by Dieter Debruyne

© Elsa Leydier from the series 'La Couleur de la baie de Rio'

How did you start using photography? And what has changed in the way you are looking through the lens now when you look back at your first pictures?

Elsa Leydier (EL): I started photography after studying foreign languages for years and living abroad for a while. I realized through those experiences that places were always so different from the image I had of them from abroad, and also that there are so many ways of seeing everything, depending from where you see it, whether it is a geographical position or a cultural background. I felt I wanted to express myself about those issues, and doing it through images was the most natural for me. This is when I started photography. I entered the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles in 2012, and started developing my personal photographic work around those issues.

When I started photography, I had a very classical vision of the medium. I had an approach that was almost documentary. But I quickly realized that through documentary photography, I wouldn't be able to show or tell what I wanted to, and I started to favor an approach a bit more conceptual. I started not to use photography to show things how they were, but to think about its function, its role and characteristics when it comes to represent a place or a person.

What was your first impression when you arrived in Brasil; with your french background? It must have been confusing with your predominant idea of the country?

EL: Brazil is a place that is over-represented by photography and images in general, especially Rio de Janeiro (where I am living now). I guess almost everyone may have an idea of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, even before having been here. 

© Elsa Leydier from the series 'La Couleur de la baie de Rio'

So when I first came here, I had this superficial image of the place, made by the tons of images I've seen before, in movies, magazines, news, etc. Of course I knew that this wasn't what I would find here, so it was not that confusing. Actually, when I arrived here, I noticed that everything that is shown about Brazil through the images, like the beautiful landscapes and beaches, carnival, happiness, etc. was true, was here, indeed. But at the same time, it was just a very tiny part of what Brazil is. Also, it was just one, unique point of view, seen from a touristic, superficial and idealizing gaze. So I had to build up a new image of Brazil, made with so many other realities and experiences, so many other ways of seeing the place. It was actually really exciting to be able to break the cliché and superficial perception I had of it in order to build a richer one.

This is probably why you went down Guanabara bay in Rio, a landscape that is overly exposed through images, and made your recent series 'La Couleur de la baie de Rio'? Can You tell me what it's all about? 

EL: This series is an attempt to show this over-exposed and famous landscape through the prism of another story. Guanabara Bay is a beautiful landscape, and the Sugar Loaf flanking its entrance is majestic, but you always see them through postcard-type images. And the fact that we often see things through the same point of view bothers me. I think it is important to get a critical view on things, and not looking at them passively, through the gaze people or media want you to have. 

Guanabara Bay is a beautiful place, indeed. However, many other stories, beyond the ones told by postcards or touristic points of view, are related to the place. Because of the upcoming Olympic Games, as the aquatic games are going to take place in this specific site, I started to hear about the huge rates of pollution of the bay. Flora and fauna are starting to be really threatened by high rates of chemistry that are being discharged into the bay, as well as heavy metals, including mercury. When I started to hear these stories, I thought I had to talk about them, that they deserved to be heard and considered too. 

© Elsa Leydier from the series 'La Couleur de la baie de Rio'

During my researches, I found out that indigo, a plant used to dye fabrics in a deep blue color, was an antidote against mercury intoxication. And it turned out that indigo was also a native plant from Brazil, and it was linked to the story of Rio de Janeiro and the area surrounding the Guanabara Bay, as there were indigo plantations and trade here.

So, for the project "La Couleur de la baie de Rio" (The Color of Guanabara Bay), I decided to interweave these two elements. I shot The Guanabara Bay landscape with films, which I then immersed in Indigo dye. I wanted to play a symbolic act of purification but above all for me it was a way to tell the story about pollution that the media try to avoid, and a way to lead people to see a famous landscape in another light. You may recognize the Sugar Loaf as you've seen it a thousand times and may find something familiar in these images, but I guess it may be the first time you see it under this yellowish shade. And this is, I think, part of my role as a photographer, creating and proposing new images, new ways of seeing things.

You have indeed a critical view on things happening in Brasil. The series esgotados is also part of this view. Can you tell a little bit more about this also and maybe about how you see the changes made for the Olympic Games? 

