Snapshot: Cinematographer, Diana Eliazov
Thankfully, the dialogue surrounding the slow rise of working female DPs and their subsequent ‘acceptance’ into a typically male-dominated department has been fairly loud and frequent as of late. From my end, there’s not much more to say than there are a lot of hyper-talented, hardworking and dedicated people working in the film/tv/content business -- full-stop. I support and echo all sentiments that encourage more hiring of female DPs and camera people in general.
Diana Eliazov worked in the camera department on “Divergent” (dir. of photography: Alwin Kuchler), and has worked on countless commercials (Google, Adidas, Metlife), narrative features, and documentaries (including “Dalit Women Fight” and “Street Heroines.”). She was born in Queens and resides in Los Angeles and New York.
Fluidity, exploration, and evolution of identity are storytelling elements that are foundational to her visual style. She and I had a rich conversation about her experiences over the last few years in particular.
April: Let’s start by talking about your obsessions.
Diana: …Good design. A good piece of pie. Extremes.
A: Extremes in what way?
D: Extreme situations that bring you to the point of being challenged, whether it’s mentally or emotionally or physically. I don’t want to put myself through that on a daily basis, but in certain moments of life and work it’s important. It’s necessary, for me, to experience extremes in order to test myself, push myself, and evolve. I don’t know if ‘obsessed’ is the right word, but it’s something I think is vital.
A: So through your work, especially in the last few years, you’ve purposefully been putting yourself in those situations. The documentaries you did in India and South America are the ones that come to mind. (Diana recently worked in India on a doc entitled “Dalit Women Fight” about women’s rights for the Dalit caste. She also detailed female graffiti artists for a separate feature called “Street Heroines.”)
D: In India in particular, there was a perspective and understanding that I came away with which was what I loved so much about the experience. Especially with the girls we were documenting, (more information about the Dalit caste) they’re all given a ‘caste’ from birth by a society they didn’t choose. From that, they’re given certain parameters and limitations in how they can evolve themselves. Instead, these girls we were profiling chose to look at themselves as humans and not objects or totems; instead they realized they had the option to change their mental state and see themselves differently. I got to spend time with some amazing women, who taught me a whole new level of kindness, acceptance, and redefining one’s role in life.
My most recent project, Street Heroines, is a feature documentary about female graffiti and street artists around the world. We traveled mainly in Latin America: Sao Paolo, Mexico City, and Medellin. The director chose women who were not only great artists, but people who were well-informed, well-spoken and had an understanding of the dynamics of their culture and society. Every artist has a process and creates works that reflect the issues and prejudices of the society they grew up in. They use the streets as a platform of expression to connect with people and to show that they have a voice and do exist. They all have this great balance of awareness and determination to express their voice through their art but also never came across as pretentious.
A: Are those projects out in the world yet?
D: That’s the thing about being a cinematographer. You join these projects, especially if they’re docs, and you’re just along for the ride and don’t really know what’s going to happen to it on the other side. You just have to let it go. It’s kind of a good thing, learning to let things go even if you’re attached to them and the people you work with. At least you get to keep the experience and the connections you made with the people on the projects.
A: How important to you is making something that lasts, because it does seem futile to be searching for something that sticks in the zeitgeist? Something can be meaningful to you within your experience, but as a DP and a photographer, are you looking for things that aren’t just ephemeral?
D: I was thinking about this topic the other day, how can you create something that you know 100 years from now can still be even digested by humans? Something that’s even part of society at all? Because even 100 years from now, the way we experience anything is going to be exponentially different than how it is today. When you look at things in regard to what lasts, if anything is made in a moment that’s very authentic, I think the product of that will last the test of time.
The best thing about art in general is that it’s a transformative process. The actual content that is produced or the actual sustainability of the situation might not be forever in that present moment, but how you’re transformed is what can stay with you forever as a human. With that, you carry a consciousness and emotion that you bring to everyone else you encounter and hopefully society in general.
When there’s an authentic moment that’s been created, in 20 years an audience will still feel that.
A: I like that you have so much faith that that connection you speak of is what will bridge generations, that authenticity to the moment. Do you often come across other DPs, or camera people or creatives in particular, who also feel this way?
