At the intersection of fashion and documentary, Montreal-based photographer Schaël Marcéus combines natural lighting with soft and rich palettes to candidly capture the beauty of his subjects. As a Canadian of Haitian descent, the artist creates compelling imagery that reflects the realities of being a Black individual and presents beauty away from the Eurocentric standard.
“I want to contribute to an archive of images that portray what it’s like to be evolving in our bodies today by creating images of black bodies beyond just the pain; in freedom, joy, boldness, vulnerability, and so much more,” the artist says. Working across art and fashion, Schaël finds inspiration in all forms of culture, beauty, and shared human experiences to craft his delicate, refined aesthetic. Both timeless and modern, Schaël Marcéus’ work is synonymous with boundless creativity and sophisticated simplicity.
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Redefining photography in your own form, how would you describe the essence of your work?
I think my work sits at the intersection of fashion and documentary. I like to think of my portraits as soft and reflective that are sometimes staged, sometimes not; but always sensitive.
Did you always have a strong interest in photography and cinematography? Tell us about what initially inspired you to embark on photography’s path.
The whole process was quite gradual. Growing up, I always had a strong interest in acting, but I realised that it wasn’t my strength. So, the next best thing was to step behind the camera.
How has your work evolved in comparison to your earlier years as a creative?
In the past, I was so focused on creating pretty images. I thought that creating something visually appealing was the only way for an audience to respond. Today however, my work is more intentional. I’ve found my voice as an artist and the message I want to portray throughout my work. I still aim to create compelling imagery of course, but the message behind it is the driving factor.
Subtle hues and intimate interactions are consistently present throughout your photographic collection. Was there a particular moment that inspired your delicate aesthetic and interest in the human experience?
My family always described me as a sensitive child growing up. I tend to spend a lot of time self-reflecting, which translates into what I do professionally. It’s kind of my way of processing things.
How do you explore the spectrum of beauty through your creative process?
Blackness is at the core of my work. Being dark-skinned, I had to unlearn a lot of things like how my melanin ‘isn’t beautiful.’ I want my work to reflect my reality, so I pose a heavy emphasis on beauty outside of the typical Eurocentric ideals.
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Do you have a starting and end point when working on new projects, or do you prefer to create on a trial-and-error basis?
Commissions are planned, while personal projects have more room for interpretation even if I usually have a general idea of what I’m looking for. In either case, my work is very collaborative; I love to keep an open door to added inspiration from my team. Collaboration and researching are always part of my process, which I believe adds lots of value to my work. I think this comes from my background in documentary cinematography.
Given the intimate approach present in your work, what draws you most to individuals you collaborate with? Is there anything you look for before collaborating?
I cast a lot through social media and mutual friends. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what I look for, but I know I’m inspired by shared experiences. The conversation during a photoshoot is almost as important as the final imagery to me; having shared experiences to discuss is always a plus.
Are there particular moments where you prefer to work with film or digital?
Medium format film is the way to my heart. I’m attracted to its little imperfections, texture and delicate aesthetic. I’ll usually carry both, but what I use will depend on the content. I love photographing harsher light on film, and darker scenarios on digital. However, I avoid putting rules on my creativity¬ nothing is set in stone.
What was creating during quarantine like? Are there any experiences from this time that you’d like to apply in a post-pandemic world?
Actually, this past year allowed me to have more faith in the unknown. I had to quit my other job outside of photography, which forced me to re-work what I wanted my future to be as an artist. The stars must’ve aligned for me, because I was able to flip my business to full time ever since. Also, it would be silly to ignore the events surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It sparked a sense of urgency in me; these repeated injustices cannot be our whole story.
Your work suggests a very strong visual narrative. Is there an underlying message you hope to portray to your viewers through your imagery?
I want to create images that I would’ve wanted to see growing up. I want to take back the narrative of my community and have us tell our story this time. I want to contribute to an archive of images that portray what it’s like to be evolving in our bodies today by creating images of black bodies beyond just the pain; in freedom, joy, boldness, vulnerability, and so much more.
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How do you go about relaying these messages in visual form?
I’m actually terrible with words, so images are the most intuitive form of expression for me. I’ll obsess over a concept for days and analyse what is so attractive about it. From this point, I’ll research or consult the team I’m working with to see how we can push the idea, while keeping the beauty of its imperfect core.
In a world that is rapidly changing due to social media, your work always embodies an authentic approach. How do you manage to maintain authenticity without compromising the values that are at the core of your art?
It’s constant work. I sometimes need to take breaks from social media to focus on creating content that is meaningful to me. In the past, some of my favourite work would get the least engagement, which would really get to me. Taking the time to understand what my message was gave me the opportunity to focus on the imagery rather than just speaking to an audience. I find the most success when I decide to trust my instinct; people can feel when something is authentic.
As social media is at the forefront for visibility today, how do you hope your audience perceives your work?
Over the years, I’m learning to implement more of myself into what I do. I hope those who see my work can grow with me. I want my audience to feel good and seen when looking at my photographs.
Is there anything you haven’t explored in your career thus far that you’d like to experiment with?
It’s not so much about new experiences, but more about revisiting. My academic background is in filmmaking. I originally got into photography with a focus on cinematography. I want to delve back into this medium, but from a director’s perspective since I’m more in tune with my voice and trust that my work can extend through motion. Being an analogue lover, I did get into a little bit of processing during the quarantine, and I’d love to learn more about hand printing. Maybe even creating a book? I don’t know. I also notice a lot of patterns throughout my work over the years, so maybe there could be something in that realm too.
Do you have any major projects in the pipeline that you can share for the upcoming year?
Yes! My collective By Us For Everyone put together a show called Joy As Resistance earlier this year, which will be showcased at an outdoor gallery. This project took place in the midst of lockdown, so it’ll be exciting to see the audiences reaction in person. Additionally, I’m working on the second chapter of my ongoing series Cream Filled Chocolate Candies, which explores the realities of afro-Caribbean second generation immigrants.
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