Interview on the occasion of her exhibition Phantomatic // Nowhere to be seen at SomoS Art House, April 2016.
By Silvia Volpicelli and Johanna Griebert
Pauline Alioua participated in SomoS Art Project’s artist-in-residence in Berlin from September to November 2015.
Pauline Alioua’s photography is about human relations, personal feelings and a human presence in the world. Although artistically she is a daughter of the new millennium and of the latest technologies, Alioua prefers to work with argentique photography to deliver her aesthetic vision and to create a dense archive of images. Her photographs are the perfect combination of medium and poetics, proving that film photography in the art world still has a lot to say.
SOMOS: Could you tell us more about your personal background, where are you from?
PAULINE: I’m French. I was born in Lyon and grew up in the French Alps. I have an Algerian background coming from my dad’s father. My family was caring. I have a twin brother, and an older one. As a child I couldn’t wait to become an adult. I am now skeptical about it.
S: What was your first experience with photography?
P: We were always traveling around with my family and my dad was always taking photographs on the way. He always used films. He would take his time setting up, framing and shooting. It always seemed like a big thing to me, a door to a parallel universe, a way to approach some kind of new reality. Sometimes I would take a picture with his camera, amazed that what I saw would become real. I was always very impatient to see the result.
S: When did you start to use photography as an artistic medium, in a conscious way?
P: At school when I was about 13, I started to bring my camera and take portraits of my school friends. Then I had this pocket camera that I would carry along pretty much everywhere I would go.
S: One of your recent works is called Voyage en Argentique, why do you use film photography?
P: Voyage en argentique is a collection of analog photographs. Shooting in film is a real experience for me. I enjoy the whole process. From the moment you choose the film to the moment you develop and see that what you saw became ‘real’. I like to observe and measure the light around me, and to manually place the proper settings. One film is 36 poses, it trains you to be fast and focused. It’s challenging and ludicrous, like a game. Also, in a world that always goes faster, I like to have to wait. After you take pictures, you don’t know what’s going to be the result: if they’re well exposed, well framed. It obliges you to be patient, to accept the failure and the slowness, to take the time…
S: You use both black and white and color photography, which is your criteria?
P: I need black and white for expressing some personal feelings. Most of the time, it just makes sense.
For me black and white reveals better the complexity of the light, the forms, the shadows, the perspectives and express better the lyrical aspect of my visions. Color goes better for correspondences between things in a space or when you want to create a certain kind of atmosphere.
S: You said your photos are poetic, narrative. What story do you want to tell us?
P: I like to call it poetic or lyrical. I explore and express personal emotions, strong, sometimes uncommunicable feelings such as love, death, existential anxiety, loneliness, wonders, nature, musings… Photography helps me to express my sensitivity and subjectivity through visual metaphors, analogies. It comes from me, but it doesn’t talk about me; rather about and to the human condition, like in Les Contemplations, when Victor Hugo says “When I talk about me, I talk about you.” I like to interrogate the world, create echoes between what you feel, what you understand and what you wonder about.
S: There is a retro feeling to your photos, it is as if time was blurred. Notion of time is vital to narrative and storytelling but street-photography usually testimonies the present, the instant. Is this convergence intentional? Could you tell us more about it?
P: I like when the time is not clearly identified, when it’s difficult to recall when, how and where pictures have been taken. Like in a dream, a fiction. I guess the imperfection of the film and the grain emphasize that idea. I wouldn’t say its intentional, rather unconscious.
S: You have been extensively traveling in the last years to Vietnam, Brazil, Israel, Venezuela, the USA; wandering seems to be a major part of your aesthetics. Could you tell us more about your various trips and if/how they influenced your style?
P: As an outside photographer, you can’t produce much if you stay at home. You don’t need to always go at the other side of the planet, but you need to go out a lot, to come back, to walk, to wander.
I’ve always travelled as a kid, and I kept doing it as a teenager, solo, with friends or later with lovers. It’s like I miss what I haven’t seen, what I don’t know, what I haven’t discovered yet. I need to go traveling, to experience the unknown, to feel vulnerable. Also meeting people and creating connections is an important part of my construction and self-balance.
S: We could define your work as travel photography. How do you balance the narrative aspect and the documentation aspect in your research?
P: The point for me is not the place itself but rather what it says, what meanings or ideas emerge from it. Places that catch my interest are the ones that seem insignificant from the first sight. Their banality often hides a unique aspect that I can reveal by photographing them.
S: Often your photos are taken from the moving car or from trains, you have a series called ‘From the car’ and a video called ‘Vision’. Could you tell us more about this choice to stay on the tracks of civilization? Is there a symbology to it?
P: I think the way/path is more important than the destination. And driving to the unknown is a strong symbol of freedom… I feel more connected to the country and the people that live in one place, taking the road make me feel part of the local environment. It is also a kind of tribute to the human condition, the territory discoveries are now places where people live, struggle, love, raise their children. ‘Visions’ compiles horizon, rails, roads, fields, electric cables and has been filmed through the window of a train. I like how lines structure a frame, what it tells when they cross or never meet each other. In the composition, horizon first got my interest, and then all kinds of lines. A frame is an imposed limit for unlimited space and ideas, and maybe a metaphor of the human condition, like we are free but in a certain limited space.
