Scarlett Coten is an independent French female photographer who dedicates herself essentially to personal, long term projects. The Arab countries are at the heart of her photographic practice, which explores the themes of identity and intimacy. An international jury awards the Leica Oskar Barnack Award to professional photographers whose unerring powers of observation capture and express the relationship between man and the environment in the most graphic form in a sequence of a minimum of 10 up to a maximum of 12 images. Here is the work of Scarlett, winner of the Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2016. You can read the full interview on LFI Magazine.
How did you convince your models to agree to the publishing and exhibiting of the photographs?
I find the meeting places, often in cafés where the youth of the town get together. I approach the men who, due to their attitude, incarnate a spirit of freedom, those with whom I can guess at a mutual willingness. I explain my project to photograph them as they are, with their modernity. Knowing that they will be seen encourages them to take part in the experience. To affirm their individuality in patriarchal societies, is a battle they believe is important to show the world, because, while they are not acknowledged in their own country, they may find some sort of consideration elsewhere. What’s more, they are aware of the reductive and stereotyped image that the west can have of them and they are happy to belie it.
How do you communicate with the men? Did they tell you their life stories and how much time is there for conversation?
Between the time when I meet them and when I take the shots, a real friendship developed with each of them. I like to photograph them in at least two different locations, that allows us time to stroll and exchange in English or in French. We usually spend half a day together. I am a foreigner, passing through, without roots and without belonging to their culture or religion. This position allows for trust, the possibility to be true, to relate without taboos. The photographic act itself resembles a form of performance, and I never know in advance what will come out of it, what will be born of this encounter. The portraits are always the result of a dialogue, of an ephemeral but deep tie between us. I want them to feel free, to shows themselves without inhibition; what I’m interested in is their complexity, their fragility, their sensuality. I take many pictures, so that they can get into the game, get tired, let go, forget about posing, to keep only one picture at the end.
What is the importance and function of the destroyed buildings and houses in the background? What do you want to show with this contrast between sensitive men and ruins?
I walk a lot! I look for places where I can isolate myself with my models to be able to extract them from social pressures, to be alone with them face to face. Only isolation can allow me to take those men as close as possible to themselves, so that they can let themselves go; it’s the condition necessary to achieve an unveiling. So I choose these places for their isolation and also for their emotional weight. These places are somewhat flawed, often strange, not peaceful, they translate an emotion, a state of mind, they have a history: they are abandoned houses, shut down factories, old fashioned cafés….It is somewhat fascinating in this region, to find traces and vestiges of times gone by. These ruined places are gradually disappearing but they are still present, not rebuilt yet.
This contrast is the ambiguity of these countries: youngsters engaged in the evolution of today’s world, facing the future with determination and the state of these countries, often hurt by conflicts, social and economical policies. There is always a certain ambiguity, these men affirm a contemporary identity, their wish for freedom, to make mentalities evolve, in front of a décor filled with history. I wanted to show that contrast: a struggle for today in the footsteps of a past that will inevitably disappear. Maybe one can see in these places the inevitable disappearance of a past on which a still unknown future will be built.
At which locations and in which countries was it particularly difficult or particularly easy to photograph?
It in never easy. it is a question of attitude which allows the meeting to occur. It takes time, time for trust. Morocco is a country which is particularly difficult for photographers; this is largely due to mass tourism, which has perverted the relationship to photography through a constant lack of respect, but once the dialogue is established, the response is as warm as anywhere else. In Egypt the situation has changed between 2013 when I worked there and 2015 when I returned; back then it was impossible to even take out your camera in the street. In Algeria it’s different yet again. There are no tourists, so you get noticed quickly, even followed; so, for this project, I decided not to take out my camera until getting to the chosen site, far from prying eyes. One of the difficult things is to find them! In Beirut the town is full of them, there are lots of houses and apartments abandoned since the war, always accessible and sometimes still partly furnished. In more recent towns like Amman or Ramallah, it is more complicated. If I cannot find anything then we go to their homes.
You once wrote that your camera has a gender. Could you explain this statement a little more?
I think that a woman who invites men to pose is disrupting very deeply ingrained patterns: culturally speaking, posing is a feminine act, or effeminate, to direct is masculine. That reversal of the usual roles, between the one who poses and the one who directs, reverses the classic principals of seduction. This seizure of power with my camera, allows me to say that my way of looking has a style, which is not that of a man: they are portraits of men taken by a woman, who invites these men to let themselves go and to accept that it eludes them.
