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by Alice Oliver

Mayya Kelova is a documentary and conceptual photographer from Turkmenistan now based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Mayya's work is an exploration of trauma, identity, and migration, rooted in her early experiences amid Turkmenistan's geopolitical shifts. From a pragmatic start in photography as a journalist, Mayya's journey includes pivotal moments in workshops and studies, leading to a deeper appreciation for conceptual photography. The interview delves into Mayya's project 'Forgiving,' where digital manipulation becomes a tool for self-discovery, allowing her to reinterpret her narrative. Mayya's work subtly blends personal expression and advocacy, contributing to important dialogues on trauma and human rights. This project is a history of her own voice, from the moment she lost it to the process of regaining it.

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AO: Could you tell us a little about your early life, where did you grow up, and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?

MK: I grew up amid a changing geopolitical landscape. The country I’m from, Turkmenistan, wasn’t an independent country when I was born, it was part of the Soviet Union. While I was very young, I remember the changes and struggles during my country’s transition. At the age of three, I could not grasp the effects it will have on me, my family, and many other families across the region. These effects still linger, and today I am processing that period as well as what preceded it through photography. In a way, it shaped the main themes I am working on, such as identity, belonging, and trauma.


Growing up in a mid-sized town, Mary, in south-east Turkmenistan, I was surrounded by cultural diversity and art. Both of my parents are artistically gifted, but none had a chance to pursue art professionally. I never thought it possible for me, but I always tried to be close to art, so I pursued journalism as I thought it was creative but also fit my interests and character.

AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?

MKMy introduction to photography was rather pragmatic. As an aspiring journalist, I believed I needed as many skills and tools as possible to be competitive, so at the age of 19 I joined a photo club in my hometown and would eventually pursue street, studio, photojournalistic and documentary photography. My first documentary project was a series about a Roma woman in Bulgaria, in the same town I was doing my bachelors. I was later selected for the Nikon NOOR masterclass on two separate occasions and the VII Academy workshop and took classes in documentary filmmaking during master’s studies in human rights at Central European University. These experiences had a big impact, but becoming a professional photographer still seemed out of reach. The turning point was studying photography at Docdocdoc- School of Contemporary Photography in 2019-2022, where I gained a new appreciation for the artform and was introduced to conceptual and art photography that are essential to me now.

AO: In your project,  'Forgiving,' you digitally manipulate images and reshape archival materials to challenge the simplified reality they represent. Can you elaborate on how these manipulations help you reinterpret and reclaim your own narrative? What message or statement do you hope to convey through these visual interventions?

MK: When I stepped into the project, I did not fully understand what I was looking for, I only knew I needed to work on it. But halfway through the process, the project helped me realise what had held me back in the past: not being able to accept the past and forgive myself. For a very long time, I avoided looking at images from that period, but things like digital manipulation somehow freed me to look at the past directly, but this time without needing to pretend. These manipulations in a way expose what was hidden to the naked eye. 

AO: Photography can be a powerful medium for storytelling and raising awareness about important social issues. How do you navigate the fine line between personal expression and advocacy within your work? What impact do you hope your photography will have on viewers, particularly those who have experienced similar traumas?

MK:  I don’t consciously choose my work to advocate or raise awareness. When it happens to be there, it is definitely a very valuable bonus to the project, but not the main objective. Although of course, I choose topics because I believe in their importance and the need to talk about them. What I learned to understand through my art practice is that there is tremendous loneliness and heavy silence in trauma. And when these stories are spoken out loud, there are more chances to find support. And I want to believe that the themes I am working on, while personal, are also universal.

AO: Your background in journalism and advocacy, particularly for women's rights and minority rights, informs your artistic practice. How do these experiences shape the subjects and themes you choose to explore in your photography? How does your work contribute to the larger dialogue on these issues?

MK: My professional background definitely has an impact on my artistic practice, the way I approach my work and go deep into topics. That background may not always be obvious, but it’s there for me to make informed decisions and to reflect and understand the themes I am working on better. Before I had the idea for “Forgiving” I had studied the human rights aspect of intimate partner violence at university and while working for a non-profit. After starting the project, I continued to study trauma through psychology, listening to such experts as Gabor Maté. But my research is also based on listening to myself and looking for answers within.

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AO: Looking ahead, are there any new projects or themes that you are interested in exploring through your photography? How do you envision your work evolving in the future, especially in relation to your exploration of personal narratives and social issues?

MK:  I am at the stage of my practice where I mainly look inward and reflect on personal experiences, most of it focusing on themes of identity and belonging. In 2020 I started a long-term project about my Turkmen identity, with a working title of “Something borrowed, something red”. The project aims to understand the place I was born and raised and how its historical changes have shaped me. It also looks at colonisation, coloniality, cultural appropriation, textiles, and the importance of the colour red in Turkmen culture.


I am also working on a project called “Stories we did not tell, secrets we did not share” with my sister. The project initially was an attempt to get closer to my sister: when I was thirteen years old, we were separated for ten years. But eventually, the project became an exploration of our relationship.


I do see myself in the future going back to working on topics that do not relate directly to my own life, whether through a documentary or conceptual approach and gradually developing various possible ideas.

AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

MK:  I am considering making books from the two projects we've talked about, but I am still in the development stage for those projects and don’t yet have experience making a photobook. When it comes to exhibiting my work, I like the possibility of direct interaction with the audience as it provides opportunities for immediate feedback, discussion, and reflection with them. And I also like to witness how the audience interacts with and reacts to my work.

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AO: As an emerging woman photographer, do you have any advice to offer others on gaining exposure and making a name for yourself, in what is considered quite a male-centric industry?

MKI often look up to female photographers and female artists, especially those who come from my region or from neighbouring countries: those I identify with. I find that there is so much to learn from them, so I listen to their interviews and study their work. And it helps me to reflect on my experiences as an emerging female photographer from Global South. I have contacted some of the artists that inspire me. I think it’s important not to hesitate to reach out to artists that you appreciate and learn from them.

AO: Finally, please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?

MK: One of the female artists I look up to is Diana Markosian. Her projects that focus on family have had a profound effect on me as a person of the same generation and region, coming from a family that also experienced migration and separation. Another example is Saodat Ismailova, an artist and filmmaker from Uzbekistan whose work focuses on my home region, Central Asia, its history, and the role of women. Laia Abril’s research-based photobook, A History of Misogyny, had also a very deep impact on me.
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