In Focus: Rachel Papo

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Rachel Papo has spent her life in two countries, the US and Israel. Having been shooting since her teenage years, Rachel picked photography to meet her career ambitions and tell other people’s stories. Whether serving in the Israeli Air Force as a photographer or visiting a renowned Russian ballet school, the photographer always knows what to focus on to create an enthralling narrative that would be rather close to life.

The early years of the future photographer were equally shared between the diametrically opposed continents. The US-born Rachel Papo moved to Israel as a child and later entered the Haifa-based fine-arts high-school. On ending her military service in Israel, Rachel returned to the US to proceed with the studies. Completing a bachelor program in Fine Arts from Ohio State University first, then doing a master’s in Photography at the School of Visual Arts, NY, Papo didn’t only coin the necessary skills and professional experience but also gathered some ‘living’ material for her further artistic research.

For example, that was the case with the ‘SERIAL NO. 3817131’ project, which was shot fifteen years later that Rachel Papo ended her military duty in Israel. The photographer came to several Israeli army bases (just like the one where she used to serve herself) to tell the story of girls going through the binding experience of adolescence and social adaptation while doing their service at that time.

Images by Papo in the ‘SERIAL NO. 3817131’ make it clear: neither is a choice for the 18-year-olds. Developing physically and mentally into women, exploring their character and sensuality as well as the world outside coincides with the obligation to become a social unit through paying tribute to the state. Israel is one of the few countries in the world that oblige women to serve in military forces. ‘Learning for life’ can turn either into a beneficial or devastating experience. All you can do is to accept it, live it, and learn your serial number (the only thing you might clearly remember from the period of service a few years later).

Another series by Rachel Papo closely associated with the idea of destiny goes under the title ‘DESPERATE PERFECT’. To portray a cradle of great expectations and a sweatshop of endless efforts, the photographer headed to Saint-Petersburg, Russia. The local Vaganova Ballet Academy has stayed true to tradition ever since it was founded in the middle of the 18th century, moulding top dancers not only for Russia, but the entire world. Hundreds of students are enrolled in the Academy annually, each of them secretly dreaming of becoming another Mathilde Kschessinska, Galina Ulanova, or Rudolf Nureyev (all of them being the former Vaganova graduates).  

Actually, that could be Papo’s destiny, too — had she not given up her ballet lessons at the age of 14. The author put paid to her dancing career after 9 years of practice, having realized in her case the end wouldn’t justify the means. Perhaps for that reason Rachel Papo made an effort to get inside the Vaganova, which is usually not easy for non-students. Her suggestion to shoot the emerging dancers was suddenly well received. The young talents as well as their teachers had nothing against being captured while stretching their legs at the ballet barre or moving gracefully across the stage. Highly aspired, certainly doing their best, Papo’s characters yet seem desperate in their striving for perfection, and that’s what the photographer was mainly focusing on. 


‘The dominant thing in my work is my emotions toward these children. They are under these institutions that they can’t really do anything about… I feel some kind of sadness in those situations.’


(Rachel Papo, on the ‘DESPERATE PERFECT’ project, in the interview with the School of Visual Arts, NY)

The latest major art project by Rachel Papo is different in the sense that she didn’t know much about the research subject right before the shooting. This time the photographer turned her lens to the children who didn’t go to school, being taught in the family environment. She started the ‘HOMESCHOOLED’ series in the 2010s after moving from Brooklyn to Woodstock, NY. Though previously unfamiliar with this upbringing strategy and even finding it suspicious, Rachel Papo started embracing this while focusing her camera on some living examples such as the 5-year-old neighborhood girl named True.

Initially aiming at exploring different sides of homeschooling as well as the phenomenon itself, Papo was surprised... to be unable to do that. ‘The children were all so different from one another in so many ways, that a common thread would be impossible to detect.’ — told the photographer in the interview with LensCulture. Instead, Rachel Papo focused on the portraits of kids depicting them in the process of relentless creation, research, and joy (the only feature that did seem to unite the characters). Although the ‘HOMESCHOOLED’ proved to be a kind of dramatically new experience for the author, she recalls not being taken aback by it. Previous work with youngsters in the ‘SERIAL NO. 3817131’ and ‘DESPERATE PERFECT’ projects definitely played a part.

Apart from independent art projects, Rachel Papo also accepts commissions. She usually films dance performances, musicals, and cinema production, paying special attention to behind-the-scenes life. Looking at her photographs of Misty Copeland (December 2019), we are at once captivated by the strength and grace of the dancer, while the images taken at the Youth America Grand Prix Finals (NY) might make some of us experience a dim thrill, so distant yet familiar. No wonder Papo willingly takes on portrait shooting — a talented photographer, she either seeks insightful material or interesting life cases to create a perfect visual story.

Rachel Papo’s website:

Her instagram: @rachelpapo


On the cover: from ‘YOUTH AMERICA GRAND PRIX’. Courtesy of Rachel Papo.



Text: Julia Kryshevich @juliatecho

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