Could you tell me a little bit about your image that has been chosen for the cover of Saltwater? Where were you? What were you thinking?
This photo was taken in Tokyo two years ago. I’d forever had this dream of going there, ever since I was a kid. I was in love with the films Enter The Void, and Lost in Translation. I finally got to go, and ended up shooting a documentary series that was published in VICE. It was the most bizarre and beautiful experience. I was like a child in a playground — there was so much to see, touch, and photograph. One night I was cycling home with my boyfriend, and we passed this eerie subway entrance. I thought it was so graceful, but I had no more film on my camera. Simon lent me his Leica to shoot this one frame. Which is super lucky, because when Hodder & Stoughton got in touch asking if it could be the cover of your book, they needed me to rescan the negative in high definition. My negatives are spread about in a huge jumble of draws and boxes. Simon’s are neatly ordered in a filing folder, and he found the frame for me instantly.
Could you tell me some more about your Insomnia series generally? What sort of themes were you working with?
All my life I've had really bad insomnia. It comes and goes — with my stress levels, travel, body temperature — and other obscure factors.
Tokyo was all those things in one. I was buzzing — it was this adrenalizing cocktail of nerves and wonder — and I was knocked out by the 9 hours of time difference. My insomnia dogged me more than ever. I'd wake up in the dark between dusk and dawn, and unable to sleep, would stumble out into the city to take pictures, so I decided to turn it into a photo series. All the images were shot during those in-between hours. It’s such a fertile time to photograph — in the dark, all the lights appear more visceral, you make chance encounters, and you get that feeling of drifting: half awake, half in a dream.
I take my own (very amateur) photographs and find it puts me in a similar headspace to the one I write in. Noticing colours, shapes, texture and consistencies of light puts me in the ‘microscopic’ mindset that helps me write. Do you have a particular mood or feeling you find conducive to taking photographs?
Some people are good at being melancholic and creative, and proactive when they’re hurting or sad. I’m the polar opposite, I’m very much drawn by positive emotions: curiosity, wonder, admiration, people I love. I find it difficult to photograph something that does not enthral me. I fell into photography when I was traveling alone a lot as a teenager. I distinctly remember feeling that there were no words beautiful enough to describe all the things I was seeing, so I started shooting pictures. To this day, whenever I’m traveling is when I’m the most sharp, and produce my best work. I’ve made it a point to take several big trips each year. My favourite feeling in the entire world is wandering about a strange new place, choosing streets randomly — and happening on things in the chaos that you have to document, because they’re so alluring. Even if I have to stay grounded at home for a few months, I force myself to take my camera out with me every day. Putting yourself into new situations, new surroundings. My friends are always cracking up when they find me on the floor in the rain, photographing a puddle, buzzing with excitement. I get a kick out of very random things.
I’m interested in the relationship between fiction and truth. For example, I use lots of autobiographical details in my writing but they get distorted through memory and manipulation, so become something new. When you take an image, do you feel that you are representing the world as it really is? Or are you shaping it into something else?
That’s also a border I love to play with. I work within lots of different genres of photography, and have never wanted to confine myself to one. I really love shooting fashion editorials, because you get to built entire sets and decors — it’s entirely fabricated. But I often involve real life friends as models, and pick very genuine themes for my editorials — like politics, race, Brexit, and mental health. Then on the other hand when I’m shooting a more documentary series, I like my photographs to have some kind of ache, and take us some place slightly unreal. It’s important for me to combine what’s personal, political and poetic. There’s no such thing as an absolute truth in an image. Your eyes can deceive you as much as any other sense.
In connection with your relationship to truth and fiction: do you find that the images you take reflect something of yourself? Do your project the thoughts or feelings you might be having at a particular time?
Absolutely. I’m so governed by my emotions, at the age of 27 I still haven’t learned to harness them much. When I’m in love with someone I shoot so many pictures of them, I’m literally incapable of keeping it secret. When I’m upset, I usually stop using my camera. There was one time when I was in a dark place mentally, and I didn’t take a single picture for months.
When I write, I usually begin with an idea of themes I want to explore, but I am often surprised by what emerges from my subconscious. When you take images, do you begin with a particular theme or aesthetic? Or do you just begin shooting and see what you come up with?
