“You’re beautiful.” Those were the first words that Sasha said to Tjioe. The two women, then students attending different universities in London, had just competed in a soccer match against each other, and Sasha approached Tjioe after the game, in front of everyone, with her declaration. Sasha’s team won — "We won every time, of course,” she jokes — but there was just something about the brunette on the opposite team that caught her attention.
“It wasn’t a conventional beauty. She had this aura radiating off her,” Sasha tells Refinery29. “I felt like I had to do it.” Tjioe was surprised — she’d never been approached so directly before — but was pleased. “Sasha had caught my eye too, but I didn’t say anything,” she says.
It’s easy to see why award-winning photographer Nan Goldin would want to photograph this passionate, expressive young couple. Goldin has been documenting LGBTQ+ life since the ‘70s. Her acclaimed 1985 work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, consists of almost 700 portraits capturing intimate moments in her own and her friends’ lives. In 2003, the New York Times wrote that, with Ballad, Goldin “forged a genre, with photography as influential as any in the last 20 years.” And in these photos of Sasha and Tjioe, taken over the course of a week in Istanbul in December 2018, Goldin documents the young women’s love for each other, showing the intensity and joy of a first relationship.
Tjioe and Sasha have an incredibly modern, international story. Tjioe, now 21, was born to a Turkish mother and a Bosnian father, both artists themselves. She grew up in Berlin and, through her mother, met Goldin as a young girl. This relationship grew as Tjioe began modeling for Goldin, and the renowned photographer has even called her “my muse.”
Sasha, now 23, is Russian. She grew up in Moscow and attended boarding school in the U.K. as a teenager. Surveys indicate that less than half of Russians believe that LGBTQ+ people should have equal rights, and the government banned public “promotion” of the LGBTQ+ community in a 2013 “gay propaganda” law. However, Sasha asserts that, growing up in Moscow, she didn’t personally experience much anti-LGBTQ+ negativity. “If you consider the situation in Moscow and the situation in the rest of Russia, it’s two totally different stories,” she says. “In most of Russia, it’s not that welcome and it can be dangerous, but it’s getting much better.” She continues, “I couldn’t tell you a reason why I didn’t feel any negativity towards myself, but I never did.”
Both women were out as bisexual by the time they met in London. In fact, neither had a particular coming-out moment or realization of their sexuality; it was just always there. “I grew up with people around me being who they are, expressing who they love,” Tjioe says. She had a summer romance with another woman shortly after graduating high school, which she says makes her a "late bloomer." Sasha had her first sexual experience with a woman at boarding school. “It wasn’t like a realization for me,” she says. “It was more like, I want to do this in this moment, so I’m going to do it. It was nice, I liked it, I did it again.” Sasha had been in relationships before Tjioe, but it wasn’t the same. “I thought my past relationships were serious, but it wasn’t anything like this,” Sasha says.
After Tjioe and Sasha’s soccer game, someone posted a group photo of both teams on Facebook. Sasha added Tjioe, and they began messaging and getting to know each other while Sasha was back in Moscow visiting family. The day after Sasha returned to London, she and Tjioe met at a bar for their first date.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Sasha says. “I was sitting outside that bar in London, smoking a cigarette, and she was fashionably late — five, ten minutes. I just remember her crossing the road in this long, dark coat.” Tjioe joined Sasha for a cigarette, even though she doesn’t smoke. “I was like, yeah, I smoke, of course I’m cool like that,” she laughs.
They hit it off — “It wasn’t just beauty, I wanted to get to know her more and more,” Sasha says — and they left the bar for Sasha’s apartment nearby, where they discussed Sasha’s dissertation on the treatment of tumors over wine. "We went to bed together [that night], and it just continued,” Sasha says. “For me, it was obvious from the first date that we were together.” Tjioe agrees, “I have no track of days, because we saw each other every day after.”
When Tjioe next saw Goldin, she showed her photos that she had taken of Sasha sleeping. Nan loved the images of Sasha, and asked the couple to model for a Saint Laurent project. “Tjioe introduced me to Nan’s art before she introduced me to Nan,” Sasha says. The couple saw one of Goldin’s best-known photos, “Nan One Month After Being Battered” (1984), at London’s Saatchi Gallery, in which the artist has two black eyes, one red with blood, a month after a man she was involved with beat and almost blinded her. She wears red lipstick and pearls and looks directly at the camera.
“I thought it was very realistic and not artificial. It was dark and intriguing,” Sasha says. When Goldin asked Sasha and Tjioe to model for her, “I told Sasha that I trust Nan,” Tjioe says. Sasha said yes to the project immediately. “I trusted Tjioe,” Sasha says.
In December 2018, Tjioe and Sasha traveled to Istanbul, where they celebrated Christmas, New Year’s, and Tjioe’s 21st birthday. Goldin was present to document it all. Sasha says it feels like no one was there at all. “It just felt like I was with Tjioe. She just catches what happens in normal life.” Even when Nan photographed the couple in bed together, “it was like she wasn’t there,” Sasha says. “When we are in bed, there’s nothing else.”
In Turkey, it's rare for even straight couples to show public affection. “Sasha and I are really affectionate anywhere, but in Istanbul, it was a little bit more complicated. I don’t think people cared on the street, but because I grew up Turkish, it was just a culture thing for me,” Tjioe explains. Still, she and Sasha kissed on the sidewalk when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s.
Now, Sasha is living in Zurich as she completes her master’s degree in economics. Tjioe is in London, finishing her undergrad in biology and curating Art Biesenthal 2019, which will take place this August in her hometown of Berlin. While being long-distance is hard, they see each other about once a month and travel together often. They show their affection and love for each other no matter where they go. "Tjioe worries a little bit sometimes," Sasha says. "But I’m there for protection. So it’s all good.”