This Portrait Photographer Treats Every Subject as a Hero

May 4, 2022

By Hillary K. Grigonis

While most photographers refer to the people in their images as subjects, portrait photographer Sergey Volkov uses a different word: Heroes. Whether the people in front of his lens are a bride and groom on their wedding day or the residents of a nursing home, the award-winning Ukrainian photographer works to capture “the whole path of a person.” His latest social photography project has taken him into nursing homes to capture the stories of the residents there.

Portrait photographer Sergey Volkov looks at the whole path of a person in his portraits.
All Photos © Sergey Volkov

“Portrait photography is a creative passion and inspiration—creating a character’s story. [I aim to] show the viewer the whole life path of a person in several photographs. Working with the subjects of my photo projects allows me to grow professionally and spiritually,” says Volkov.

portrait photographer Sergey Volkov's image of a nursing home resident.
All Photos © Sergey Volkov

As both a wedding and portrait photographer, Volkov decided to fill his slower winter season with a creative project: photographing the residents of nursing homes. After discussing the idea with the management, Volkov then started to get to know the residents. “The heroes of the project are people who, for various reasons, spend the rest of their lives in a place where they are taken care of,” he explains. Among them are theater directors, university teachers, librarians, and even those who were born in such institutions and have lived in them all their lives. Most of them are disabled. These are very strong-willed people.”

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Getting acquainted with the heroes in his photographs is an essential step for Volkov’s workflow. “Usually the heroes of my photos know that I will come to visit them and take a few shots. We communicate with them. I always talk about myself and they are happy to share their life story with me. At this time, I ask permission to take some pictures. Very rarely do I shoot portraits of random people on the street.”

multiple exposure of a nursing home resident.

After chatting with the heroes of his images, Volkov worked to create a series of photos illustrating the resident’s life, often including sentimental objects to help tell that story. While he captured a series of each resident for the project, Volkov said there’s usually one that stands out. “It seems to me that one portrait is enough to convey the character of a person. In his eyes one can read unbroken spirit, strength, and a real core. And a series of pictures creates a kind of story that tells a difficult and at the same time interesting life.”

portrait of a nursing home resident with hands on face.

Volkov hasn’t always been a photographer. After graduating from college, he began working as an engineer. But, he found the work monotonous and realized that he didn’t want to devote his life to engineering. After he found he enjoyed editing photos, he bought his first camera.

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Volkov’s portraits often feature strong emotions, while his wedding photography plays with timing—sometimes comically—and people interacting with each other and the environment. He prefers working with natural light, sometimes adding his own backlight to the image.

portrait of a fellow photographer.

Those striking features recently won him two WPPI awards, one for his portrait of a fellow photographer (above) and one for the bridal portrait below, taken while the bridesmaids were tying the bride’s dress.

image of bride in black and white getting her dress tied by bridesmaids.

Volkov’s work has taken him to places like Sri Lanka, France, China, Germany, Austria, and Poland. He always has a 35mm and a 135mm in his bag.

Taking portraits helps Volkov reveal the story behind the person in the photo but, in turn, he says photography has also helped him find himself. “The most rewarding thing about my work as a photographer is that I really got freedom. It is a real joy to do what you like and get great pleasure from it,” he said. “Photography has revealed me as a person.”