“…and I remember thinking: ‘How would his face change? Will it change? Will there appear something of the experience of a war zone on his now young and enthusiastic face?’”
Claire Felicie is a visual artist from The Netherlands. For her latest project she photographed young marines who fought in Afghanistan. Her work has resulted in a book called “Here Are The Young Men”. In this interview she talks about her long-term project and what her trip to the war zone has taught herself.
For Claire Felicie photography is “create order out of chaos” with her camera.
Interview with Claire Felicie
Claire, your recent project “Marked” is a series of juxtaposed “before, during, and after” portraits of young marines that’d been stationed in Afghanistan. Why did you decide to take on this subject and what is it exactly about?
The idea came about when my son enlisted as a marine, and a friend of his visited our home in Amsterdam, and told me that he was going to Afghanistan to fight. This friend was only 18 years old at that time, and I remember thinking: ‘How would his face change? Will it change? Will there appear something of the experience of a war zone on his now young and enthusiastic face?’ So I decided then to begin a project photographing young marines who would be sent to a war zone for the first time.
What does a photograph or series need in your opinion in order to stand out and get noticed? Especially keeping in mind the abundance of visual imagery in today’s media?
A personal drive and a personal view.
Portraiture is a genre traditionally used to explore issues of identity. What do your photographs tell about the men portrayed?
I don’t want to go too deep into detail about the men portrayed. I want the viewer to decide for him or herself what to see in the portraits.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at your photos?
Surely, I hope they are touched by them. To touch someone’s heart, that’s the most important thing to me.
Looking at the final series, one often doesn’t realize how much time it took to realize it. How much time did you invest into this particular project?
Oh, years! At least two and a half years!
You shot the series in black and white. The monochrome aspect and other formal techniques like use of light and framing are all means to reinforce the message of a body of work. Can you elaborate a little bit on how you made use of these things to get across your message?
“The series’ theme is at the same time historical as contemporary.”
I only used natural light: no lamps, no flash. Black and white because of the universal theme: war. There will always be war and we will always send young people to war. So the series’ theme is at the same time historical as contemporary. Black and white emphasizes that aspect.
I decided upon the format of close-range portraits when I lay down all the photographs together. I knew I had to present them in triptychs, but I could have chosen to reveal more of their head and hair. I decided not to, and to crop it very tight, so it would have more impact on the viewer. You are now forced to focus entirely upon the eyes and mouth, with no diversion.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
In the beginning of my project, I didn’t think of the possibility to go to Afghanistan. I wanted to shoot portraits before and after deployment. But during the first shoot, the marines were speculating of me going to visit them in Afghanistan. It wasn’t till then that I gave that idea a good shot. And then I knew: I had to go to the war zone to give my series more impact. And so I did.
When I started with the series, I couldn’t know if there would be changes to be seen on the faces of the marines. I only discovered after the last portrait that there were changes to be seen. Something I had expected, but could not know beforehand.
How do you realize a project like “Marked”? From the idea, the research, finding the characters, getting to know them, interactions, earning their trust etc. – and not to forget the funding.
That took a lot of hard work and a lot of persuasion.
How did you connect with your subjects?
“For these young men, to gain their trust and commitment to the project, it helped a lot that I was a mother of a marine at the time.”
I had the cooperation of an officer and of the major of the group. They helped me finding the young men to pose. For these young men, to gain their trust and commitment to the project, it helped a lot that I was a mother of a marine at the time, and had/have a lot of respect and love for these young men going into a war zone. And making jokes with them helped a lot. (laughs)
We live in a very visual society where images seem to lose their impact because of the sheer amount of visual imagery. What do you consider to be the biggest challenges documentary photography is faced with? And what are the most important changes recently in photojournalism?
I think that it will always remain important to tell stories in pictures by someone who is personally involved and personally driven. Yes, there is an overload of pictures, but a strong picture will always stand out. And a strong story will always be heard. Maybe in combination with film, but the frozen ‘still’ shall always be important and fascinating.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
“With my camera I create order out of chaos. While framing the photo in my camera, I get rid of ‘rubbish’ and go for structure and ordering.”
It made me more aware of the different aspects and sheer beauty of natural light: morning light, evening light, just enough light..a little bit of light in the darkness.. But it also made me aware of lines and structure of everything that’s around us. With my camera I create order out of chaos. While framing the photo in my camera, I get rid of ‘rubbish’ and go for structure and ordering. This makes me more comfortable and at ease with the world: the possibility to exclude ugliness, and create beauty, just by framing and choosing.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
Most important event to me was my first trip to Afghanistan. To overcome my fear to take such a trip. And then having a memorable time there with these young and brave men. It made me so much stronger and so much more confident about my work!