not have the ability to reschedule.  I like this as weather — from bluebird skies to below-zero blizzard conditions — all have something unique to offer you as an artist.


Given the amazing images you have captured, you obviously shoot in conditions that are unpredictable. What it the craziest thing you have had to do on a shoot?

Well, there are a bunch of crazy stories, but recently I was on a 600 mile run, the Crown Traverse, photographing two friends who are North Face ultra-running athletes.  During the expedition, we were traveling largely off trail through the mountains using ridge lines to move quickly through the terrain.  On a section of ridge in Canada it became very steep and rocky so we had to rock climb in our running shoes.  In the shade it was snow and ice so it required a unique blend of alpine and rock climbing to get through it.  While focusing on the terrain and being careful not to dislodge rocks or fall, I was also making photographs of my friends as they climbed the knife ridge.  It was a situation I (we) did not plan on getting into but one where I felt comfortable enough to take photographs during it.

High Country

Are you working on any new projects?

I have been working on a project for the past 5 years that I am close to wrapping up which I can not disclose yet! It is a very exciting and important story.  One can check my updates about it on my website/Instagram. After this project, I will begin work on another multi-year story and fill in the gaps with editorial and commercial assignments.

For more information about Steven and to order his beautiful photography book, “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” visit his website.  All images © Steven Gnam.


Osceola Refetoff: Beauty and Awe of the California Desert

Osceola Refetoff is a Los Angeles-based photographer.  A Chicago native with Danish, Bulgarian and Canadian roots, Osceola is a master filmmaker and photographer. Osceola’s first love was film making which he studied at Duke University and then at New York University’s Graduate Film Program. Over time, Osceola’s talent for visual storytelling gravitated towards photography. His works reflect his passion for humanity and its impact  it has on the world. These days Osceola’s focus is on the vast American West, including the magnificent California desert and the communities who used to inhabit there. In collaboration with historian Christopher Langley,  Osceola created “High & Dry,” a wonderful blog of stories and images that detail the stark landscape and communities in the California desert. His works from his vast desert series are on exhibit at the Porch Gallery in Ojai through the end of March. This week Osceola talks to atlas about his start in photography, why the California desert appeals to him, and why it is important to document the natural beauty and stories of desert life.

How did you first get into photography?

I do not have one of those heart-warming stories where I got a camera at age five and knew I wanted to be a photographer. Mostly as a kid, I was into blowing things up and generally causing trouble. It was not until much later – in my twenties – that I got interested in photography, and even then there was not a sudden “ah ha!” moment. At some point, I was living in New York City and found myself carrying around a couple of small cameras at all times — one with color film and one with black & white.

You brilliantly capture a wide range of images — people, landscape, nature, objects — that show all aspects of our humanity. What is it about our humanity that draws you in as a photographer?

I am fascinated by people and I enjoy observing and revealing their personalities, usually with their permission and at their best. However, much of my desert work is about the absence of people. Not straight-up nature shots, but humanity defined by the traces they leave behind. I am particularly interested in what desert ruins might have to say about who we are today as a society, and how that may be different from peoples of the past.

If you look at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it seems like everyone is posting photos and identifying themselves as a photographer. How do you create images that sets yours apart from all the rest?

I am active on social media. I love being able to connect with a larger audience, far away. And although I do a lot of work that is experimental in nature – pinhole photography, infrared photography, long exposures – my general approach to photography is pretty traditional. To stand out in this crazy-cluttered environment, you simply have to shoot really well. For instance, I have a series “Armchair in the Sky” that I capture from the windows of commercial airplanes. When I started photographing the series on film twenty years ago, you did not see those kind of images very often. Now, everyone is shooting out airplane windows with their phones. If I want my images to stand out against the millions of airplane shots that are posted online, they better be really very good. So far I must have made a couple thousand exposures. After twenty years, I finally started exhibiting the series last July, and to date I have uploaded about twenty images to my website. So start with a specific vision, pursue that vision over the long haul, edit the results with ruthless determination, and print only the very best with a mindful, cohesive aesthetic. Personally, I like that there are so many “photographers” out there today. It keeps me on my game.

Tell us a bit more about these stunning and beautiful desert images you have entitled “Ozymandias.” You have a masterful eye for light and style. What inspired you to capture these desert images?

