Maja Topcagic is taking over the world and once you lay your eyes on her photographs, you will understand why.
We met on a very warm September day in Sarajevo. She moved there a few years back in order to pursue her creative passion, hoping that a bigger city will bring her bigger opportunities. Her energy was contagious, and so was her laughter. Young, friendly and approachable, Maja talked with me about her photography, passion and what inspires her. Read about how she went from her first cellphone photographs to creating iconic images that are putting her name on the world map.
After meeting and walking to a lovely cafe garden we started chatting. I ask her to describe herself.
I am 26 years old. I studied mathematic and informatics and I’m currently working on my master thesis in that area. I’m a freelance photographer and retoucher. I work for some companies abroad as well as for some fashion companies here. I live in Sarajevo and I was born in Bihać, Bosnia.
How did you first get interested in photography?
I first used to photograph with my cellphone. It was hard to afford a camera back then and since my parents didn’t want to get one for me, I just used my phone. Luckily, I would Photoshop these images and post them on a local website for photo sharing. It was there that I came up to a story of a man who wanted to give his camera away. Something happened in his life and he didn’t want to use his equipment anymore, so he decided to give it away. He chose me and so I got my first camera from someone whom I still haven’t met. He lives in Vienna and I’m in Sarajevo so we didn’t cross paths but we keep in touch. That’s how it all started, I got some very pricy equipment and when I walked around my hometown with it people would look at me like I’m an alien (she laughs). I started working on different projects like weddings, family photos, fashion shoots and portraits that ended up being my focus. As things took over I was able to afford one camera, and then another one and now one more – and I can now say that I am a professional photographer.
That man who gave you your camera, is he familiar with your success?
I assume he is, I think he follows my work. We talk quite rarely, exchange some e-mails and I am still so grateful for what he did. (I add just how incredible that story is to me as she says how for her it was a proof that there are still good people willing to help).
You studied math. Do you find any connection between mathematic and photography?
My master studies theme is fractals, and they are connected to nature. What I like is that I can use photography to present them. I find lots of connections there, as art and nature are connected and for me nature is art. Numbers are also like art. Everything we see around us can be shown through numbers, functions or Fibonacci numbers and the golden spiral. Those are all things around that eye cannot really see, but they are there. If you know about all these elements in the nature, you will find the connection. That probably helped me in making my work.
Is there an equation for creating a perfect image? What’s the secret?
There’s the rule of thirds and number Phi. A lot of painters like Leonardo da Vinci used some of these rules in their work. The observant’s eye may not see it, but if you were to divide the art piece in thirds you would find it. The thing with photography is that your eye always goes to the lightest spot of the image, so you can use that to attract the attention of the viewer to whatever you want.
I comment that once you know about these rules you start noticing them. We discuss how even our own bodies are made with same mathematic principles. “Math is everywhere but it seems like people refuse to see that.” – she says. “Maybe because they are afraid of it.“- I add.
Tell me what’s the moment in your career so far that you are most proud of?
It must be the book covers. And magazine covers. Of course, you are always most proud of your first cover, your first contract and first achievements. I collaborate with this UK company that licences photographs to be used as book covers. I am really proud when I see that someone chose my image for a book, as that book is going to attract people by its cover. Authors spend so much time writing their stories, so I feel honoured when they choose to present their work to the world with my photograph. My project ‘Freckled’ also takes a special place in my heart. I got some offers to get those photographs published as a book and I also got invited to exhibit in London during the Redhead Day. This project makes me feel super happy because I receive messages from people with freckles that thank me for presenting them in such beautiful way. Some of them have been bullied and they didn’t feel so good about themselves, so I feel blesses to hear that my photos make them feel appreciated and stronger. Remember – being different is beautiful.
What do you enjoy photographing the most?
I like making portraits and fashion photography. I mix the two in my work, adding fashion elements to my portraits and having portraits as a part of my fashion work. I don’t like to differentiate those – my work is a mix or art, fashion and beauty. Photographing people is my passion.
As there are all these conflicted opinions about retouching I had to hear Maja’s opinion on that topic.
I work as a retoucher – she says. I do it freelance for different companies and photographers. What I try to do with my own personal projects, like Freckles for example, is not to retouch too much. I just want to add some special touch to the image. I want to make the best from the photograph I took, but not to make it look fake. I don’t like that look and I never change things like the skin texture or the face contours of my models. I like them to look natural. Also, if a photo needs some retouching, it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad photo. You just want to make it even better. People used to do it even before we went digital. They would use dodge and burn and manipulate the image while developing it in the dark room. So, we always have tendencies to make things better, and as long as we don’t take it too far I say why not?
She adds: “It is great when a photographer is able to retouch his own images. That way he can put his own personal touch instead of explaining to someone else what he wants to achieve. You use Photoshop to express your vision, put your own stamp on it.”
What inspires you?
Life inspires me, everything around me can be inspirational. I can see something beautiful when I’m walking down the street. Maybe it’s a great location, or a passerby. It happens that I sometimes stop people on the street and ask them if they would be interested to pose for me. I don’t know how people see me, maybe I seem a bit crazy to them (she laughs) but it usually works out. I have my notebook where I write down my dreams, pretty locations to remember, names of models and everything I don’t want to forget. My family and friends inspire me, as well as music and movies and music videos. I don’t check out other photographer’s work a lot, simply because I don’t want to be influenced but sometimes I’ll find some inspiration there as well.
I jump in asking who is her favourite photographer, if she has one.
My favourite is Annie Leibovitz because she does fashion but in a different way. Tim Walker as well. They both have a very special way of presenting their work.
As she likes photographing fashion and also strong faces, it is no surprise that she wants to photograph Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne, and Cristian Bale that is her favourite actor. She hopes to one day photograph Hollywood celebrities and capture their features with her camera. I discover that shooting someone is not always an easy task as she tells me an anecdote from her photo shoot: “I was photographing this model that was lying on the grass with flowers in her hair (it’s my most famous image) and I wanted to get the shot from some height, so I decided to climb some wooden boxes that happened to be there. It was probably not the best idea as I ended up falling down injuring my leg, but continued with the shoot like nothing happened. For the results I got, I would do it all over again.”
Any advice for young photographers?
Take your camera with you everywhere. You can notice something special and if you don’t have your camera with you, you will miss a moment that cannot be brought back. Also, an universal advice for everyone is to follow their dreams and do what makes them happy.
Is a picture worth a 1000 words?
It absolutely is. It is worth more than 1000 words because it evokes different emotions in all of us. We can all observe the same image, but everyone will manage to see something different in it. We react to it emotionally and personally, so a single image can tell different stories as it will affect people differently.