Daniel Zvereff: Meet The Stans

Daniel Zvereff is a freelance designer, illustrator and photographer. He travels to the far corners of the world documenting his journeys through images and journals. Zvereff journeyed with a group of various skateboarders for the Meet The Stans video where the group traveled along the ancient Silk Road traversing China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

Q: We’ve featured your images from the “Stans” on our blog before, but haven’t gotten the chance to interview about your experience. To get started, I’d like to know a little more about you as a photographer. How long have you been photographing? When did you decide to become a professional photographer?

A: I have had a camera in my hands on and off for most of my life but in a serious manner probably the last eight years. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to become a professional nor am I sure what exactly constitutes “professional” within photography. But it is something that I love to do, and hope to do so for many years to come.

Q: How did you get hear about and get involved with Leica Camera?

A: Five years ago I decided to upgrade to a more serious body. At the time, in my opinion, digital had nowhere near the capability of film. I saw a black M6 and thought it was incredible to hold. Basically I was hooked from that point on.

Q: I saw on a past blog post that you travel with a MP and M6 classic. Can you explain why you use those cameras and travel with them?

A: A major benefit of these two cameras for me is they are completely analog. The shutter is mechanical and requires no batteries to fire. As silly as it sounds, that can be very critical if you find yourself without consistent electricity when traveling in many parts of the world or, most recently, during the blackout in NYC. More or less it’s just peace of mind. I enjoy the idea that I’m using something that isn’t an electronic gadget, more so a tool. I also like the size; they don’t protrude too much so I can wrap them in Domke wraps and toss them in my backpack, which is the only thing I bring on trips. They are also not too small, so they feel substantial when in hand.

Q: How do these cameras help you achieve your photographic goals?

A: Over the last five years I have grown so accustomed to focusing the rangefinder patch. Once you get used to it, it’s such a brilliant and straight forward focusing system. It surprises me that with today’s technology, we don’t see it implemented at least a little more. The cameras themselves have a unique look as well. I’ve had some interesting interactions photographing people, where it’s not about the big obtrusive professional looking object in my hand, but about our simple interaction itself. Maybe I’m wrong, but it feels like a camera’s presence can really change the way people react to you photographing them. I prefer having something that is a bit less obtrusive, something on the middle ground.

Q: How would you describe your photographic approach? Do you feel your photos fit any type of specific genre?

A: Photography at the moment for me is really about the documentation of my experiences around the world that have inspired a moment of curiosity. I’m trying to find a place in-between art, photo-journalism, and travel. In a sense I don’t feel particularly married to a genre, and I think it can be attributed to my age. At 27, I am still experimenting with different creative outlets. Change and growth is really important in my work and my sanity. In travel you find that the actual journey to your destination can sometimes be the most interesting part, I think that can apply to being an artist/photographer as well.

Q: How did you get involved in the Meet the Stans project? And where did the film’s concept emerge from?

A: Meet the Stans is actually the latest in a series of travel related skate films I have been a part of since 2009. Patrik Wallner (the director/organizer) gathered a random group of guys who had never met each other from all around the world to shoot his first documentary across Russia, Mongolia, and China. In a stroke of random luck, I happened to be doing the same trip on my own around the same time. So he invited me to join his group. The ten of us traveled for two months on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We really had no idea what we were doing or how it was going to turn out. Since then we have all become great friends, meeting up at least once a year filming these skate documentaries all over the world.

Q: How long was the trip?

A: Meet the Stans for me was a bit longer I started in Shanghai on May 1st and returned from Berlin July 2nd in 2012. I usually try to get the most out of going to a region so I ended up visiting my grandmother in south west Russia and then spending a little time in Europe before I flew back to NYC.

Q: Keeping journals was also a part of your experience during this trip. Can you explain why you kept journals during this time?

A: I have always kept journals during my travels. It’s just another way for me to take in the things I see and do. Sometimes while on the road it can all happen so fast and in such volume it can be overwhelming. Journaling is my way of decompressing and making sense of it all.

Q: A big part of Meet The Stans is showing the group skateboarding. How long have you been skateboarding? How did you become involved it?

A: I have been skateboarding for about fourteen years. I was instantly enamored by the idea of an activity that wasn’t dependent on competition or a team.

Q: Did you have any photographic or skateboarding goals during this project?

A: I never really go into a trip with goals or expectations. It can be like swimming up river and you might miss something incredible if your focus is elsewhere.

Q: What was the reaction of the people like to see a bunch of foreign guys skateboarding around? Did you discover any skateboarding culture in any of the places that you visited? It seemed like skateboarding connections helped you along the way.

A: We had immensely positive reaction to what we were doing on the board, especially Afghanistan. People were very excited to see skateboarding. Hundreds of people would crowd intersections to watch us. Mostly, they were happy to see something that was just pure expression and sport for no gain or reason. We weren’t a NGO (non-governmental organization), we weren’t military, just people having fun. Skateboarding culture exists everywhere. It is a unique form of exploration, you don’t find yourself in the same parts of cities as a regular tourist. All through the “Stans” we had some really great people, mostly skateboarders, who were so incredibly helpful. Just wonderful. Skateboarding is a link to the entire world, it’s everywhere.  I have even been to a skate park in the new capital of Myanmar, Naypyidaw. I was taken there via 12 hour bus ride by about 20 other Burmese skateboarders. Imagine you get on a bus to central Myanmar and there are about six people who are not skateboarders.  Apparently there is one now in North Korea. There is also a great NGO in Kabul called Skateistan, with a huge skate park, which is doing a lot of great things for the youth in Kabul. I feel very blessed to have visited.

Q: Are there any similarities or connection for you between photography and skateboarding?

A: Absolutely, It’s an activity you can do on your own terms, by yourself, all over the world. They both go together so well it’s only natural.

Q: You also did the illustrations for the film, correct? Can you tell us a little about that work?

A: I started my career as an illustrator, and got really into making handmade drawn fonts. The documentaries provide me another outlet of looking into a region and the intricacies of their type. The unique connections between letters, everything really, it’s fascinating. I try to look for writings on walls in ancient buildings and museums and make little notes. Then it’s about trying to create a legible alphabet in English using traces of those elements, but in a tasteful way. I hate most of the “foreign” looking fonts I see in English.

Q: Any unusual or funny anecdote from the trip our readers might be interested in hearing?

A: Unusual is a great way to describe Central Asia, from a Western perspective, there really wasn’t much about being there that felt usual. That’s what makes it so unique in this world.

Q: What do you hope the audience of the film and your pictures from it will get out of it?

A: Inspiration to try something new. A few years ago my godfather told me the biggest risk was to never take one. I think that’s a good way to approach things.

Q: The film has been premiered in a couple of cities and online too – can you tell us how the premiere went and how the reaction to the film has been so far?

A: We have had a very positive response in the skateboard community. There isn’t anyone out there right now doing anything remotely similar. Most other travel skateboard videos are directly related to companies with the idea to promote a product. The sole endeavor of Meet the Stans is to show a part of the world that hasn’t seen much coverage, and to show there are a lot of experiences waiting for those who are willing to travel.

Q: Any future projects or work that you’d like to tell us about?

A: I am always working towards the next thing. These last four years I’ve been slowly working on a children’s book. Along with many upcoming travels, there’s still so much to see, and hopefully some photo exhibitions.

Thank you for your time, Daniel!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Daniel’s work, please visit his website. View the entire “Meet The Stans” video here.