ALINE DESCHAMPS: I am not your animal

ALINE DESCHAMPS: I am not your animal 1

Beyond Resilience

Aline Deschamps’ work starts with the raw matter of personal stories to raise it to something universal: an emotion, a sensitivity, a need we can all relate to.

In this interview, we take a closer look at the photography and film work of Aline Deschamps that correlates personal stories with universal emotions, aspirations for justice, and expressions of identity: women migrant workers in Beirut and her campaign, to support them, manhood sensitivity, exile, mixed heritage and AR.

“Bye and Bye” is a poignant tribute to migrant workers in Beirut, women she met and filmed to create this video as a wake-up call to their plight.

Art meets activism, the music of their voices lets buried emotions resurface and relive -and this crucial work resonates ever more powerfully today in the aftermath of the explosion.

“Marvellous Manhood” speaks of the psychological nuances of manhood, while “Salam-the War in Exile” connects body and space to reflect on the Yemeni diaspora’s (un)conscious recollections of their home country…

These are some of the narratives we zoomed in on in this interview, alongside other ideas we touched on: from meditation and Aldous Huxley to surreal cinema, ’dystopian’ versions of Insta-stories, augmented reality, travel, and more…

Beyond resilience, Aline’s films and photographs are portraits of revival, not just survival, in the face of adversity.

They tackle these issues of injustice and identity head-on. They are raw at first but then sublimated when we see and watch them unfold.

Aline Deschamps, © Paul Fargues

The stories of the unheard and the marginalised.

Air, fire, water, earth … which of these elements would you choose to describe your work or your personality?

Definitely Air ! It’s something I have discussed with friends before and who felt the same. I need to always feel in movement, and not restrained.

It can be a drawback sometimes (my parents probably suffered from it because as a teenager I had to travel and discover every continent by myself, and did it by the age of 20) as I am having a bit of trouble to settle somewhere, but work-wise it is useful.

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Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Stranded, and waiting for repatriation’, Courtesy of the Artist

“Go to where silence is and say something”. What types of subjects speak to you most for your photography, perhaps in light of this quote by Amy Goodman [American journalist and author, born 1957] ?

The unspoken, or the silenced subjects.

I have always been driven towards stories of the unheard and the marginalised. As a photographer, I want to shed light on individuals, so they can talk about their own experiences through their own words.

Their story is what interests me the most, I am only here to illustrate it.

Aline Deschamps, Fatmata from the series 'I am not your animal', Courtesy of the Artist

United sisters

“Bye and Bye” is an ode to and by the women of Sierra Leone who came to work in Lebanon. Their choir voices embody their tenacity, all together… Can you tell us more about the set and the special role you have attached to music here?

The “Bye and Bye” song stands as a love and goodbye letter from migrant domestic workers to their children they had lost hope of reuniting with.

To me, it is the best advocacy tool as it stems from their words and their personal experiences in Lebanon, and it enables these women to be seen through their talent and creativity.

The video was shot in the ladies’ apartment and on their street in the Beirut neighbourhood of Tariq el-Jdide.

I wanted to make these black women visible, because they are too often hidden behind the balconies of their sponsors.

Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘I am not your animal’, Courtesy of the Artist

They are too often discriminated against or reduced to silence.

Thewanthdean // Bye and Bye | Thewanthdean means « United sisters » or « One sisterhood » in Sierra Leone. That is how this group of domestic workers from Sierra Leone, stranded in Lebanon, chose to name their band to highlight their spirit of resilience and sisterhood.

So for me it was important to show these 30 women standing together in front of their building, so they could own the public space. It was a challenging choice, because these women have all been subjected to verbal and physical abuses in Lebanon.

Just the week before the shooting, a passerby threw a chair at one of the girls on the street…

So we were very careful, but as soon as the group started singing, the reaction was beautiful: people popped out from their windows to listen to them, men gathered on the corner of the street stood up from their chairs and gathered around us. They were very curious and supportive.

At the end, they were even clapping and dancing along, so it comforted the ladies to sing even louder. The music turned out as a tool for the women to liberate their buried emotions.

It was a true moment of catharsis.

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Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘I am not your animal’, Courtesy of the Artist

With this project, you also launched a fundraising campaign in support of these women?

During the beginning of the lockdown measures (March 2020), I thought about the impacts for the most marginalised and vulnerable people and wanted to cover the situation for domestic workers. That’s how I got introduced to this group of domestic workers from Sierra Leone.

What I discovered was 15 women living in one small bedroom apartment, and most of them had escaped from abusive households.

Aline Deschamps, from the series 'Stranded, and waiting for repatriation', Courtesy of the Artist
Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Stranded, and waiting for repatriation’, Courtesy of the Artist

After co-writing an article, I thought I could not leave them as such and started organising fundraising, food donations and distribution of clothes and mattresses, thanks to the amazing generosity of friends and volunteers. Thanks to these donations, their rent, bills, medical care, and food are paid for.

But because of the economic collapse, and all the traumas they have experienced, none of them want to stay in Lebanon.

Hence the change of the fundraising target goal, I recently added the repatriation costs to it.

So I have been working to fundraise enough money to buy the flight tickets, and in parallel the ladies and I are doing the advocacy work necessary so the authorities can take action and process these voluntary returns, along with ARM and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), etc.

Aline Deschamps, from the series 'Stranded, and waiting for repatriation', Courtesy of the Artist
Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Stranded, and waiting for repatriation’, Courtesy of the Artist
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Stories to be felt

While song is the underlying thread of “Bye and Bye”, in “Marvelous Manhood”, the sensitivity that emanates from the music, the expressiveness of the faces and the colors is very touching, and dreamlike somehow….

