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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Natalia KOMPANTSEVA: Don’t pass life by!

12 April, 2011 - 00:00

A talented person can always be distinguished by his/her interest for life and inexhaustible reserve of inner energy. Natalia KOMPANTSEVA, a master of photography and camerawoman, is exactly that kind of person. One can only envy her biography and abrupt turns of life. Her films are winners of international festivals; her works are on display at European and Asian photo salons, and she is successful in each of her ventures.

Kompantseva got used to traveling as a child. For many years she was a volleyball player, and quite a successful one. With various teams she visited many cities of the former USSR. After that she took up mountaineering and kayaking. Perhaps it is thanks to this that Kompantseva has a courageous attitude toward life and easily switches tracks. At first she studied at a biology department. Then she decided to move to medicine, and worked as a doctor after graduation. But when she turned 30, she understood that medicine was not her calling and that she had to enter a photography department. And she succeeded.

“I must be an adrenaline junky,” The Day’s guest described herself. “I always tried to stay away from administrative work, though I was offered leading offices. Power is not my cup of tea, though I have always been an informal leader. As for loving extremes, this trait has been in me since my childhood. When I left sport, I took up mountain tourism and alpinism. But there were three alarming signals, which made me understand that I should not ascend. One of them was an avalanche I experienced in the Caucasus. After that I was in water tourism for 13 years, and I covered serious rivers. My husband was also fond of water tourism. By the way, the first time we went kayaking was along the Cheremosh, when I was six months pregnant. Maybe that is why my son also loves extreme sports.”


“My mother was a wonderful photographer, but she never involved me in this. When I was paid my first wages, I bought a camera, when I received the second wages, I bought a cinema camera. That is how I started shooting, which turned into a serious occupation with time. However, at that time, in the late 1960s it was practically impossible for a woman to become a photographer. I thought seriously that I should become a photographer only at the age of 32. Then I entered a photography department at the Theater Institute. When a person seeks to change his life drastically, God gives him a chance, but if you miss it once, most likely you will never make use of it again. Therefore you should take the risk. Maybe nowadays the situation is different, but previously some 80 percent of people worked where they did not want to: some did this for their children, others did it for lack of financial opportunities, and the rest were caught in their own inertia.”


After the institute Kompantseva worked at a famous film studio Kyivnaukfilm (which marks its 70th anniversary on April 15). This was how her career as a cameraperson started.

“It happened so that I could choose the films where I wanted to work, though as a rule the director chooses a cameraman. When I started to work, nobody recognized female camerapersons; there were just three of us in the business. I had to travel a lot; I did not have any shootings in Kyiv in the first five years of my work. Out of 24 years at Kyivnaukfilm I have worked for 12 years with director Volodymyr Khmelnytsky. He is the most important film director for me. It was him who gave me an impetus, owing to which other directors also started to work with me. It was with him that I shot my first serious pop-science film Hello, Sea! Later we worked on the film The Winged Guards of the Country. With Khmelnytsky we shot two full-length feature films, Bound to the Landing Strip and Faithful Ruslan (A Story of a Guard Dog).”

Both films are based on real events. The latter did not appear on screens for long, because the story of the dog that guarded the prisoners of concentration camps attracted undesirable parallels.

Kompantseva said: “Some scenes produced a feeling that the entire country is one big concentration camp. I shot the camps in Syktyvkar. There are 150 kilometers of barbwire there, watchtowers and camps all around. I lived in the cell where Molotov’s wife and Lidia Ruslanova served their terms. I had a so-called ‘suite’: a room of four square meters with one bed and no heating. I had such a terrible impression that I wrote verse for the first time in my life.”

The film Bound to a Landing Strip tells about a dog that waited for many years in succession for its host at an airport. It was not allowed to board the plane, because the host did not complete the formalities and had no veterinary certificate – so he left the dog near the ramp. In the end a new host finds the dog, which had waited on so many flights.

Kompantseva learned about this story when she was working on her thesis, entitled Leaving Hope for Them, and also dedicated to the abandoned animals in our cities.

“This is a painful topic for them,” Kompantseva admitted, “At the studio there were dogs I took care of, I always had something to eat for them in my purse.”


Kompantseva worked at the Kyivnaukfilm studio until 1993. Her cinema works received awards at various competitions: the Gold Medal of the Chisinau International Festival (1980), Silver Medal of the All-Union Festival of Sports Cinema in Kaunas (1983). Kompantseva is a three-time winner of the Molodist Film Festival.

“I retired in 1993. I worked for some time with my son on television (ICTV, TET, and 1+1 TV channels), but I left because it was hard for me to work with the massive camera equipment, and the young generation appeared,” our guest explained.

Asked about the quality of our television, Kompantseva answered with no excess of empathy: “I abandoned television to preserve myself. I take no interest in politics. It seems to me, nobody has said more aptly than Rozenbaum: ‘I love my homeland, but I hate my government.’ They are lying all the time. Using medical terminology, I am idiosyncratic. I don’t perceive the new method of moving the camera, when you can see nothing on the screen. I get irritated: I want to see the picture, but I see only flashes. I don’t want to look either at these pseudo-celebrities and pop-culture. I have a wonderful film collection at home, on discs and cassettes, and I watch them. I also find some films on the Internet.”


Our heroine won recognition as a photographer relatively recently. However, her works have already been on display in more than 20 international European and Asian photo salons, received awards in many local and national photo exhibits and competitions. She has had seven private exhibits in Ukrainian cities and in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia).

“I’m not fond of glamour photography, because I think that photography should be documentary. It is owing to photography and documentary cinema that we preserve the history and images of real people,” Kompantseva wrote in her publication for the professional magazine Photographer. The photographer is interested in photographs of real people. That is why genre photography, portraits and report photos are closest to her.

“In the recent years I have been to Jordan, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Vietnam. We traveled by jeep in Ethiopia. Was it hard? No, because it was very interesting.”

Kompantseva speaks with irony about things common for us and exotic continents: “Poverty. Their situation is worse though, but they also have oligarchs.”

“I went to Vietnam to the International Congress FIAP, International Federation of Photo Art,” the photographer continued, “Why Vietnam? Because the magazine Photographer once carried a publication about a poor Vietnamese photographer, who shot the Chalong Bay, with thousands of islands. Thousands of mountain massifs appear from the water. The photographer made wonderful shots and sepias, later he moved to the US and became one of the most outstanding photographers. When I read an article about him, I started to dream of going to Vietnam. When I was about to go, I learned that the FIAP Congress would take place there. People live poorly there, but they smile. Only our people are always gloomy. We seek the worst, and they, vice versa, what is best.”

Norway is on the list of the countries Kompantseva wants to see.

“I am fond of the North. As a cameraperson I crossed the Polar Circle eight times, a rare achievement, even among cameramen. I have stayed for three days at the SP-28 station [Severny Polius-28 is a Soviet Scientific Research Drifting Station. – Ed.], when we were shooting a parachute expedition to Arctic.”

What is Kompantseva’s secret? Maybe, it’s her attitude to life.

“I have two favorite sayings: ‘Be afraid to dream, because dreams come true,’ and ‘It is not the life that comes by us, it is us, who pass by life.’ So people who see life only via TV screens are very unhappy, in my opinion. Not because they cannot afford to do something, but because they do not take interest in anything, because they pass by life.”

By Anna SLIESARIEVA, Maria TOMAK, The Day. Photos by Natalia KOMPANTSEVA