ÉMILIE RÉGNIER: La Bella de Luanda
I first met Émilie 4 or 5 years ago at the Boreal Bash in Toronto, where she showed her Passport West Africa work. I was immediately taken. Shot with a Polaroid passport camera, four identical images on a small piece of positive film. Mostly women, a few men and children. Headshots.
from: Passport West Africa ©Emilie Régnier
Since then I’ve been looking at her subsequent work with wonder. Created mostly in Africa, almost always based on fashion. But it’s not really of fashion, also in the mix is portraiture, culture, exoticism (to Western eyes), sociology, anthropology, art, and the document.
Her most recent work, La Bella de Luanda, photographed in Angola, stopped me in my tracks. There’s something about these images that seem (at least for me) to provoke interesting questions about representation, questions that
photographers people these days might want to think about. And they do it in a fresh, modern way that invites wonder.
Top to Bottom
Maria and Hortancia
I asked Emilie a few questions. Her answers are as fresh and honest as her photographs . . .
Tell me a little about how you came to photography and why you choose to work with cameras that seem to embrace, for lack of a better word, the analog qualities of the medium.
I came to photography at a very young age. My grandfather bought me my first Polaroid camera when I was about 6 years old. I was then living in Gabon, and I remember shooting whatever I could, my friends, landscapes etc… They were terrible images, but I was already infatuated with the magic of photography.
When I was 16, I start working, and I used my first paycheck ever to buy myself a semi-professional Pentax camera. I was then taking photos of my friends and parties until graduation, most photos were taken slightly drunk or high and I would paste them on the wall of my room. And from then, I tried hard to not embrace photography as a professional career, but at 20 after dropping out of college on a winter day because they were no more parking spots available… I decided that maybe it was time to stop running away from what I really wanted and I went to study photography at College Marsan in Montreal. I instinctively disliked digital at the beginning. It doesn’t have the same sensuality, the depth of field bothered me, it had with time became too sharp and mainly it doesn’t exist in the material world, plus the beauty of mistakes with film camera is hard to beat. But I guess I am just like a nostalgic DJ swearing vinyls are so much better than MP3….
What draws you to Africa?
I spent my childhood in Gabon, and we got back to Canada when I was about 8. I for a long time said and thought that I went to live and work on the African continent to be an actor of change and witness inequalities.
Today, if I am honest, I think I was drawn back to this continent because a part of me belongs here. I am mixed race, and I was raised in a suburb of Montreal where I always stood out. Despite the love and affection of my family and friends, there was not a day I didn’t remember that I was different. It could maybe have been another experience if my father would have been around and I would have a positive reference of what it is to be a person of color, but he didn’t, and I grew up around white peoples.
At that time, for me being black was either synonym of a gang, crimes, hip hop, absent father or Africa and starvations. When you are mixed, you embodied both, the oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a natural tendency to embrace the part of you that has been oppressed, as it is your weakest link. I used to hate being mixed from a Black father, so I guess I had to learn about that side of me, to learn about what it means to be Black.
When I first came to Dakar more than 10 years ago, I felt that there were other realities than the one I had been living in. That the narratives about peoples of color I have been exposed through Western media as a child and a teenager were lies and stereotypes, that this continent was something other than conflict and malnutrition, that this is a place of creativity where the world is being reinvented. And I felt I wanted to be part of these narratives, not the one I was seeking at first, but the one that is still taking shape in front of my eyes.
Madalena and Luzia
To my eyes the work you are doing there moves well beyond what these days is commonly called “othering”, your photographs ask a lot of questions. Can you talk a bit about your approach, both on the ground with the people you choose to photograph, and how and why you came to this way of working?
The goal I am pursuing with my work is to build bridges, to create other narratives and other ways to look at peoples. Our brains are over lazy and Western ideas of success, beauty, wealth are widely spread through Western Media and are often held by the elite around the world. This has created conditioning on how we see ourselves and how we see others. I want to challenge those ideas. I have been exposed to them growing up, and every day I am working hard to rewire my brain and to believe other truths. I want my work to make others question their absolute beliefs. I don’t have answers, but I am continually seeking new questions. I believe Fashion and Art are powerful tools to lead to new ways of thinking and to expand our consciousness.
SPAO hosted their annual grad show this past Friday. As usual a swell crowd filled the premises. Merriment, chat, discussion, catching up, looking, et cetera, ensued.
But what about the work?
Well, as usual, each graduating student has brought their own voice, concerns, perspective and approach to the show. What struck me, though, is I can’t remember a graduating cohort who seem more outward-looking and politically engaged than this one (generally) is.
Some of the politics is overt.:
- Katherine Fulwider’s prints on cardboard of homeless youth, these accompanied by cardboard signs those youth use to tell you what they want you to know.
- Christine Potvin’s portraits with interviews of Canadian Forces veterans, if that’s the correct word, who were drummed out of service because they were gay.
- BPG’s reimagining of supermarket tabloids as hard political propaganda.
Some is elliptical:
- Vivian Törs’ reaction to letters, written from 1937 to 1944, by a Hungarian-Jewish wife and mother.
- Lauren Boucher’s ode to home and surviving cancer.
- Destroyed money by Nicolai Papove Gregory.
- Through her grown children, Patricia LaPrairie looks at life in her home.
- Lindsay Irene’s portraits of sex workers.
Of course there’s more. And who knows, you may see politics there where I don’t. After all, couldn’t all self expression be classified as somehow political?
And, as usual, some of the bodies of work here are more accomplished, fully realized, sophisticated, multi-dimensional, (fill in your own word here), than others.
Go have a look and decide for yourself. It continues until May 5th.