Do you think that your series is a political statement?
The men I photograph take on an attitude in front of a life emancipated from dictatorship. In patriarchal societies, where individual freedom appears to be an act of rebellion, it is they who, through their attitude, their look, their choices, their differences, make a political statement. It is they who put themselves in danger. I chose to turn my attention to them because they need to tell the world that they exist, that they are fighting simply to be themselves. My intention is to breakdown our representation of men and in particular of Arab men. This series asks the question about men and their multiple identities, it questions the emergence of a new form of masculinity. It is a work on the notion of gender, the relationship to women, of an audacious generation. This series questions preconceived ideas, stereotypes (machismo, terrorism) of a mutating Arab world. It makes one reflect on universal questions such as identity, power…
Do you think that your series is also a feminist statement?
Mectoub is a unique vision of the world, because the experience of women, their position in society, including as artists, differs from that of men. With this series, I position myself as a women who looks at men, and in doing so, I would like to invite the viewer to reconsider the supremacy of the masculine perspective in the history of art. Because the conquest of the feminine perspective is recent and allowing oneself to look at men is the fruit of a long struggle. Feminism in photography, is maybe simply to endure, by obtaining a visibility equal to male photographers, which is still far from a reality.
Where was the series published previously, and how (different) has the response been?
The most recent publications appeared in Algeria, with a double page spread in the newspaper El Watan Weekend, in French with a long interview, as well as an article written by a Jordanian journalist, in Arabic, in El Araby.co at the time of the exhibition of the collection in Amman last April. Before that Marianne Roux for the online cultural magazine for the Magreb and Middle East: On Orient, delivered a beautiful analysis, as well as the Vanguard/Seattle and the Postcolonialist in the United States at the time of my exhibition at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle in June 2015. These responses were very positive, both in the United States and more recently in Algeria and Jordan, where the exhibition was met with an enthusiasm way beyond my expectations, which touched me particularly as it is a subject that concerns them directly.
What prejudices you have to deal with?
As a western woman, I have been asked why I photograph Arab men. I felt that the legitimacy which I thought was natural in our profession, allowing us to freely choose the subjects that we believe are important, was being contested. I do not deny the complexity of the subject and I am aware of the post-colonialist effect, the vulnerability or guilt that history has created, but I always thought that art, precisely, was a landscape of freedom, where borders and taboos could be pushed back. And, as far as I’m concerned, this is how I see it and how I live it as an artist. I was faced with the fact that, as nothing about my origins tied me to the countries where I worked, I was somehow asked to explain myself. Of course, photographing French, western, white men would have been more consensual, but would I still have escaped from sexist remarks? (Do you sleep with them? Are you attracted to Arab men? etc….) The fact is that my choices don’t always make it easy for myself. It isn’t obvious to expect visibility when, for example, there is an exhibition about the Arab world, when you don’t actually belong to it. But my choices are not made based on the difficulties that I will have to face.
How did you grew up? What role models did you have to deal with in your childhood and in your adolescence?
I was brought up in Perpignan in the south of France, in Catalan country, by a Breton mother and a Norman father; you could say I am an uprooted cross-breed! My model, the one who inspired me, was my grandmother on my mother’s side: she built up a body of amateur photographic work from 1930, the year she got married, until the war. She had talent and had a great independence of spirit. My parents gave me their addiction to travel and books.
What are your hopes and wishes for the future, for your work and for the Arab society?
The future of Arab countries is very uncertain. I do not think anyone knows what will come out of the current political situations in the region; nowadays, even we ourselves are faced violence and uncertainty. I am worried about the evolution of today’s world and my thoughts turn to the younger generations, with the hope that they will be able to overcome this major crisis, at both the political and the environmental level….We need more solidarity, to come together around essential human values, empathy, sharing…. As far as my work is concerned, I hope it can be shown more, collected, published, so that I have the means to be able to continue with that to which I have dedicated my entire life: to question, to dream and to make others dream
What are your plans for the future? Which project are you work currently working on?
I have just finished this series which took me four years to complete in seven countries. My objective today is to conceive the book, to write, to gather the texts and to finish this long term journey with a book. The next project is still in its embryonic stage, it needs to germinate…
Thank you Scarlett!