Self-image and self-representation are central to their work. As I understand, it may come from the fact that they’ve had to go through a lot because of their body. Now, fully empowered, Laurence Philomene looks for interesting people to photograph while still exploring self-portraiture. Cute and pastel colours with pops of bright orange, alternative beauty standards, and non-binary people are the main stars in their pictures. Discover what do they think about diversity and representation, political art, and guilty pleasures in this interview.
Firstly, could you briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Laurence Philomene. I’m a trans photographer, curator and director working around themes of queerness, identity, and colour theory. I’m a triple Gemini and I spend most of my days answering emails and cuddling with my foster kitty.
What are your daily inspirations?
Lived experiences, my friends, people who are themselves to the fullest, odd colour combinations.
How do you feel the Internet has shaped you as an artist?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Internet, and that’s not an understatement by any means – my entire career is due to it. I started journaling online when I was eleven. Basically, as soon as I knew what a blog was, I made one and haven’t stopped since. In my teen years, I found a community of fellow young photographers online (on Flickr, then Tumblr) and it shaped my vision as an artist immensely. I’d spend my afternoons after school taking photos and then my nights editing and posting my work and getting feedback from my peers; that was my coming-of-age experience.
A lot of these people I grew up with online are making amazing work now and getting a lot of recognition; people like Michael Bailey-Gates, Eleanor Hardwick, or Olivia Bee. I think there’s also a duality for me when it comes to existing on the Internet: it both keeps me going and, at the same time, it terrifies me because I hate the feeling of people looking at me, knowing about me. So I just have this weird impulse to constantly publish myself online yet at the same time it’s something that’s very stressful to me.
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You predominantly use orange as a means of self-portraiture, why do you relate to this colour in particular?
It just feels right. I also like the idea of orange in art because it’s a very sporty colour and I like taking it outside of that context. I wanted to dye my hair orange when I was kid and ever since then I’ve just felt at home with that colour. In my work, I like to use colour as a marker for identity, so whenever there’s orange in a picture there’s a little bit of me.
In your Me vs Other series, there are a lot of turned backs and hair over the eyes. Why this fascination with anonymity? What were the intentions/meaning behind this series?
I started shooting Me vs Others in 2014 at a time when I was receiving a lot of harassment from men online. I wanted to find a way to continue taking self-portraits without having to put my body in the images, so that’s how it started. The anonymity reflects that desire but it’s also because I wanted the images to act as a trompe l’oeil, so the viewer wouldn’t be sure if the person in the image is or isn’t me. Over time, the series has evolved into an exploration of a shifting self-image, the creation of the self, the idea of identity as something that’s unstable.
Similarly, there is a lack of branding in your images. They are often minimal, with a lack of clutter. Why is this? And how important is this minimal aesthetic to you?
I think it’s because I’m a huge perfectionist and I want to control all the elements of the image in terms of colour, composition, etc. and it’s easier to do so if there’s not too much going on. I also like to create a sense of timelessness as much as possible.
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Do you think that in these current times there is more pressure for an artist to be political, or they’re at least now almost always interpreted as such? What are your thoughts on this?
I think so. I don’t think ‘pressure’ to be political is a bad thing though, I think using your platform as an artist to speak up about important issues is a great thing/something we should all do when we have the energy to. Personally, I think a lot of my work is not necessarily created with a political meaning in mind; the meaning comes over time and has to do with the context in which the work was created. A lot of my existence as a queer/non-binary chronically ill person is political by definition so my work reflects that.
Your Non-Binary series is about your models presenting themselves how they wished to be photographed. Do you think people/companies are starting to realise that this collaborative nature between the model and photographer is important and necessary? Do you think we need more honest and candid representations of models?
I don’t know, although I hope so. But I think it’s important to look at diversity beyond just representation – it shouldn’t be just about brands using certain models, it should be about them actively hiring artists with marginalized identities and doing so because they create great, important work, not just because it’s good for the brand’s image. I am tired of brands using marginalized identities as a selling point without real action for change.
You’ve said you’d describe this series as more documentary than portrait, why?
I mean, it is a series of portraits, obviously. But for me, I’d say it’s closer to documentary than most of my previous work because it’s about photographing people (hopefully) the way they see themselves. It’s a different approach than just imagining whatever I want and using a model to fulfil that image in my head, it’s more about listening to the subjects, creating a dialogue with them.
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Your still lives often include sugary treats. Why are you drawn to these objects in particular? Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I think snacks are really photogenic. Photography is my main thing but I do snack reviews on the side. I don’t feel any guilt over it, but I love anything honeydew or grapefruit flavoured.
Your work explores softness, vulnerability and ‘cute’ colours. Do you think that ‘cute art’ as an aesthetic is finally starting to be taken seriously/reclaimed?
I think brands are starting to see the resale value of ‘cute’ and ‘soft’ imagery for sure. Years ago, when I was in school, I was really into making everything pink and my teachers would repeatedly tell me that that wouldn’t sell, but now it’s everywhere. For me, I feel like it’s something I’ve explored a lot and I’m at a point where I’m starting to move away from that. I want to create imagery that’s always as honest as possible, that’s mostly what matters to me. Lately, I’m drawn to more bold colours. Honesty and care are always going to be important though.
You’ve also curated a range of projects. What were the main challenges you faced when doing these? And do you have any more plans to curate in the future?
Honestly, one of the biggest challenges in any project I work on is funding. Everything I have done, whether it’s my own photo projects or curatorial projects, I’ve done it without funding, so it’s a lot of free labour for everyone involved. Right now, I’m taking a bit of a break from curating to focus on my own photo projects, but I’ve got an ongoing web series where I interview young artists working in different fields, you can see that here & I am also working on a solo exhibition of my series “me vs others” which will run starting November 8 at The Letter Bet in Montreal.
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