The film unfolds before our eyes like a book of paintings, with visual and spoken chapters …Is there a connection between the intriguing atmosphere of “Marvelous Manhood” and a genre of cinema or music that inspires you?

For “Marvelous Manhood” the whole point was to show the sensitivity of manhood.

So naturally everything was directed towards that intimacy and delicacy based on the personal testimonies of the subject.

Some things are more suggested than others, because these stories cannot be all told, sometimes they need to be felt, hence this poetic or dream-like atmosphere.

Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Marvelous Manhood’, Courtesy of the Artist

In terms of cinema, I am very inspired by all the surrealism, and dream-like atmosphere of Bertrand Mandico. I am in awe in front of his short and feature films. It’s a hybrid genre I am fascinated by.

Aline Deschamps, from the series 'Stranded, and waiting for repatriation', Courtesy of the Artist
Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Stranded, and waiting for repatriation’, Courtesy of the Artist
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Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Luk Khrueng Generation’,Courtesy of the Artist

I feel everything that is personal is universal

When it comes to photographing someone, has that person ever intervened directly in the creative process, or even changed your original idea with theirs?

Always ! When my work is not purely documentary, I like to discuss with the people I am portraying.

For “Bye and Bye” I showed the script to the ladies and we discussed it, that’s why we managed to manage to do the shooting so smoothly. And for most of my art projects, people share with me their personal stories. For “Les Grands Hommes”, “Marvelous Manhood”, “Luk Khrueng Generation” I talked with the subject, sometimes for hours, before portraying him/her.

Sometimes it can be a very intimate testimony and I love uncovering the cultural, social and psychological meanings behind it because I feel everything that is personal is universal.

Usually people come to me because they are interested in the project and they feel it is a good opportunity to disclose this specific story.

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Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Luk Khrueng Generation’,Courtesy of the Artist

Raw truth

The word ‘raw’ refers to something elementary and original: photography allows you to be as close as possible to reality and to this truth. I am thinking in particular of your series “Salam- The War in Exile” in which each portrait is the heart, and each place one’s footprints as it were. What does this link between a place and an individual mean to you?

In “Salam – The War in Exile” I am illustrating the connection, tangible or not, between space and bodies. The images from Yemen stand as the reminiscences, fantasy, fear, and memories which stick, consciously or not, in the mind of the diaspora.

You do not need to see drones from your own eye to fear them, and think about them when your country is bombarded and you try to sleep at night.

The visuals I am producing reflect these conscious/ unconscious connections between the Yemeni diaspora and its home country.

The nature of resilience

Which city (or cities) where you worked symbolise the notion of “resilience” to you?

Beirut to me is he city which has over-symbolised resilience.

I say ‘over-symbolised’ because Lebanon has been going through so much in the last decades that people don’t even want to hear about this word anymore. I will quote a statement from Rusted Radishes, one Beirut-based literary and art journal, that I find very relevant :

“Resilience romanticises our loss and dispossession. It brands our survival, making it an object of fascination for foreigners and inspiration for locals, advertising it as a valorised mode of attachment. Resilience is a marketing stunt for a political and economic system that runs on crises, that manufactures crises in order to sustain itself. Resilience celebrates survival at the expense of justice. It is the rhetorical and symbolic symptom of the normalisation of injustice.”

Doors of perception

Your short film “A Door of Perception” invites us to delve deeper into transcendent meditation. Would you say you are spiritual and how does that feed into your work?

All forms of spiritual practices and experiences open new doors, and in my early twenties I was inspired by Aldous Huxley and his writings in “The doors of perception”. I’ve been practising meditation and transcendental meditation for about 5 years now.

All these experiences enabled you to broaden your horizon and fuel your creativity. There’s a very practical way in which meditation practise nourishes my work :

whenever I don’t meditate I am more stressed, less organised and grounded.

Aline Deschamps, A door of perception, 2018

Transcendental meditation really helps me connect with myself and follow my intuition about how I wish to conduct my work. On an inspirational level, I find it very hard to translate what I live and experience in transcendental meditation to a foreign eye.

So “A door of perception” is my first attempt to illustrate it according to my own experiences, but I really wish to explore this subject more.

The possibilities are limitless.

Entering new worlds

Can you explain to us your technique used for your series “Coronastories”, and the links that you weave between the title and the image: we see thumbnails of individual stories in times of COVID-19, a powerful mix of still image and film… Does the format of Instagram stories, for example, fit into this work?

The technique used for “Coronastories” is digital collage. Indeed the series stems from the idea of our virtual connection during the lockdown period.

Aline Deschamps, Humans dealing with crisis, 2020

It’s a dystopian and dream-like version of our individual stories, shared on social media, at the beginning of this ‘new world’ we are entering.

Aline Deschamps, from the series 'Stranded, and waiting for repatriation', Courtesy of the Artist
Aline Deschamps, from the series ‘Stranded, and waiting for repatriation’, Courtesy of the Artist

What are your current and upcoming projects, or some exhibitions by other artists appealing to you the most right now?

Now based in Beirut, I can’t say I’m very aware of any upcoming exhibition. Sadly, everything has been postponed or cancelled due to the revolution, economic crisis, corona crisis, and now due the blast.

I guess the artworks I’m currently seeing are mostly online.

I was really looking forward to seeing the exhibitions from Les Rencontres d’Arles this year, and to be participating in one of its collective exhibitions I was invited in…hopefully it can be reprogrammed for next summer!

If you want to find out more about Aline´s work visit her website or follow her on Instagram, but most importanly consider donating for her fundraiser for the Relief and Repatriation of Domestic Workers in Beirut, Lebanon

Author: Alexandra Etienne