When I was growing up, I was often told to never talk to strangers. I of course never listened to those instructions, choosing instead to bombard every stranger with numerous questions. "What's your mame?" and "What's your dog's mame?" were usually my openers (because at the time I could not pronounce 'name'), followed by an endless stream of stories that earned me the nickname 'Radio 3.'
Two decades later, I apparently still have little qualms about speaking to strangers. Thus, when I received a Facebook message asking me to be in a photoshoot, I had no hesitation. I was first contacted by a woman named Ziana Zaffar, who had seen me in Facebook photos from my 21st birthday at CATO, a local bar/club.
She then connected me to the photographer, Thibault Gauriau, who was shooting a new project. In the conversation that followed after, they explained that the project was an exploration about identity. They were attempting to create images that revealed the subject's identity through colour and gesture. They sent me two example photos from people who had already posed.
He had already photographed 23 others, and I was the last one that they managed to find just in the nick of time. Wanting to represent a diverse spectrum of people, Thibault had selected people from all backgrounds, but had not been able to find a black woman (there are really not that many of us in Singapore). They were very excited to have me on board, but there were a few details about the process that I needed to be comfortable with beforehand.
It was imperative that every person photographed was a complete stranger. Thibault met individually with each of us and, over the course of two hours, conducted the shoot. The meeting and shoot were held at his apartment, in a sunny and spacious living room that doubled as a studio. Thibault would sit at his customary spot on the living room floor, and his guest was free to sit across from him on a comfy white couch, or to join him on the floor.
Thibault then asked a series of personal questions, hoping to understand as much about their personality as possible in the space of 30 minutes. Through the insight he garnered, he began to conceptualise the photo.
During my conversation, I came close to tears several times, because some of the memories brought up were very painful. In spite of this, Thibault saw beyond that, telling me that he didn't believe that pain or strength were core parts of my personality, but rather responses to the situations I had been placed in. I do have a tendency to suppress my feelings and keep things bottled up, so it felt almost like a therapy session, getting a chance to let a few tears out and learn more about myself in the process.
As we sat in front of all the bottles of paint, Thibault began to pick out ones that he felt represented me. Each colour represented an emotion or state, but I was more focused on how vivid the colours were. I was picking out the blue and black and white, forgetting what they meant, only wanting to get my hands in them and fling them on a big white canvas. Luckily, Thibault is far more rational than I am, and he picked out five colours, which we eventually narrowed to three.
Before choosing the colours, I had to channel my inner Venus as we decided on a pose that held significance. In a series of several test shots, I alternated which arm I was holding aloft, which way my face tilted to catch the light, how far my back was arched, as well as how to hold my hair up (to limit the amount of paint it would be in danger of catching). There was a recurring theme of openness that we played with, a significant part of my character that Thibault wanted to emphasise. After all, I had walked into a complete stranger's home and bared my soul for 30 mins, which is about as open-hearted as one can get.
At the same time, the openness was certainly not towards everyone I come across. I had remarked to him earlier that a lot of my close friends had found me intimidating before they came to realise that I'm about as frightening as a plastic spoon. Hence, it was important not to emphasise this open quality as something specifically meant the outside world, or in this case to observer of the photo, but rather as a state of being that exists regardless of those around me. For this reason, my body was angled away from the camera in the final photo.
The second part of my pose was the positioning of my arms. This is where gesture and colour aligned. During our conversation, I had spoken of how I don't sleep very well - never have. Part of this is because of the poor quality of it, and the other is because I wake up far too early in the morning for my own good. My mind starts backflipping and planning everything I have to do that day, and then progress to contemplating everything that I have to accomplish in life that must be started right now. There's an endless back and forth of "let me sleep, you crazy woman" and "you can sleep when you've been invited to the Met Gala, you lazy girl." It makes for an equally rewarding and frustrating existence, but this desire to make a name for myself is what drives me and lifts me out of bed in the morning.
Thus we chose orange - the colour of energy and fire. Not only am I a closeted firecracker (this means that I'm the epitome of chill until I lose it, then I really lose it), but I constantly have a burning fire inside me and apparently also an energy that shines through my face - although that may just be the baobab oil shining on my forehead. We chose to put the burst of colour on my hand, and to have it as the highest point in the photo, as though pulling me up. We chose two other colours too: a hint of brown to represent the grounding of my roots, and the self-assurance that comes from a supportive family and upbringing. The predominant colour, however, was white - the colour of purity and fragility. There are reasons for this, but of course they're very personal, and deeply personal revelations about oneself are only allowed in mid-morning Facebook status updates, my dear.
When we had put the final decision, the time came for me to be painted like one of Jack Dawson's French girls. Sort of. Not really. I did have to undress down to my underwear and redo the poses to make sure the pose we had settled on was still strong once I was out of my baggy black culottes. Suffice to say, there exist some (very tastefully done) topless photos of me, but I wouldn't dare to upload them because I one day hope to be Madame Boss of Something or Other, and because my mum and dad also read my blog.
Ziana and Thibault spread out a plastic tarp on the floor, and I lay down with my head on a pillow to get covered in paint. It was very cold. Hence the slight 'nippage' in the final photo. The paint was very viscous, but we still had to wait a while for it to settle. Once I stood up, we would only have two or three minutes to take the photo before it began to run too much. Thibault readied the camera and Ziana helped me to stand, then in a flurry of activity, I got into position and he snapped away furiously before the paint ran down too far. After an extra spurt of orange paint to enhance the drip running down my arm, we took a few more photos and we were done!
Being the goofball that I am, I immediately put the orange hand onto my white chest, spoiling any hopes of another spontaneous shot, but luckily we'd already got the right one. After two showers (in the first one I'd somehow missed a gigantic spot of white paint on my back), I was back in my culottes and the entire studio had been neatly packed away. I bid farewell to Ziana and Thibault, taking a very delicious croissant that they offered me, and then taking another one for good measure. The next time I saw them was also the day I saw the final product at the exhibit!
The IDENTITY exhibit was held at the Suntec Art Space from the 11th to the 21st of May. However, it was so popular that it was extended by another week to the 28th. If you are reading this on the day of me posting it, then tomorrow (Saturday) is your very last day to see the exhibit before it closes. Thibault will be there conducting personal tours around the exhibition, so if you would like to ask him questions one-on-one, or know more about the process, I would definitely recommend going. My photo was one of many beautiful and breathtaking portraits, all of which have heart-warming or heart-breaking stories behind them.
The opening itself was a great success, and it was wonderful to see all the families and friends (and curious strangers) who came in. One of my favourite portraits was of a pregnant woman covered in red, black and white (pain, strength and purity). Since the time it was taken, she had given birth, so we all had a chance to see her beautiful newborn at the exhibit, which was so special.
Thank you to all of my friends who came to see it, and to my family who supported it from afar. Thank you especially to Thibault and Ziana, who are such an incredible couple, for reaching out to me and letting me be a part of something this profound.
Pepper & Söl