Karla Hiraldo Voleau uses her camera to write stories, ranging from tales of sex tourism to tales of heartbreak reclaimed. Her work is achingly intimate; the feeling of authenticity infused through her images makes viewers feel like peeping Toms, sneaking a glimpse into the private lives of lovers. And yet, Voleau tricks us – she uses convincing paid actors to put on a performance and create an illusion of reality. Narrative is integral to her work, as she places an emphasis on movement within a cloud of images rather than standalone photographs.
Voleau also re-contemplates the meaning of the ‘female gaze’; once it was a way of watching Dominican men interact with foreign women, but now, Voleau understands ‘gaze’ as something more complex. She challenges the need for the masculine and the feminine to be in opposition, hearlding instead her ‘own’ gaze. With roots scattered all the way from France to the Dominican Republic, Voleau touches on the benefits and the drawbacks of being a wanderer. She introduces her new exhibition, in which she recreates specific moments from the era of an ex-lover as a form of therapy. Another Love Story is currently on view at the MEP Paris until August 22.
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 1.jpg
Tell us a bit about the beginning. How did you get into photography and what brought you to study it?
I always knew I wanted to study art, but it took me a while before I chose photography. I first studied product design in France but quickly dropped out. Once I quit school, I took off for a while with a camera and very little savings. I couch-surfed my way around the Mediterranean and started to take portraits of my hosts and their friends. I loved it and when I came back to Paris, I decided to enrol in the only art school that would still accept me at so last minute. I completed a Bachelor of Arts there and continued with a Master in Photography at École Cantonale dArt Lausanne in Switzerland.
Has your niche always been centred around love and the relationships between men and women, or has it evolved to be that way?
I dove into my current interests once I was at ECAL in Lausanne, so quite a while after I started studying photography. It’s only there that I got into conceptual art and performativity. My first project involving performance within a photo series was Follow Me In, a project that I did with photographer Anna Kieblesz for the photo festival Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2017. Anna introduced me to a whole new approach to the visual arts, and since then I’ve been integrating real-life elements into my projects and doing autofiction.
A huge project of yours, and your first photobook Hola Mi Amol, was extremely successful – you started it in photography school and it propelled you into the art world. But most of all, it's a tale about home in the Dominican Republic. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with the Dominican Republic?
Hola Mi Amol was indeed my diploma project, completed in 2018 and published shortly after in 2019. It’s an autofiction based in the touristic areas of the Dominican Republic (Punta Cana and the north coast), where I explore love tourism and the female gaze directed at Dominican men. I was born in Santo Domingo to a Dominican father and a French mother but grew up in France. As I am sure many mixed people experience, I never feel at home anywhere, and the very concept of ‘home’ is quite important yet fragile. The Dominican Republic being a faraway paradise island makes my relationship with it even more fantasised or idealised. But it’s very close to my heart, as I have visited my dad and my family there every year since I was 3 years old.
Do you think this sort of rootlessness and moving around is reflected in your work?
Belonging to nowhere weirdly also makes you also belong everywhere. This is the good side of growing up between two cultures, two countries and two languages: I feel like I am equipped to travel and live anywhere in the world because I learned very early to blend into unknown places. This is maybe how it’s reflected in my work: the fact that many of my projects take place on different continents and take interest in foreign cultures.
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 13.jpg
In Hola Mi Amol, you subvert the idea of sex tourism and investigate foreign women with Dominican men. I have to ask, is it true you used a spy camera embedded into some sunglasses for some of your shots?
Yes, and I used all kinds of cameras. I wanted to document all my encounters and be able to do portraits and self-portraits at all times. I like the idea that a phone camera, a five-dollar spy pen or a precious medium format analogue camera are equally important. In the end, they all take a photograph, that’s it. So I had film cameras, a couple of old iPhones, a GoPro for underwater, and those cheap spy sunglasses. Depending on the situation, I’d use what would fit the best. I believe the situation and the subject (so, the content) have to dictate the process and not the other way around.
