Xenia Nikolskaya is an award-winning Russian-Swedish photographer currently based in Cairo. She is the author of The House My Grandfather Built, which won the 2021 Swedish Photobook Award.
Her book Dust: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture, the revised and expanded edition, has just been published by AUC Press (2022).
In our interview with her, Xenia talks about her fascination for emptiness and forgotten architecture, how she sees dust collecting in abandoned locations that she photographs as a poetic metaphor, how she draws inspiration from cinema, and more importantly how she selected each location and eventually captured the mood she sought.
Photo: Alexei Kostromin
@ What is it that fascinates you about “dusty interiors,” to use your term?
It’s obviously not about dust. Dust is the poetic metaphor. It’s about how architecture can teach us history lessons. I am fascinated by “invisible,” forgotten architecture, architecture that is not recognized by the general public or authorities nor famous enough to be ‘museumified’—in other words turned into museums. That’s what I am looking for. And in each frame, I specifically sought out eerie or disturbing places that resembled sets from Alfred Hitchcock movies. I was trying to extend the cinematographic genre of horror into the fine art of photography. Cinema is my main inspiration.
@ How did you go about selecting which palaces and buildings to photograph?
It was a very long process: I did multiple scouting trips, made notes, consulted with architects and local historians, and used my own knowledge of architecture. I have an MA in the history of art. First I researched the places and then their accessibility. And then I decided what I was going to photograph. After each shoot, I did a pre-selection on my computer of the photographs, made about ten small size (10×15 cm) prints of each location, and then placed them on my metal board to try to arrange them with already selected images. Some did not fit the sequences—I use some of these outtakes in the new edition.
@ Approximately how much time would it take to capture what you were looking for in your lens for each location? Did you ever use artificial light or change anything in the space?
I always only use available and natural light, which can best reflect the architecture. Time is unpredictable—you have to wait for the right light, or return, sometimes multiple times, until you get it. This happened with El Dorado theater in Port Said—I went there four times. Sometimes I had to be extremely fast because of the condition of the structures, or because people were getting paranoid.
I never change things… There are two types of photographers: ones that take pictures with make-up artists, art directions, additional lighting, and others—like me—who collect pictures because the pictures are already there. You just have to recognize them!
@ There is such a strong sense of presence in these photographs, as if people had just moved out, almost in a rush, leaving behind their memories, their laughter, and perhaps their cries, trapped inside those vast ‘empty’ spaces. You yourself wrote, in the First Edition of Dust, “The place seemed transformed into a theatre in which a drama had just been acted out.” Did that inspire you more or was that feeling at times overwhelming?
Yes, I was trying to capture this presence! In fact, I began to create an absent portrait of time, and the absence came to be one of the main selection criteria as I edited the photographs. I think it’s overwhelming for those who are looking; for me it was an excitement and a responsibility to document these locations because I very quickly realized that there was a value in these images as buildings began to disappear….
@ Does one ever photograph emptiness?
@ It is so intriguing to know from your book that you “specifically sought out eerie or disturbing places that resembled sets from Alfred Hitchcock movies” . . . heightened by the dramatic lighting conditions.” Does this eeriness come from this sense of time that has passed and gone—leaving behind dust, and perhaps a mix of secrecy, nostalgia, and intrigue?
It is all of that. I am like a city archeologist, discovering and describing the site, with dust as the first cultural layer. In Russian, my mother tongue, “nostalgia” means home sickness.
@ How complicated was it to gain access to these palaces and buildings?
It’s everyone’s question. It was complicated. I did not get to go everywhere I wanted. It involved constant research, lots of managerial and social skills, and good networking.
@ Have some locations been demolished since you took the photographs?
Oh yes…. Villa Casdazly was burned, the American Consulate in Port Said was demolished, Simon Arzt is being “renovated,” and many other buildings are in a continuous state of deterioration. And, of course every now and again I see demolished buildings that I am so sorry I did not photograph.
@ Is there one palace or building you would have loved to live in? Do you have a favorite?
In Cairo I live in a very similar type of place. I don’t have a favorite but I have a special attachment to the Sarageldine Palace, the place where it all began! It was the first place I entered, so it’s a key point for the project.
@ Why are these magnificent palaces and buildings now left derelict?
I think there is an issue of identity. It’s not strictly “Egyptian” architecture. Sometimes it is referred to as “colonial,” although Egyptian architects and patrons were involved.. There is also the issue of recent history, the history of yesterday, with which people have not yet worked out their relationship. We still have people who were born or even live in some of these buildings and palaces. Economic factors also play a role—with a private house you can have up to thirty relatives who cannot come to an agreement on what to do with their building.
@ In the book, you write: “Ultimately, the focus of Dust is on social and political disaster—on depicting the layers of history, of use and abuse, of these buildings.” Can you elaborate on that?
Dust is a kind of ethnographic photography that document the aftermath of people’s presence in these structures. With the change of a political regime, some buildings become expendable, some get demolished, while others get repurposed. By following the history of one particular structure we can get some idea of a country’s past. It’s an honest record.
@ What do you think will happen to these “newly discovered, fragile spaces” in the near future?
This is a good question! I am like Christopher Columbus, “discovering” them for the general public but of course they have always been there. Mostly buildings are getting demolished accidentally on purpose by men who destroy the structures from within, so that they eventually collapse, making way for skyscrapers. Other buildings, like Baron Empain Palace, are selected for renovation.
More about Xenia Nikolskaya
A former curator of the Russian National Centre of Photography and former head of Rossiya Segodnya’s exhibition project department, she is a Fulbright Fellow with a PhD from Sunderland University, UK. She has taken part in more than forty international exhibitions and her works are preserved at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Since 2019 she has taught photography at the German University in Cairo.