Estelle Hanania

In some of your photos you are concerned with ritual costumes and items. Especially in the series „demoniac babble“ and „parking lot hydra“. You are showing a side of Europe, of which many people don’t know it still exists. How did you get in touch with people and what fascinates you in this topic?

It started in 2006 when I decided I wanted to get in touch with one specific group I noticed in east of Switzerland. I had read books and saw a lot of iconography about these traditions. So I managed to contact one leader of one group in Switzerland, and I explained him roughly the idea. Basically, me following the group of men and not asking anything from them. They agreed. I went there and improvised, i had no idea this first project would become an obsession. I had no idea how it would turn out visually either. But as i was photographing them and be part of the parade I realized it was something i wanted to go deep into. So since then, almost every year at the same time, around Christmas, I decide for a new city and a different country.
It’s fascinating to see how the traditions survived, evolved and mutated. I’m particularly attracted to the ones with a strong “abstract side” ( visually), the giant costumes all made with leaves, horses hairs, birds wings. I love when it uses a raw element, it covers the body in a brutal way. I’m less into the very sophisticated ones with faces which look like faces and nice little folkloric outfits.
I’m in search of timeless subjects with no obvious geographical references. That’s why I go in Europe mainly, I look for this grey and a little romantic feel that you can find there, where countryside and cities have still some roughness.

That sounds like it was also an experience of self-awareness, acting in this strange cultural context?

Indeed, each of these trips are experiences of self-awareness in some ways, it has to be this way I think. I like to force myself to leave my daily environment and loose all my marks for a while. It helps to have a fresh look on things to feel like a total outsider. When I travel abroad even if it is not so far away from France I’m always disoriented and I try to use this feeling and bring it into my images. I remember in Switzerland the leader of the group of men I photographed invited me to follow their preparation, meals, discussion etc…. So I couldn’t position myself as an observer only, take some photos and go back home.

Christmas is coming closer. Do you already have plans for a next project? What place or cultural event will you visit?

I’ll spend Christmas in Paris, but after that I’ll leave indeed. This year I’m on my way to Switzerland again unless I change my plans at the last minute to more eastern countries. But I want to have a slightly different approach on the traditions this time to complete what I have done so far. I’ll see how I manage to organize this.

You write that you want to have a slightly different approach on the traditions this time, can you explain this a little bit more deeply?

Well, I want to learn from the past stories I’ve shot and think about what could lack visually for me now. What I’d like to describe or emphasize more. I want every journey to be something unique and I approach it with a certain naivety. Even if I’ve been working regularly on the same subject for almost 5 years now, this is a still a discovery and a challenge for me to go in these places, search for the right one etc. I dislike the idea to stick a photographer’s “system” or “aesthetic” on a subject. I think it’s a dead end for both the photographer and the ones who look at the picture on the long term. I truly believe that the photographer’s personality is filtering through all sorts of obvious parameters such as the subject, the composition and the light but also some unspeakable things that we don’t control at all. Some photographers give the word “series” in a very rigid way . I think that’s a pity, photography is the journey and the discovery of oneself not a well oiled machinery who repeats itself again and again.

You are working together with Christophe Brunnquell in a more orchestrated way. How does it come to this collaboration and what is interesting you in this way of working which differs from your more documentary works?

This collaboration started in the summer 2008 in Berlin, I knew Christophe’s artworks and he was and is so far one of my favorite French artist. I was invited to shoot a free portfolio for a swiss magazine (Sang Bleu, tattoo oriented but in a new and beautiful way). Christophe was also invited to participate so I suggested the idea of doing something together. Christophe came to Berlin and the day after we met we started an 8 hours non stop shoot. This was a great encounter and experience for both of us, totally exciting, and more than free it was kind of liberating for us, like a total break from our own works but still linked in many ways. I don’t feel like I betray my own work, or waste time I should use for my own work, I think on the contrary that it is a useful and inspiring collaboration to feed my other stories. It turned out that the images we shoot during that session were totally “satisfying” for us and the common enthusiasm kept on growing since then until today. Now we develop our projects under the name of “Hanania & Brunnquell”. We don’t really plan things very specifically in advance, we have a very low budget process which is our key. I search for all the models, Christophe is a compulsive artist, always working on some drawings sculptures and crazy pieces 24h a day, so regularly when we are inspired we gather and do photo sessions, one or 2 days in a row, sometimes three times in the same week. We have a show of our work in Paris next April at Gallery 12 Mail.

The photos you have done together with Christophe Brunnquell, and also your “white spell” series, seem a little bit like a documentary shoot of an neo-satanic ritual. It seems to me that you are searching for a form language to reconnect with the ancestors. A primary language which is hidden inside everyone of us, but which we have forgotten.

There is some true and false in what you ask me. I’m not searching to document any satanic ritual, even though some of my works may look like I do. I know how “Demoniac Babble” White Spell” can push people in the wrong direction towards my work. I have been asked this a lot, my position towards ritual, satanism, witchcraft etc . But I’m not into these really. What I look for is elsewhere, in the childhood maybe, in playing with some codes which can be related to dark worlds but more in a childish way, with a certain naivety. I am a very down-to-earth person and I like finding the magic in the common things. To be honest I’m kind of bored with all the imagery which overwhelms the magazines, and the tumblrs for a few years now where you see ” models pretending to be white witches” and “satanic stars made of candles on an apartment wooden floor”. But I would say I love the idea of a “primary language hidden inside everyone of us”, yes. And the idea to reconnect, remember, trying to get back to the origins. I like to be scared as I a was when I was a kid, with a genuine fear, a fear mingled with the desire to discover the world.

What do you think about demons and ghosts?

Demons and ghosts… well I never got a chance to meet any of them. All the traditions that I photographed were initially supposed to make the demons and bad spirits go away… so I guess I don’t want to meet them. All I can say is that I’m terrified by horror movies, but I’m more scared by humans actually, things which exist and can hurt you for sure.

Do you have any books or exhibitions planned for the near future?

As mentioned above, I’m having a show with my friend, artist Christophe Brunnquell, under our names: “Hanania & Brunnquell”. Title of the show: “La guerre du feu”, opening on April 5 at 12 Mail Gallery, Paris. We will be showing a selection of images from our past collaborations. Plus we are editing a 32 page newsprint which will gather images from all the different series we’ve done over the years.

Estelle, thank you for this interview.