French photographer Estelle Hanania is soft-spoken, a little shy, and very polite. Mix in her delicate French accent and quiet giggles and you might get the impression she’s the type of girl who takes romantic photographs of couples cuddling over cappuccinos on a tiny side-street overlooking the Champs- Élysées. But you’d be wrong. This is a photographer who’s fascinated by the macabre, a girl who grew up obsessing over costumes and folklore and the messages they convey. Her quirky, narrative photography mixes still life and landscape imagery to create portraits that are at once theatrical and solemn.
Theme: Much of your work revolves around rituals and subcultures. How did this interest come about?
Estelle Hanania: I have always been fascinated with costumes and pagan rituals, and the way people transform themselves into these new beings when they gather together. Maybe it was because I have a twin sister and I’ve always been living as a two-person group. I guess I’ve always been wondering what it was like to be part of a larger group of people. I like how people will gather to create their own small world with their own rituals, rules, and their own “theatrics.” A few years ago, I became really interested in masks, specifically the abstraction of masks. I did a lot of research in the bookstore and on the Internet, looking for examples to photograph.
Photo by Simon Bernheim
Is that where the idea for the “Demoniac Babble” series came from?
Yes. For that series, I spent three days following a group of men in Switzerland who were on an annual pilgrimage out in the woods to “worship” nature. The men were dressed up in homemade costumes; these fantastic, demonic costumes made out of leaves, grass, and branches—and they spent the time singing and dancing and roaming the landscape. They were called the “Ugly Ones,” and they were supposed to look frightening in order to scare away the bad spirits from the land. At the same time, they were paying respect to their surroundings and wishing good luck to the seasons.
What did you hope to achieve or discover through this series?
I love how madness seeps into reality sometimes. I like to start my projects from something real: a real event, real people, real places, and then try to find where a certain madness is hiding. It’s like when people gather at a carnival or festival. You see normal people get to go crazy once a year. All the men behind the costumes from the “Demoniac Babble” series are from the same village and working as pharmacists, actors and farmers but once a year they become the Chlaus—crazy and uncontrollable.
You often put images together that don’t necessarily feel like they belong together.
I like the unexpected juxtaposition of putting two images together that don’t seem to relate, but turn out to be surprisingly similar. For my series “Shady,” there was no obvious relation between the photos that I chose. Perhaps they all involved magic and special effects, but it was like a photo of grass next to a photo of water droplets on a face.
Was that inspired by the four elements?
Yes, I am constantly inspired by nature and the natural elements of fire and water. I’m really into surfaces and I like working with live materials, like wood and water. They can often take on surprising new forms when they are photographed.
For my “Demoniac Babble” series there’s a photo of what looks like a spider web in a cave, but it’s really a wall with water and vines. The moisture has caused the vines to form this weird shape that’s like a disgusting swirl. I’m really into abstract images, and I love the fact that people can look at the image and not truly know what they’re looking at.
Most of your photos are shot from medium range or very close up. Why is this?
I think it’s important to lose the distance and be close to what you’re shooting. I don’t like hiding behind any big apparatus or barrier; I’m always trying to be in the middle of the action. The subject is always in the frame.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I want my photos to be simple and natural. I don’t add effects and I’m not into filters or sophisticated light. I often shoot in daylight, which I think is one of the most beautiful lights, especially when it’s cloudy and very white, that’s my favorite. I would say, however, that I am more focused on the subject than on the aesthetic. My images are quite raw compared to the subjects I choose.
You still use film. Any plans to move to digital photography?
The use of film is a big part of my work. I can feel a big difference between digital and film. Digital images can sometimes be too perfect. With film, sometimes you have accidents on the negatives, like a scratch or stain. I like that and I keep that because it’s part of what makes film so interesting. I’ll also go to the darkroom myself and develop the images. I like that it’s handmade.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
I was always drawing as a kid, so I knew I wanted to do something creative. I went to graphic design school for a few years, though I kept on doing photography on the side. Then I did a little work in fashion. My sister is a shoe designer and we used to have a small line together. I was doing the drawings and she did the production. Then I would photograph the collection for our look-books.
Do you have a preference between fashion photography and art photography?
I love fashion images, but I think there is definitely less pressure taking an art photo than a fashion photo. I love both worlds, but I want to be able to take a photo for myself and not be forced to sell clothes and shoes and accessories.
Outside of nature, what are some of your other inspirations?
I’m deeply fascinated by folk art because it has no rules; it’s authentic and original and it can be really bad and it can be incredibly beautiful. I love the drawings of Bill Traylor, sculptures of Pascal-Desir Maisonneuve and paintings of Marguerite Burnat-Provins, for example. I’m also really inspired by Sergei Paradjanov’s movie Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Sayat Nova, which are amazingly free and creative. When I watch them, I’m totally enthusiastic, and it makes me want to work immediately. [Andrei] Tarkovsky is a huge role model for me too. And from my generation, I like Harmony Korine, who directed the movie Gummo. It’s crazy, beautiful and full of humor.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m always trying to surprise myself and others, with each project I develop. I really don’t want to be systematic, and prefer to be where I’m not expected. I try to follow my obsessions and my intuition toward subjects I’m attracted to. I want to keep finding and discovering things that I haven’t seen before, and keep finding subjects to photograph that are inspiring to me and surprising to the viewer.