Sasha Onyshchenko and Melika Dez are two of the many extraordinary photographers for Les Grands Ballets who have produced stunning work for the company. They even share similar dance backgrounds. However, the two specialize in different types of photography, have different aesthetics and approach the industry in individually unique ways.
I had the pleasure to interview both commercial, portrait and ballet photographer Sasha Onyshchenko, and Melika Dez who specializes in movement photography.
Let’s get to know these talented Montreal photographers a little better!
Sasha Onyshchenko and Melika Dez – Unique Journeys to Photography
Firstly, tell me a little bit about the path that led you to become the photographer you are today. What does that journey look like?
Sasha Onyshchenko (S.O.) My background is classical ballet. I used to be a dancer and I danced professionally for 15 years. While I was still a dancer on the east coast in Moncton, New Brunswick, I picked up photography in 2010. I started it as a hobby, looking for a new creative outlet. Two years later, I stopped dancing and became a full time photographer.
If we’re talking about ballet photography, that only began when I moved to Montreal. Before, I was working in a small city and my main focus was commercial and portrait assignments. However, when my wife and I moved to Montreal in 2015, that’s when I kind of started working with dancers a lot more.
Melika Dez (M.D.) I’ve been a dancer since I was a kid. I danced professionally for some time and then after going the ballet and jazz route I went the opposite way and I started doing street dance. That’s pretty much how I started with dance photography.
As I was competing in a big street event, one of the founders noticed me and we got talking. He said, “Since you’re into photography, how about you come to New York and I’ll introduce you to the industry over there?” Thanks to that, I started shooting dance battles in New York. So, that’s how it all started.
How would you describe your style of photography?
S.O. I have a passion for personality, character and movement. In my photography I pursue quiet, noiseless aesthetics and simplicity. I like dark and dramatic. My photography is about the people I photograph. I’m always drawn to the artist and I’m drawn to the personality. A photographer’s style is not just about how images look, but it’s also what goes on behind the scenes before the shot is taken.
M.D. I try to blend in the aesthetics of European portraiture and the style of lightning with the beauty of movement and how garments flow. For me, it’s a cross between fashion and dance photography.
What makes your work unique?
S.O. I think our niche, ballet photography, is unique on its own. In this niche it’s not enough to be a good photographer, you also need to understand what to do with the dancers. You need to speak their language.
When people know that you have dance experience, they see the difference in the photography and what you’re able to bring on set. That’s what makes it great.
M.D. It’s how I manage my light. I was extremely scared of daylight, but I turned it into the signature of my work. I would best describe my work as being able to analyse light quickly and being able to turn it into a moment in time.
Now, you do a lot of photography with dancers. What attracted you to this type of photography?
S.O. It’s my background. This is what I know. There are a lot of great portrait and commercial photographers, but for me, not using the knowledge I have would be a waste. My wife is a dancer too. Ballet is part of our everyday life.
M.D. As much as I’m an artist, I am a technical person. I always look for precision in movement. I’m always looking to make my work more complex. It’s not only about a beautiful person in a beautiful light. The movement needs to add something. So, when it comes to ballet, dancers have to have precise feet and leg positioning. So, to analyze that quickly, analyze the light, make sure the garment looks good, it’s all very complex. I like how it triggers my brain to create in a technical way.
An Inside Look at the Work with Les Grands Ballets
What does a typical day on set with dancers from Les Grands Ballets look like for you?
S.O. When I do a commercial job, let’s say I shoot a poster for an advertising campaign, there are usually 3-4 weeks of preparation. There are a lot of emails back and forth between departments. They send me ideas and what their vision is. They may send me some reference pictures or a mood board, and that’s where I start brainstorming how to bring it to life. The day before, I usually bring my equipment to their studio and build my setup. Finally, the day of the shoot when the dancers come in, we start working. We start trying different things using props, jumps and poses. On my end, I try to make sure everything looks good and bring my own aesthetic. It’s a long day, but I enjoy being on set.
M.D. Typical for me would probably be outdoors. I work alone—I am a one woman army. I come with my camera and all of my dresses and leotards. To start, according to our first scenery, the dancer will change into the first piece, I’ll analyse the light, take a few photos and we’ll look at the photos together. I always consult the dancer throughout the photoshoot.
So, a regular shoot with me will normally last about two hours. It’s very quick. Sometimes we’re in the middle of the street between two traffic lights, sometimes it’ll be on top of a lamp post. I always try to find how a ballerina can fit beautifully in the space.
What is your favourite project that you’ve done with Les Grands Ballets and why?
S.O. I have some images I love, yes. If I have to pick my favourite images I’ve made, it would be Sleeping Beauty and Giselle.
However, sometimes people think it’s just me there, but most of the time this is not my own vision or my idea. It’s a collaboration between people and departments. It takes a village to create an image.
M.D. I think I would have to say it was probably the project I shot for Les Grands Ballets in July of 2020. For that project we were obviously in the middle of the pandemic, so it was tough to be in closed spaces all together. That’s why they proposed we shoot outdoors, and they gave me carte blanche to create and design the photoshoot. It was just a beautiful opportunity to really showcase the dancers from the company in all of their beauty and movement in the heart of Montreal.
Passion and Purpose
What inspires you to wake up in the morning and go out and shoot?
S.O. I can’t help but shoot. This is what passion is. You just have to go do it. It doesn’t matter if you get paid for it or not—you just keep doing it. Even if I win the lottery or when I’m 80 or 85 years old, I will continue taking photos. I can’t imagine not doing that.
M.D. It’s overwhelming to see how my work can actually impact the lives of people I don’t even know. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to inspire people. I consider myself as one of the richest people on earth. Everytime I wake in the morning, I have the luxury of being able to do the things I love. Showing that I’m grateful, that’s one thing that gets me up in the morning.
Above all, what do you hope people take away from your photography?
S.O. The reason I enjoy advertising photography is it allows my work to be seen by many people. The purpose of each image is to be noticeable and stand out in the ocean of other amazing content out there. I hope it excites the viewer as well as entices them to take action such as visiting a brand’s website or an article, buying a ticket to a ballet performance or checking out a singer’s new album.
M.D. I hope they can take away the message of accessibility of the arts. Sometimes we tend to put ballet on such a high pedestal. The only thing I can do is hope that it makes people feel like it’s accessible.
Lastly, what’s next for your career? Do you have any big goals?
S.O. I would love to shoot a national campaign in Canada. I would also love to shoot a poster for Netflix. It’s my ultimate goal. To keep killing it, that’s the goal.
M.D. One of my dearest, dearest hopes and dreams would be to have a photography book. I love the feel of paper. I have so many stories tied to the photoshoots that I want to be able to share with the world.
The fun isn’t over! If you’re looking for some art and culture activities to do around Montreal this March, check out some new ideas in the second edition of our Art & the City series.
Journalism student at Concordia University and travel enthusiast. Passionate about music, poetry, and getting to know the stories of new individuals- especially those inspired by their art. Olivia aims to create connections through her love of writing by sharing experiences and stories.