S: A few years ago you made a video called ‘Visions’ and a series of photographs taken during a very long and intense train ride across the USA in which you crossed several states and landscapes. Naturally there is a linear time aspect innate to videos, but your still sequence shows it as well. Regarding one of your latest series ‘Phantomatic’ you previously pointed out that it is a ‘path, a story, a walk’ and you show ‘what was and isn’t anymore’ and ‘what you see is a mix with what you remember’. You seem to lose yourself through time, do you agree?
P: Sometimes I have trouble to put together and separate what I’ve seen, what I’ve watched, what I’ve imagined and what I’ve dreamt of.
I like this state… Wondering if it really happened. Maybe pictures are a reliable proof that things really happened, that they weren’t just an illusion… I lose track of time and pictures help me to remember. ‘Phantomatic’ talks about a rupture, a loss. Life is not only about going ahead, souvenir get on your present way, they force you to get back to your past, face your history. Accepting it is also to accept the failures, the pains. That process is intense and sometimes confusing.
S: In ‘Phantomatic’ your photos seem to testify the presence of an absence, you reveal places where the human presence is more suggested than exhibited. There is a marginal aspect to your work. Could you explain this aspect?
P: This series is about disappearance and the quest of someone that left. Someone that I thought to recognize there, walking away. Shadows and silhouettes are strong metaphors; they tell a lot and sometimes more about a person or a relationship than a portrait itself. I like to capture the marginal, the solitary state; the silhouette of a man walking in the middle of a desert, a woman facing the sea. You wonder how they end up here, where they go, what drives them to keep going and not give up.
S: Do you conceive your photography as a diary? Is there an intimate or personal aspect to what you show?
P: Pictures help me to put things together but I don’t want them to seem like it’s organized regarding a proper timeline, or like a daily journey. My work says about my intimacy in the way that I express personal feelings through metaphors. There is a personal aspect in my intentions. It tells something about me and comes from me and it talks to the universal. ‘Phantomatic’ is about a personal experience, the almost sudden disappearance of someone important that left. It tells something that happened to a lot of people: the loss, the pain, the grief and how to keep up.
S: It sound like a paradox, but do you think there is more ‘humanity’ where there are no humans?
P: In every empty space, there are traces or stigmata of human. Almost wherever you go, people have already been. I appreciate when human presence is suggested rather than showed.
S: Which are the themes that you value most? Nature, for instance, seems to play a major role in your work. How do you think it copes with modernity? Which is your philosophy?
P: Nature calls contemplation. Between me and the nature, I think there is language, a third entity that allows a form of dialogue and says something about the humanity.
S: According to you is there a contrast between the natural element and the man made? (The comparison of the fabricated and man-made aspect with the natural and human side is a recognizable motive in your work. What fascinates you especially with this contrast?)
P: I like when different environments interact. For example the branch of a tree that has the same shape of a cable or a road or someone’s arm, or the shadow of a building on another building’s wall that gives the place another reality. Sometimes the layers create anachronisms in the space, like a parking lot of new cars in front of an old 17th castle, or a McDonalds commercial panel in the middle of a Californian desert. Nature has been spoiled by humans and the needs of capitalism. I like to observe that without falling into the anecdotal cliche.
S: What do you think about the new trend of using photoshop and cell phone filters to manipulate photos?
P: Photoshop and other softwares can be great tools to create visuals. I don’t use them so much because I like raw pictures and un-extraordinary result. But some artists create incredible stuff with these tools and I’m glad they can be a source of inspiration.
S: How do you feel about digital photography and it being of public domain on the internet? Do Photography and copyright are in danger?
P: I’m always glad when people want to use my photos on the Internet. Of course It’s even better when they ask and credit me. But on the Internet the point for me is to spread my images, to make it public. Then it’s a different thing to see photographs in real. I believe photography is about prints, it has to be printed. Otherwise, it’s something else.
S: Was there a specific reason why you chose to come to Berlin?
P: The history and vibrance of the city and its large pavements. I wanted to ‘give it a try’ for a while. Also because great artists and good friends live there.
S: After three months in Germany’s capital Berlin, would you say that this urban environment and lifestyle inspired and influenced your work, techniques and topics?
P: I’ve met creative and inspiring people during my stay, and being in that environment definitely had an impact on my creativity and my strength to keep up. The residency gave me the time to focus on my project and commit to my work. The light in Berlin is quite uneasy to play with but it’s a good exercise.
S: Are you working on future projects? If yes, could you explain please.
P: I am. I’d like to mix other medias with photography. But really, I can’t tell you more for now!
S: We are very much looking forward to your exhibition at our exhibition space in April. Do you want to reveal some of your plans, ideas or intentions?
P: I’m very impatient too and proud to show my work in the amazing gallery space of SomoS. I want to give my project a strong and professional dimension. I’m editing a 100-edition limited print book of the whole project that I will start selling at the opening. Also I will turn 30 that same day so i have to make it unforgettable!