Ozymandias” is the name of one of my black & white desert portfolios featuring the remnants of human existence strewn about in the California desert. I generally carry at least two or three cameras with me when I travel by car in the desert. Some images lend themselves to black & white exposures, and for these, I generally shoot infrared – either digital or film. The main reason for working in b&w is that, in the absence of color, all the emphasis is on form and composition. As an additional benefit, infrared makes the skies very dark, and the clouds (when there are clouds) are very pronounced. Generally, landscape photographers have a hard time making good images in the middle of the day, so they tend to favor “magic hour” light and shadow. Well, that leaves a lot of day on the table! I love “good” light too, but for me, the desert experience is much about the sun directly overhead. Black & white photography not only feels like the right medium to portray many of my subjects, but it also allows me to work all day long, capturing the relentless intensity of the midday desert sun.

Your passion about the desert led you to start a blog called “High & Dry” about California’s deserts and those who reside there. What inspired you to start this blog? What do you hope to accomplish with this blog?

I had been thinking for some time about collaborating with a writer because of the unique power that words and images have when they are presented in tandem. I was familiar with the work of James Agee/Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor when I met writer/historian Christopher Langley in Lone Pine, CA while working on a motion picture project. First and foremost, the purpose of our collaboration is to present cool and interesting stories about the California desert, illustrated with quality photographs. We are interested in the history of the desert, particularly in relation to human activity past and present. We are also documenting the massive transformation underway with the development of industrial-scale renewable energy facilities. Our hope is that familiarizing people with the history and natural beauty of the desert will encourage them to consider the future of this long-undervalued land resource. The project gets re-syndicated in a variety of media – local desert publications, glossy magazines, scholarly journals, and KCET’s “Artbound” – so we are able to reach a large audience from all walks of life.

You chose to photograph these images in black & white which gives them a radiant aesthetic quality. Why did you select black & white over color?

I love both color and black & white. Some subjects are suitable to both mediums, but others are distinctly better in either color or b&w. Because I shoot 99% of my b&w work in infrared, I have to make my decision on site, determining by the nature of the subject, which representation better suits what I want to express. In the desert, I usually photograph from a tripod, so sometimes I will make a similar exposure with both a color and a b&w camera.

Are there any photographers who have influenced you?

I came to photography later in life. Early on I was much more interested in filmmaking, eventually getting an MFA in film production from NYU. All through my late teens and twenties, when I was not in production, I would see ten or more features a week in theater. So my compositional style and my interest in visual narrative was heavily influenced by the great mis-en-scene directors I admire – Lange, Welles, Kubrick, Melville, etc. So today, I find myself interested in the meticulous framing of compositions in depth, I like to explore temporal as well as visual space in my stills, and I am obsessed with creating visual effects in-camera. I go to art presentations of all kinds – many of them! And I find that I’m as likely to be inspired by a painter or the lighting design of a stage production than I am by a photography exhibit.

If you could go on a photo shoot with any photographer (living or deceased), who would it be?

I only became interested in photography very late in the game long after I had developed what I consider my own visual style. I think I would enjoy hanging out with Man Ray or perhaps a late night out on the town with Brassaï.

If you could give one piece of advice for a novice photographer, what would it be?

I would tell him or her to buy a printer. The images we see on backlit displays have significant limitations. They cannot adequately convey the full artistic potential of photography at its best. I have seen too many images on my computer that translate to disappointing prints. And images “in the ether” favor graphic, hit-you-over-the-head compositions, rather than subtle, more nuanced work. Printing your work will help you understand how to make better exposures, and seeing the photographs as physical documents will, over time, help you evaluate which of your images may truly be excellent, and which will only get a bunch of likes on Instagram. You will know you are getting somewhere when your prints starting looking much better than your images on the screen. For a while, you may find that the opposite is true. Keep at it. For me at least, printing is hard work. I do not do fancy stuff, mostly traditional darkroom adjustments, not what comes to mind when people typically think of “photoshop.”  But I have only had time to print a small percentage of the images on my website, which are the ones I have exhibited. These images look far better than they did before I spent a couple of days working on them, experimenting with different papers, exposures, color balance, etc. As Ansel Adams said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”

Thanks for being our photographer of the week, Osceola!

For more information about Osceola, visit his website. For more information about “High & Dry,” visit his blog.  For more information about Osceola’s current photography exhibit at Porch Gallery, visit the gallery’s website. All images © Osceola Refetoff.