“I like to be free and live in the present moment”, says Elsa Kostic. First of all she is a wanderer, a nomad image-maker not based anywhere, who is gently emerging in the photography world. Her creativity, which is kept alive by travelling and exploring unknown territories, brought her to the other side of the pond, landing in Brazil.
Elsa Kostic spent six months there travelling throughout the whole country, immersing herself in the Brazilian culture and nature but trying to keep herself as distant as possible from clichés and stereotypes. This attitude allowed her to discover the multiple contrasts present in Brazilian society, which she later turned into different photographic series. Now, Kostic talks to us about one of them, helping us discover and understand better and more deeply what she observed and captured.
You don’t like to call yourself a photographer, but you prefer to use the term ‘image-maker’. What is the difference for you?
I graduated from a graphic design school, so many of my projects were more into art direction. It was important for me to learn how to create concepts and use my creativity in a broader way. I like to tell stories in different ways, to be free with the medium I’m using – I evolve with my surrounding, and my feelings. For me, the term ‘image-maker’ is a quicker way to describe what I do when people ask me.
French born with Bosnian origins and not really based somewhere. How has this cultural and geographic mix enriched your visual background?
I don’t know about my family tree or my previous life but I was somewhere along the road! I am very lucky to have been raised freely by open-minded parents. I think traveling throughout Eastern Europe since my childhood – especially just after the war in Bosnia – struck me and influenced my work today. I kept this Eastern raw aesthetic with the strong presence of nature, and it influenced my way of traveling too – I’m more attracted to the unknown and the untouched/rustic places than to the touristic ones. At the moment, discovering new things keeps me alive and feeds my creativity.
What artists, styles or references have influenced your approach to photography?
Cinema has definitely influenced my visual background. I went to the municipal library a lot when I was a teenager to borrow movies. It started with a David Lynch movie that I chose randomly (I think it was Mulholand Drive). Even if I didn’t understand everything in the film at the time, the visual atmosphere he brought fascinated me. Then I watched all his movies and started to watch movies by other directors. I also loved to pick a film only because of its visual cover. Believe it or not, I discovered amazing movies by doing that. 20th Century photography deeply influenced my beginnings, with its organic forms and texture. But from the beginning until today I would say it’s also a lot about my surrounding, and I think it’s related to this popular/street culture I’m so into today.
What do you look for when choosing sets and models for your shootings? In this specific series, how did you choose the people you photographed? What characteristics were you looking for?
I have different kinds of approaches when I make images. I sometimes have a specific idea about a story that I want to do, and sometimes it’s more about a feeling – when I discover a place, for example. I try to find someone who could fit the most to the subject and I usually let them be themselves. I like to have a part of the model’s personality in my pictures.
I did this series in two parts. About the first one, I was struck by the strong creative youth I’ve met during my trip and I wanted to make a specific story about it. I found Bruno (@wellbro) on Instagram when I was in Rio. He is a model, a photographer, he has his own online vintage shop, and he does styling as well. I found his character really powerful and, when I met him, I knew he would fit the story. For the still life part, I spent one month in the jungle doing volunteer work near a small village where I was spending my days off walking freely and capturing everything. I was fascinated by the sunset light there.
What kind of messages would you like to represent through your works and what themes do you try to investigate?
I have always been attracted by the subculture, and I think it’s a recurring aesthetic in my work. The idea is to show reality from another angle with a small sight control. I easily get into what surrounds me, especially when it’s about a new culture; I like to go really deep into it.
You have recently spent six months in Brazil, where you shot this project. How would you describe the country and what did it inspire you to do/create?
I actually was planning to stay two or three months in Brazil and then go to other South American countries. Fortunately, I didn’t buy my return ticket! I literally fell in love with Brazil. I first arrived in Rio and the first impression I had was ‘contrast’. This opposition divides the country in two different cultures. It’s obviously related to its colonial history, which is still really present nowadays. To understand this specific culture, it was important for me to discover both sides. Luckily, I met amazing people and they submerged me deeply in the real, everyday Brazilian life. That’s how I discovered Brazilian culture as I could have never imagined (aside from famous clichés). To me, my best memories so far are located in favelas and inside the country.
The natural environment in Brazil is completely different from the one I suppose you’re used to in Europe. How have you represented it in your images and what has fascinated you the most?
It was really different from the way I used to work. In big cities you cannot just walk in the street with your camera by hand; it’s too risky to get robbed, and violence is increasing everyday due to political issues. So I had to contact people previously and set something up. Also, when I arrived I knew nobody and I didn’t speak Portuguese, so it was not easy to approach people in the street.
This difficulty brought me to another project, but using video as a medium. I had this small compact camera with huge zoom and I started filming people in the street, zooming on absurd situations, etc. I was fascinated by everything in the streets, there are a lot of things going on when you pay attention. So, doing that was my only way to get close to these people. Then I have other photography projects, like the one based on people I’ve met on social media, but this is more anthropological in a way. Another one that’s more related to documentary, and on and on…
Racism is still quite present even nowadays and even in the media, where stereotypes are often too present. What was your impression regarding this issue in such a culturally mixed country like Brazil? And how did you approach this theme in this photographic project?
Unfortunately, racism is still very present in Brazil. Before arriving, and due to its cultural mix, I had never imagined there would be that contrast with so many differences! I frequented both sides so I could realize that the opposite social classes never mix with each other. In some cases, it’s still really conservative regarding the history. If you search on the Internet “black models quota”, all articles are related to Brazil. Luckily, creative young Brazilians are fighting against it.
They say the black beauties are only beautiful online because people in Brazil don’t look at them in the same way. So, having acknowledgement online gives them another identity. In general, the aesthetic is tending to globalize in a European way. For this project I decided to give a rebirth to black beauties in order to make them exist in their culture and in their country. We can see the opposition between raw beauty and being one with nature, versus the empty areas made by men, free from life.
Do you believe that photographers, or artists in general, can help society and media to go beyond these stereotypes and push forward the mainstream set of aesthetic values? Is it the aim behind this series of photos? How do you try to contribute in making the world a better place?
Hopefully, things are slightly changing in the fashion industry, and it was especially visible during this last fashion week. Big brands like Missoni are supporting the Women’s March against Trump and the sexist system, and Halima Aden is the first model to wear hijab on the runway. Art is not accessible to everyone but with the Internet today it’s easier to spread the word.
In Brazil, I was really surprised by how some young Brazilians who live in favelas are developing artistic projects and how they are so much into what’s in. They are mixing the favelas culture with the Internet one, and it is truly powerful. When it comes to my work, I would rather call it ‘a striking experience’. Today, I can't say that my work is obvious enough to have an impact on changing the world; what I suggest is a discreet hint of what life is through my subjects. But what I love is that the people who surrounded me were the main actors of my work, and sharing daily culture with them made me learn a lot about life itself. I like to think it's my little contribution to make the world a better place.
Would you like to go back to Brazil? Or are you maybe planning to visit other countries for your future projects?
Of course I would love to go back to Brazil; I still keep contact with my friends there and I actually miss it a lot! I was fascinated by the cultural mix; real life and street culture amazed me. But I would also love to discover other countries. I am really attracted by the Caribbean culture, to stay in the same kind of vibes, but let’s see how it goes.
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