How often does prior knowledge of a place coincide with our actual experience of it and the daily experiences of its people? Photographer Elsa Leydier’s beautifully vibrant work is centred around deconstructing stereotypes within dominant narratives of place – often fabricated by tourism industries – and delving deeper into the infinite number of lesser told stories which form a complex tapestry of territory. We talk about the possibilities of communicating through image, the value of a difference in perspective, and about relishing a project, place, or life yet-undiscovered.
Could you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a French photographer, and I have been living in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) for three years now. My work is mostly about the visual representation of iconic places. I try to challenge the stereotypical and postcard-like images of them while I am in search of new and underrepresented stories.
You initially studied languages – could photography be seen as an extension of those studies, a kind of visual language?
I consider photography as a whole – at least, the way I am using it –, as something deeper than a communication tool (such as a foreign language could be). Let’s say that my camera could be the tool that allows me to speak a new language, and my works are discourses and constructed points of view I want to share. For me, photography and visual arts are not only a way to translate the world as it is, but a way to create and share discourses and critical views on the world. I still use foreign languages as tools in order to carry out my works, as most of them take place in foreign countries.
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You seem to have a passionate preoccupation with place and culture. Where does this come from?
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to live in other parts of the world when I was a teenager and then a student. Every time I was in a place that would be very different from my hometown, I was surprised to see how much the everyday life would be different from the image I had from the place before. This is when my interest in emphasising the gap between the touristic, stereotyped representations of places (and the fantasies that emerge from those images) and the real-life experience of the territory started.
I began to feel and experience that what we see as the surface of a place – the dominant images – was often obliterating matters and issues that were indeed more important, even if less said and less shown. I felt necessary to unveil them and to put them in my work on top of the usually dominant images. This is what I am trying to do with images when I travel to places that have a strong stereotypical representation from abroad.
What is the most important thing to you when it comes to creating an image you are proud of?
For me, it is important that the image I create makes sense. As I often create images after following a plastic process (like collage, or like when I dyed a 35mm film with indigo, for example), not only for their aesthetic aspect. So, as the result is often aleatory, it can sometimes be aesthetically disappointing or not that strong. But it can also be surprising in a good way! That’s when I am proud of an image: when the process makes sense to me and the aesthetic result is visually strong or interesting.
Your project Breakaways shows the reappropriation of geopolitical maps into striking works of abstraction that question the nature of ownership and representation of place. Why is this subversion of the ‘dominant’ representation so important to you?
It is important to me as those images are often the only ones we see or, at least, the ones we trust more and that serve as a basis to approach certain territories’ identities. They are often seen as the ‘truth’, as reliable documents –as in the case of the statistics/maps I used for the work you mentioned. As I believe there is not one truth about a place or one way to read it, I feel like it is necessary to take away a bit of the power of those dominant images. Making them abstract is one way to subvert that power.
“I feel like it is necessary to take away a bit of the power of the dominant images. Making them abstract is one way to subvert that power.”
Vivid colour permeates your work. How do you approach your use of colour? Is it more often used for emotional, or as in the case of The Color of Rio Bay, for political/ narrative effect?
Colours definitely constitute part of what is powerful about images – they possess a unique strength. This is why they are often used to pass on strong messages: like in propaganda images, advertising, etc. I definitely consider them important in my work as much in an emotional way because they immediately contribute to a positive impression (like in my work Plátanos con platino) as well as in a more political way, like in the Color of Rio Bay, the project that you mentioned.
You have spoken of your scepticism of photography’s ability to truly capture a landscape or identity. Are you aiming to resolve this issue by ‘deconstructing’ images, revealing their flaws, or are you concerned with embracing the fact that there will always be more stories to tell? Do you wish to create a celebratory or a sombre feeling? Or both?
I am not trying to resolve photography’s incapacity to transmit reality. In order to enhance this incapacity (as we often trust images too much) I like to reveal their flaws while enhancing other lesser/parallel stories and images: other multiple realities. This duality inherent to my practice contributes to my building a sceptical approach to images, and leads me to say that there exists no real fixed way to represent a place.
As my point of view becomes the counterpoint of dominant visual narratives, I suppose this leads me to the creation of either celebratory or sombre feelings, depending on what the dominant images of the place convey. In the end, I believe that every thing or place has both positive and sombre stories. What really matters to me is showing that everything depends on the point of view, and to show that there is not a single defining narrative. It is also important for me to enhance the power we as photographers (or any person who has the opportunity/space to transmit and share points of view) hold.
Do you have a particular story or memory from your travels that stays with you?
I have many of them! I can tell you about the time I was working on this project I did in Chocó (Colombia) – one of the places of the world that touched me the most. It is very remote from the rest of the country and very, very beautiful. I was planning to do cyanotypes of palm trees on huge pieces of fabric, but nothing was working. I had no more fabric (I had brought some with me from the closest big city that was very far away) and it was impossible to find more where I was.
However, during one of those very rare moments I could have access to the Internet, I had the crazy news that a friend I hadn’t seen for years was actually travelling around Colombia and arriving soon to one of the small cities of Chocó, where I was planning to go in the next few days. So, incredibly, she could bring me the material I needed and I could go on with the work! I really learnt during that project that when you persist, everything unfolds and finds its solution.
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Are there any other places that you are anxious to explore?
I like to go with the flow of the projects that come to me. I guess this is not even a matter of a particular place I am attracted to. I actually really like the moment when I start to research a place I haven’t worked in yet and start to think about how I could articulate my work around it.
Lastly, what excites you most right now?
I like to remember how surprising life can be. So I guess my answer is everything that’s still to come, whatever that may be.
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