D: I don’t think I am the only one who feels this way. I think sometimes people are just more concerned with their own ego. Less ‘what am I creating right now and will it be important later?’ It’s more, ‘will I be important in 100 years?’ It shouldn’t be about that. You might not be important 100 years from now, but the way you engage with the world now will eventually, I think, have an affect. People were painting in caves 20,000 years ago, and we still find those impressive even though they’re basic. You find the commonality of ‘this person had a heart and a brain and a liver.’ My connection to them is not that they would be important 100 years later, it’s that they were artists a part of a society at a specific period of time. Just like I am, or you are. You could absolutely be aware of what is to come in the future, but you can’t live for it.
A: How does that philosophy affect you when you’re picking what project to do?
D: It’s a mixed bag. You still have to pay rent while trying to feed your soul. I’ve talked to established DPs over the years and most of the stories even they get are just not great. The options of what are being given to them just aren’t appealing either emotionally, mentally or creatively. You just hope that something good will come your way occasionally and savor those “soul” satisfying projects when you can.
At some point, you can’t take things so seriously. There’s even value to a comedy because it makes someone laugh. There is still an authentic emotion created from that content. At the end of the day, do you want to create a story that people connect to on a profound emotional level? Of course you do. I love doing documentaries for that reason; being a part of someone else’s story and helping them bring their story to life. I do think there’s a very unique power in narrative, though, where you can mold and shape something into a platform that more people can relate to.
A: What are you watching in particular right now?
D: I haven’t been watching anything, really. I’ve been reading more, and listening to stories on the radio. In the past couple months I’ve wanted to reconfigure my thought process. I’m trying to open up different parts of how I see or process information, so I’ve just been reading books that bring to light different ways of defining identity.
I read James Baldwin’s ANOTHER COUNTRY recently. The thing about his writing is that he has this way of constructing sentences that reveal a past, present and future all within a few lines. He describes a moment that has such depth to it, and the meaning of the words resonate so much because you truly understand the root of where his words came from. And when you put them all together in those two lines, it’s almost like he’s explained the entire history of the present situation.
I’m also reading THE UNFETTERED MIND. It’s written by a zen master and is a book of advice on swordsmanship and the cultivation of right mind and intention. I think if you often train yourself to see images with just your eyes, then your brain doesn’t produce as much imagery out of your subconscious; it gets oversaturated. So I’ve been trying to train my brain again to create visuals through my imagination more so than just viewing regurgitated representations of what I see in front of my eyes.
It also happens when you listen to the radio. When I first moved to LA I had no TV for the first two years, but I did have my stereo. By the way – my other major obsession is music.
A: I almost said that earlier! I didn’t want to jump in, but I was thinking… Diana, your obsession is music.
D: ‘You got your own answer wrong, Diana!’
I think music falls into it the same way radio does. There’s music and lyrics that give you a sense of imagery and emotion in your mind - which is something personal you can always have with you. I never travel anywhere without my speaker and my headphones. I won’t bring a brush, but I’ll bring my stereo.
A: I wonder, realistically, what is going to happen with art that’s not auditory as far as meaning something to us as humans, because I do think you bring up a good point that visuals are just what they are – they’re finite. They’re less personal. Anything that’s purely auditory, or a novel, is constantly changing each time you revisit it. I think the only hindrance to visuals, and essentially your job, is the fact that they exist as they are.
D: That’s a very good point. It’s hard with visuals. There will be trends where you watch commercials and you think, Is every single commercial is made by the same human? The same color palette, the same sequence of movement in the shots, the wide/close/tight order, the same car down the same road on the same street at the same time of night. There’s no stimulation. At that point you might as well be blind. The hard thing is no matter what you do sometimes, the reason the palettes of visuals are so similar within a certain trend is because the audience gets so used to seeing it, that the creators of the commercials sometimes unintentionally regurgitate it. Obviously, with commercials it’s client/agency and not always on the director or the DP. But even with features, for a minute everything was shot with super shallow depth of field.
One of the trends happening now is the consumer trend where you see and understand that something is popular and cool, not because you understand the context of it or how it was made. You just like it because other people like it. Cultural critics who you “trust” have approved these products, so therefore you think it’s legit. That’s a copy/paste mentality. If you actually try to understand the process of why that person chose to design that product or paint that product a certain color, then you can reinterpret it into your own unique sense of space and design. You’ll maybe make something similar, but instead of it being yellow, maybe you’ll make it fuschia. That all just takes time and effort. A lot of people either don’t want to take the time or can’t, or just can’t grasp that. Understanding your connection to something takes a lot of vulnerability and a lot of listening.