An interview with Alexis Zelensky

Interview by Marina Trancoso, photography editor. Born to a Russian family and raised in France, Alexis Zelensky is the definition of a globetrotter. In this interview, we speak to him about his series “Cour de Be”, a documentation of life and the social relations in Lomé, Togo.

Alexis, could you please tell us more about your background and the role of photography in your practice?
I discovered photography, as a passion, when I was studying mathematics at the university. There was a laboratory there where I spent a lot of time developing black and white prints. That was the moment when I fell in love with black and white, analogic photography. I like this process because it has a different relation to time when compared to digital technology. You have to think about how to compose your pictures before you shoot. You cannot just take thirty pictures and then choose which one is the best. It is a different process.
Nowadays, with digital technology, we entered in a logic of excessive consumption of pictures. You shoot everything, everywhere, creating no relationship with your environment. The place and the people you shoot have none importance anymore. We can notice that trend with the selfies. The main subject is “I”. And what I like in photography is the possibility of showing the “other”. I like creating a relationship with the place where I am and the people I shoot. This dimension is very important in my way of working.
At the end of my studies, I wrote with a friend a photographic project to be developed in Chile. But during the writing process, it slowly became a documentary film. That’s how I started making documentaries. But I never gave up photography.

What brought you to Togo and how did you come up with the idea for this series?
What brought me to Togo? I think it was my curiosity and my adventurous spirit. One day I received a mail from a producer who had a friend looking for someone with my skills to work with him in Togo. The proposal wasn’t clear, but I got curious and wrote him back. Finally, I went to Togo and stayed there one year and a half. During that time, I worked for him and made my own documentary film and photographic work.  This series is part of that body of work. It started after I met Dieudo, a togoles friend, who was living in the courtyard you see depicted in my photos.

He told me about his family life and explained me the social structure of the togoles society. This courtyard is in a popular area in Lomé, the capital of Togo. Each member of the family has a small room and all family generations are living together. The courtyard is the heart of social life. There is a place where they cook, wash their clothes, where the animals live and where the children play. In the centre there is a water well. Each activity is organised and done by a specific member of the family. Women do all home-related activities, such as cooking or laundry. Men don’t take part in these activities; they go to work and then to play or watch football, or to meet with friends. The social structure is very hierarchic and patriarchal. The father, who is in most cases the oldest person, is also the head of the family. Everybody respects him. And he decides everything.

I started frequenting Dieudo’s home and established a relationship with his family. My first idea was to make a documentary film, but then I realized photography was a more interesting medium to show this social organisation. That is how this series was born.

You not only took the pictures in the courtyard but also exhibited them there. Can you tell us a bit about this experience? How did people react to it?
After I finished shooting, I went back to France for two months. I developed the prints there and then travelled back to Togo. I organized with Dieudo, and of course with the father’s authorization, to make an exhibition in the courtyard. I wanted to surprise his family, so I arrived early in the morning, around 5 o’clock, and hung the pictures on the clotheslines. When people woke up, they were very excited to see the pictures and also surprised to see me. They thought I was gone and would never come back. This is what foreigners usually do.

I decided to give the prints as a gift to the people depicted on them. They were really happy, as people love to have their picture taken in Togo. But first I had to give all prints to the father; he was the one to decide how to distribute them. He wanted to show his authority and the power of decision. After a few days, I learned he had shared the pictures between the members of his family, as agreed.

You have worked on projects in many countries. What is the role of travel in your artistic practice?
I love discovering new cultures, new ways of life, new people. I think this interest comes from my own history. I was born in France but all my family is Russian. I always lived with two different cultures simultaneously, the Russian one at home and the French one in the environment where I grew up. Now I have a third culture in my life because of my wife, who is Brazilian. If I put my work in perspective, I can notice that the issue of identity is always recurring, especially in my films.

Tell us about your future projects. What is coming next for you?
I am now living in Brazil with my wife. When we arrived, we met a Syrian refugee, Hassan, and we now have a photographic project together about the gaze of the immigrant in Brazil. We want create a dialogue between Hassan’s point of view, my wife’s and mine. In a certain way, we are all immigrants here. For Hassan and I, it is evident, but we do have completely different backgrounds. As for my wife is concerned, she lived 5 years abroad and now her point of view is also influenced by this experience.

I am also finishing a documentary about a place where I used to go when I was young, which looks like a small czarist Russia in contemporary France. It is an introspective documentary about my identity. As you can see, I am always coming back to this topic.

When not working, what do you do to spark inspiration?
I am lucky enough to love my job, so I don’t make any difference between the times when I am working and the times when I am not. I am always attentive and inspiration can come at any time; from the people I meet, the stories I hear, the places I discover, the books I read. It always comes from an encounter with something or somebody. It can be confusing sometimes, and I need to write down my ideas so I don’t forget them.

About the artist:
Alexis Zelensky is a French photographer and Filmmaker. After completing a Master in Political Sciences in Chile, where he produced his first documentary, he kept making films dealing with the question of identity as a recurrent topic. Born to Russian grandfathers who immigrated to France, he couldn’t escape from this subject. At the same time, Alexis takes a lot of pleasure doing filmmaking workshops with children, which sometimes mix cinema and theatre. Passionate about Gelatin Silver photographs, he created a darkroom where he develops his own black and white prints. His work is fully realized through the encounters and the relationships he creates with the people he meet. Alexis is currently living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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