The Photographic Duo Mixing Modern Vices with Surrealism

“We see our work as ‘art installations’, not as photographs, and we use a camera to document them,” Berkin says wistfully. “That’s why we are inspired by old movies and set decorations like, for instance, in Alien.”

The photographs of Berkin and Mika, whose full names are Bakhtiyar Berkin and Mika Orynbassarova, look like a triumph of surrealism. Resembling uncanny dreams, the duo’s work reveals contemporary evils of post-capitalism and narcissism, which are highlighted and then turned inside out. Beautiful and brutal, full of real and candy-cottoned emotions, their photos balance between fine art and fashion.

Today Berkin, 26, and Mika, 26, are based in London and have been working together for the past three years. He is a photographer and she is his genius muse. The couple is presented by DegreeArt.com and The Public House of Art, and their work was exhibited at Modern Panic VI and Artists of the Future. This is pretty impressive, considering the fact that he finished an MA in Photography at London College of Communication last December and she recently graduated with a design degree from Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design.

Handsome and with full sleeve tattoos, Berkin is drinking Earl Grey with lots of milk at London Bridge Grind. R.E.M’s Losing my Religion is on the radio. He says he is allergic to coffee, it makes him feel funny. Mika couldn’t come that day.

Born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Berkin always “believed” in a classic English education. He tells me he heard a lot of myths about mysterious Albion at school which, combined with the fact that he wanted to become a fashion photographer, made him fly to London five years ago.

“I planned to enrol into London College of Fashion but when I spontaneously bumped into the Chelsea College of Arts office with my portfolio, I was persuaded to choose either Chelsea College of Arts or Camberwell College of Arts. I chose the latter one and graduated from it with BA in Fine Art in 2015,” he smiles.

Berkin and Mika met almost four years ago at a friend’s birthday party. He fell in love with her immediately and wanted to take pictures only of her. And this is how it started: she chose her clothes and makeup as well as created the themes, and he shot her. Half a year later, they began seeing their photos as an equal collaboration and created the photographic duo — Berkin and Mika. After this, they quickly got noticed by galleries and magazines, which peppered them with all sorts of offers.

Berkin tells me about their last photo series called Trivial Freedom, for which they won Photomonitor Award 2016. Inspired by Edward Bernay’s marketing techniques, they analyse consumerism, an illusion of freedom, and narcissism cultivated by social media.

“My favourite photo is probably Medusa. On it, Mika is sitting down and behind her are hanging down pieces of glittered meat. It’s a critique of the Instagram users who show off themselves without valuing their own uniqueness. We want people to pause and breathe out.”

Berkin and Mika. Medusa

However, it all began when he was 18. After finishing school and briefly attempting to study economics at Almaty State University, Berkin found himself lost in photography. His parents gave him a digital camera for his high school graduation. He admits that nothing has ever given him so much satisfaction as the creation process, and he constantly wants to learn and produce something new.

“Our collaborative process is divided 50–50,” Berkin opens up. “Mika thinks of an idea and I embody it. Firstly, we draw the idea on paper and then search for objects if we need something. I build the set and then take photos. As I’m using a large format film camera, we bring the films to Rapid Eye in Shoreditch, where many well-known photographers have processed their work. Afterwards, Mika or I Photoshop the pictures. The entire process, excluding the creation of the idea, takes about a month,” explains the photographer.

Berkin prefers a film camera to a digital one because it’s “the same as with old movies”. He believes that when film producers used less CGI and built the actual sets, the movies looked more realistic and alive. Moreover, he believes that film cameras won’t ever be out-dated — “the photos’ colour and quality are incredible”.

Currently, Berkin and Mika are planning a new photo series dedicated to feminism. In Kazakhstan, he says, inequality is terrible and that’s why they would like to challenge people’s perceptions. They are also experimenting with a moving image and are about to participate in a photo exhibition in Guangzhou, China.