What I love about that project – and indeed, all your work – is the unapologetic female gaze. You show romance in flux, alive. You mix intimacy and sex, vulnerability and lust. What is the most important thing your photographs must encapsulate?
They must show a sense of narrative. Since one photograph alone doesn’t do much for me, they should always be part of a group: I like diptyques, and showing clouds of images rather than one-by-one images. The grids that I compose also create a feeling of movement, and bring the images closer to the cinematic, the film, the fiction.
I think my images also have to have a certain rawness to them. I don’t retouch much, barely crop. Showing images that feel spontaneous and unstaged, it eliminates a lot of distance between the picture and the viewer: they might feel like they are closer to the lens, alone with the subject, just like I was when I took the picture.
I also love how you observe masculinity. For women, it often feels like we are being observed, watched and valued in the male gaze, but you reclaim this. Tell us a bit about what you’ve observed when trying to portray masculinity.
For a couple of years after my diploma, I only took pictures and portraits of male-identifying people. It was my response to the lack of male bodies represented by female eyes. Today, the subject is being vastly covered and I don’t feel that it’s so unusual anymore. I also don’t feel like saying “this is a female gaze/view” anymore. There’s not a feminine way opposed to a masculine way to look at things, it’s not as simple. That’s why today I’m including myself more in my practice, using my life experiences and my identity: I feel more honest saying simply “this is my gaze.”
When you’re working, you deal with a lot of people; observing them, photographing them – hiring them to be observed and photographed. How is it working with complete strangers on such intimate projects?
I’m pretty shy in reality, but once I start a new project and get behind the camera I feel very empowered, and in control. And so it’s easier to connect and talk to strangers: I’m not doing it for me but for the project. I’m also genuinely interested in my subjects, so I simply want to get to know them and offer them space to express themselves.
I contact my subjects very organically, through friends and contacts in real life. Then, I’ll ask my subject to introduce me to their network and I repeat this process until I have a web of people to work with on a specific theme.
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Does all your work come from personal experience? I know that you said your work comes from a “problem you have” and how you attempt to resolve it. Tell us a bit about where your inspiration comes from to start a series.
Exactly, I’d have a question, a situation or a problem that’s directly linked to my life, and from that curiosity, I’d start pulling thread until I get to a more general societal concern.
For example, I decided to do A Man in Public Space after conversations with my girlfriends about how we wished we were guys in the streets sometimes, just to be left alone. We’d talk about our experiences of harassment and unsafe situations in the public space. After many of those conversations, I decided I wanted to make the fantasy a reality and transformed myself into my male alter ego Karlos, to walk the city of Lausanne. Organically, I expanded a personal curiosity into an experiment and a performance on gender in the public space.
So, your latest project, Another Love Story, is on view at Studio de la MEP in Paris as we speak! How do you feel about this project and the show?
I feel very proud and very happy. This is the most intimate and vulnerable project I’ve ever shown, and yet it’s the first time that I have nothing to worry about. It’s a true story, it happened this way and it’s over. In this regard, it’s not even mine anymore: it belongs to the viewers and readers.
I know it was a really intimate, personal series, and based on a relationship of yours that didn’t end well, but you managed to turn it on its head, reclaiming your love story. You hired a paid actor to play your ex, revisited the same places you went with him, and essentially recreated your moments with him. Was that not harrowing or did your artistic project act as therapy?
It was actually very joyful, it felt weirdly ‘meant to be.’ It felt like finally, the relationship that I thought I was in, happened. Sure, with a paid actor, completely orchestrated, but it happened, on my terms, truthfully. All these moments, as fictional as they were, were also as true as they could be because there were no lies anywhere. It was Pierre, me, the sunset, the phone, and that’s all.
Does it make sense? For sure, making this reenactment helped me process things, and more importantly, create a distance between the trauma and me. Like I said before, I rewrote it, and then it became something else, that doesn't even belong to me anymore. It feels peaceful.
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 11.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 15.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Karla Hiraldo Voleau Metalmagazine 16.jpg