EL: The series Esgotados (which means "exhausted", but also "sold out" in Portuguese) was made as a reflexion on how paradoxes may emerge among images produced by territory to represent itself.

It was also made to point out what was happening in Rio de Janeiro during the months preceding the Fifa World Cup in 2014. Very close to the Maracanã stadium, where most of the World Cup games were going to be played in July 2014, there was a building called Antigo Museu do Índio. It was one of the country's very few places dedicated to indigenous culture, and had been occupied for years by different Indian communities. However, the Indians were violently removed from the museum by the military police in March 2013. It was done to make way for a complex of restaurants, parking lots and stores filled with products related to the 2014 World Cup.

© Elsa Leydier from the series 'Esgotados'

This story was the point of departure for this work, for which I combined through collage 2 different types of images. I first collected postcards featuring Brazilian Indians from different ethnicities that were hugely edited in the 70's and 80's, in order to show how rich and multicultural Brazil is. Then, I used stamps that were printed in February 2014 by the Brazilian Post Office, dedicated to the World Cup (and that were sold out on the internet and in stores just a few days after they were released). Through those collages, I wanted to tell this story that deserved to be highlighted, in a moment when all the spotlights would focus on only one big show.

Esgotados, Édition Le Magasin de Jouets, Arles, 2015

About the evolution of the situation, I think that unfortunately, two years later not much has changed. The Olympic Games are about to take place in Rio, and in order to make way to the sports facilities, more people were forcedly removed (mostly people living in favelas), big areas of nature and forest have been cleared... All this reveals how its own image is important for a city or a country, what it is able to do in order to give a good image to the rest of the world.

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking? Is there still a future for photographers?

EL: Yes, I am convinced that there is a future for photographers. Social media and digital era are changing the way we share and show images, but I rather see this as an opportunity for our works to be shared, more and with more people, and for new possibilities to exist, then. 

I think that seeing pictures on a computer or on a cell phone screen, for example, won't make people going less to exhibitions, I even think the opposite: social media and digital era make people more aware about what's happening in the photographic/artistic world.

Is there any exhibition you want to share with us?

EL: I was really fascinated by Alfredo Jaar's exhibition during the Rencontres de la Photographie d'Arles in 2013. It interrogated the power of photography and images, and how the media would use and control them. 

Among other installations, Alfredo Jaar was showing all the cover issues of the magazine Newsweek during the genocide in Rwanda, in 1994. Under each cover, a little text would mention the number of deaths caused by the genocide. Week after week, the number of deaths would hugely increase, but Newsweek's covers would never pay any attention to it, and would feature something else, that most of the times seemed really futile in relation to tragic Rwanda's situation evolution. It is only after more than 4 months after the begining of the genocide that the magazine finally dedicated for the first time its front page to Rwanda. 

Every work in the exhibition would reveal strong issues like this one, about how big may be the gap between reality and its representations through the use of photography.

Can you name 3 books you find interesting...

EL: Holy Bible by Broomberg and Chanarin, Flamboya and Parasomnia by Viviane Sassen, and also Casa de Lava by film director Pedro Costa, which is a replica of his scrapbook while he was doing researches for his eponymous film. It is made of collages of all his visual inspirations for the film, newspaper articles, quotes, postcards... I like it because it is aesthetically beautiful and at the same time it emphasizes the importance of the creative process, the richness of a work in progress.

The book 'Casa de Lava' by Pedro Costa, Pierre von Kleist, 2013

And also 3 artists 

EL: I really like the work of the American artist Taryn Simon, who uses photography to reveal issues about power and politics. I would also say the duo Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, whom I have already mentioned before, because of their book Holy Bible. Their whole work is remarkable and in some of their pieces they interrogate the photographic medium and how it is used to depict "the Other", which really interests me. Finally, I would say Lothar Baumgarten, who doesn't only use photography but also many other mediums, and has a great work about differences of perception between different cultures, especially around the theme of colonization of America.


Elsa Leydier