It’s a mix of both. Sometimes I go to a place with a very specific idea of what I want to shoot there. But when you arrive, something stops you in your tracks and takes you off course, and you end up going after something else. When I traveled to Tokyo, I was initially intending to shoot a series about something completely different.
When I’m working on a writing project I am influenced by all kinds of things; photographs, paintings, films, interviews, poetry, essays, music. Where do you find your influences? Which artists do you feel have had a significant impact on the development of your work?
I didn’t go to art school so my visual literacy comes from the books I've had, the thousands of exhibitions I've seen, all the places I've traveled to, the friends I’ve made and the art they make. I love neon lights, Harley Weir, Elsa Leydier, Nadine Idjewere, William Eggleston, Gregory Halpern, and Novembre Magazine. I love 16mm films and 35mm photos. I'm drawn to red hues and natural light. I remember once picking up Quentin de Briey’s photobook The Other Day, and thinking I'd never seen anything so beautiful. I was really moved as a teenager by Gaspard Noé’s Enter the Void and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. I spend a lot of time at a lab in Paris and I love handmade prints and contact sheets.
Lots of your work is based around cities and identity, which are central themes of Saltwater. My protagonist, Lucy, is constantly searching for a home. Someone tells her, ‘home is the place where you feel most understood’ but she can’t work out where that is. Why are you interested in cities and spaces? To what extent do you feel identity is shaped by place?
I struggle to attach myself to a single place. I was born in the UK into a multicultural family. My grandad is Polish, he migrated to England as a war refugee. I grew up in France, moved to Spain alone when I was 17, had a 2-year job in Austria, and have lived in places like Portugal, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. I never really felt tied down to Britain — even less so now Brexit is underway. I love so many places, and if anything I feel like my identity has been shaped by this hybridity and lack of a homeland. When you’re always the outsider, perhaps you notice things more, you’re constantly on your toes. Migration and borders are recurrent themes in my work.
I am very interested in the politics of translation, and the way that we are all operating between multiple verbal and non-verbal languages. When I was writing Saltwater, I thought a lot about how to portray the unsaid, or bodily experiences and relationships, through words. To what extent do you feel our identities are shaped by language?
I’m actually obsessed with languages, I think they’re beautiful and empowering. I taught myself four fluently and went to uni to study linguistics. So if I’d not fallen into photography, I’d be working in translation or communication somehow. My identity has definitely been shaped by theses different languages in my head, each with their own subtleties and cultural baggage. This multilingualism heavily contributed to the sense of “borderlessness” I feel, where I do not attach myself to a specific nation. Britain can be a very isolated, chauvinist state, and has a bitter record of linguistic education — in our generation, students picking language A Levels are at an all time low. Language played a huge part in the Brexit referendum. It was mostly nationalism and lies — broken promises and empty words.
I like your description of photography as a ‘seamless language’. Do you think images have a wider universality than words? Are you able to articulate yourself better through images than words?
Yes absolutely. Replying to written interviews takes me ages, I’m definitely faster with visuals. On an average day I will work, read, count, dream and communicate in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Photography doesn’t distinguish between all these voices, it’s very soothing to me as it binds them all together.
But I really think both verbal and visual communication are muscles you can exercise, like any other: the more you write and the more you read, the more eloquent and articulate you become. The more you shoot pictures, the more visual fluency you acquire — and perhaps the more weary you become of words. You start to distrust them.
I have chosen a couple of images I really like from The Borders We Burn. Could you tell me a little bit about the moments in which the photographs were taken? Where were you? What were you thinking?
This image was shot in Turkey. I traveled there with my brother some years ago, on a last-minute impulse trip. We flew out to Istanbul and we stayed with a girl called Melda. She was studying to be a lawyer and came from a religious family, but owned a pair of glittery pink platform shoes, and a pole in the middle of her room for her pole dancing classes. She was beautiful with all her ambitions and insecurities. This photograph was taken in her flat, where she’d hung up her underwear to dry at the window.
I shot this in Rio, in Brazil, when I was living there 6 years ago. The girl sitting on the cliff is called Elise, but I only met her once. She was in Rio for a few days. We climbed to the top of the Dois Irmãos mountain in Rio, which you can access through Vidigal’s favela. Rio is simply the most stunning city in the world. If I’ve ever felt at home anywhere, it’s there. It’s like there is this huge heart beating inside the huge shambles, in which perhaps I recognise myself.